Tuesday, 23 September 2014

A World of Interiors

This year's Liverpool Biennial is themed on the domestic. Not content, however, with the properly house-trained Tate Liverpool contribution, Cathy Lomax goes to the Old Blind School in search of something altogether less obedient.

The Old Blind School

There are two big group shows at the 2014 Liverpool Biennial, which has the banal biennial name of ‘A Needle Walks into a Haystack’, and an overarching theme of the domestic. Tate Liverpool has plucked work willy-nilly from its collection to put together a bunch of things that in some way refer to the domestic, but don’t really do much more. The group show at the Old Blind School is a very different proposition. It manages, by thoughtfully combining an eclectic group of artists whose works when placed together makes something that is bigger than the collection of its parts, to create an cohesive, atmospheric but also difficult show.

The work of the 17 international artists in the Old Blind School is placed thoughtfully throughout the venue, creating a rhythm of surprise and then recognition, as an artist’s work reappears time after time. The Old Blind School itself is a beautifully atmospheric building; its labyrinthine scale and layers of peeling pastel paintwork create a real sense of adventure, with unknown discoveries potentially waiting behind each door and around every corner.

Strategic-Level, Spiritual Warfare, Michael Stevenson

Much of the work in the show has a nerdy, otherworldly edge to it, reflecting time spent holed up in bedrooms living fantasy lives and creating pointless taxonomies. For instance a work by Michael Stevenson, Strategic-Level, Spiritual Warfare consists of a small dark room containing six screens, which feature player-less video games in mid-play mode. They are reminiscent of the bank of TVs at Graceland, set up by Elvis so he could watch all the football games at once. Stevenson’s shoot-em-up games are, it turns out, complexly controlled by the random opening and closing of two pairs of doors in the adjoining room (borrowed from John Moore’s University who also supplied the mathematic and computer expertise to set the work up). 

William Leavitt’s work, meanwhile, is old-school sci-fi-esque. His paintings resemble fan boy art and feature space age buildings in bright colours. Seen on their own they would be slight homages to Peter Doig, but their positioning throughout the Old Blind School, above crumbling fireplaces, in rooms accompanied by small installations of fake plants, or on metal screens above clumps of bronze coloured gravel make them interesting and intriguing. In another room Amelie von Wulffen’s collection of cartoon-like drawings feature anthropomorphic vegetables and could conceivably be the work of a teenage girl obsessed by the Munch Bunch.

Chaco Rising, William Leavitt

The cod-scientific is much in evidence in the show – making the domestic add up to more than it really does, as in Louise Herve and Chloe Maillet’s film, which shows strange academic types explaining the significance of fragments of old shoes. Herve and Maillet borrow their methodology from science but the result is more akin to mythology. Michael Stevenson’s Strategic-Level, Spiritual Warfare, as described above, also has a built in pointlessness, using an overly complex system to simply play games.

Christina Ramberg

The artists in the show are an eclectic mix; many of them are new names to me. Christina Ramberg, who died in 1995, is indicative of the cool, 1980s aesthetic that underpins much of the show. Her paintings and drawings of women tortured into high heels and corsets fit the domestic brief only in so far as they feature clothes. But the show is not interested in a cosy domestic theme. The job of most of the work in this ghostly ex-school is to unsettle us by its constrictions, scale or pure uncomfortable madness. The show is topped and tailed by two pieces that epitomise this. At the entrance to the building sits an ice machine, a work by the enigmatic American artist, Norma Jean. Every so often the machine spits and splutters and spews cubes of ice on to the concrete floor – the machine is eventually silent and the ice melts away. On the top floor of the building a sign warns that the volume level of the exhibit might be unsuitable for young people. A pulsating noise leaks from behind a closed door – which when opened becomes unbearably loud and uncomfortable. This room is an installation by Rana Hamadeh called l, Can you Pull in an Actor with a Fishook or Tie Down his Tongue with a Rope and the sound extracts which are taken from diverse sources such as Shiite rituals and Alice in Wonderland, build and mutate over a 20 minute period to create a room that in effect repels anyone who tries to enter – the very opposite of comfortable domesticity.

So when you visit the Biennial you can take your pick – the cosy, design conscious domesticity of Tate Liverpool or the crazy, scary domesticity of the Old Blind School – which is an interesting place to visit but you really wouldn’t want to live there.

Cathy Lomax

The Old Blind School group show at Liverpool Biennial
5 July – 26 October 2014

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