Existence is resistance: The 2018 Liverpool Biennial

Aslan Gaisumov,  People of No Consequence , 2016, installation view, ‘Beautiful world, where are you?’, Victoria Gallery and Museum, Liverpool, 2018; photo: Thierry Bal

Aslan Gaisumov, People of No Consequence, 2016, installation view, ‘Beautiful world, where are you?’, Victoria Gallery and Museum, Liverpool, 2018; photo: Thierry Bal

Slowly 119 elderly survivors of Stalin’s 1944 deportation of the Chechen and Ingush nations gather in a rural club near Grozny, the capital city of the Chechen Republic in Russia. They sit down and silently face the camera. The end of the room is full of nothing but survivors. They stare at you. You stare back. It is enough. Aslan Gaisumov’s eight-minute, 34-second film People of No Consequence (2016) ends. Then it repeats indefinitely.

Staged in Liverpool’s Victoria Museum and Gallery, the work is a curatorial gut punch. Harrowing in its simplicity, People of No Consequence epitomises the prevailing curatorial agenda of the 2018 Liverpool Biennial, ‘Beautiful world, where are you?’. Curated by Kitty Scott and Sally Tallant across various venues (until 28 October), this biennial is a forthrightly political platform. It rearranges and often undermines hegemonic cultural projects by presenting work that transmogrifies serious suffering and subjugation into fundamentally uplifting cultural moves.

The biennial began with the performative activation of African-American artist Kevin Beasley’s sculptural installation Your face is / is not enough (2016) at Tate Liverpool. Wearing flamboyantly decorated NATO-issue gasmasks and using modified megaphones, a choir of 12 performed a haunting reverie before installing the garb in the exhibition space. Looming behind the performers was Dale Harding’s Ngaya boonda yinda nayi yoolgoogoo / I carry you in my heart (2016), a massive wall painting that draws on the artist’s Bidjara, Ghungalu and Garingbal heritage. It recalls Australia’s rich and long history of ochre-based rock painting to disrupt and partially reappropriate the proverbial white cube of an intensely privileged Tate gallery space.

Long story short: this is a biennial which is outspoken in its agenda to re-world the art world, featuring as it does 44 artists from 22 different countries. With relatively few exceptions, their work reaches beyond the predictable, simplistic and divisive binarisation of social issues, sensitively courting complexity to induce the sort of alternate dynamic, non-prejudicial and fundamentally wearable relationships to pluralism that our society so desperately needs right now. In giving hope, the 10th Liverpool Biennial is a tacit reminder that our beautiful world never really went anywhere – everything has not been lost over the horizon – we’ve simply been looking the wrong way.

Janis Lejins, Liverpool