liverpool biennial 08: MADE UP

I feel like I’m still recovering from my 36-hour dash around Liverpool for the opening of the 2008 Liverpool Biennial. My feet are certainly still recovering - I think dancing in very impractical heels at the after-party at A Foundation was the straw that finally broke the camel’s back (or perhaps hoof, in this case?).

Anyway, today I am resting. Currently, I am horizontal, or at least as horizontal as it is possible to be whilst typing.

This year’s Biennial explores the theme MADE UP: the power and richness of the artistic imagination, and the ability of art to transport us to alternative realities. There’s lots of fantastic work to see in both the city’s galleries and public realm spaces, engaging and experimenting with notions of fiction, fantasy, make-believe, myth, spectacle, and the tensions between the real and the unreal. I’ve still got lots to see, but here are a few highlights from my fast-paced, foot-destroying tour on Friday:

MADE UP at The Bluecoat is an enjoyable exhibition exploring the relationship between fantasy and everyday life. Sarah Sze’s installation in The Vide is constructed from a series of banal everyday materials which come together to create a fascinating fragmentary landscape resembling both an intricate sculpture and the residue of a whirlwind or explosion. In the upper gallery, Tracey Moffat’s First Jobs depicts the artist undertaking a series of odd jobs from working as a receptionist through to manning the production line at a pineapple cannery. Acid-bright colours transform these mundane images of workplaces associated with boredom and low-pay into a candy-hued, nostalgic vision of the past. Meanwhile, the wonderful Barefoot Lone Pilgrim (aka artist David Blandy) documents his spiritual journey in search of ‘mythical’ American soul singer Mingering Mike through drawings, artefacts and a brilliant Monkey-inspired video, conflating real life and imaginary adventures and identities. Garbage Day by The Royal Art Lodge - a collective of six artists including Marcel Dzama who are known for producing eccentric collaborative works referencing everything from comics through to science fiction - is a natural companion to Blandy’s work, sharing his playful sense of humour. This installation presents a series of over 200 small panels that lead the viewer around the gallery, offering us a series of quirky stories and surreal characters, characterised by bright colours and a naive, illustrative style.

The MADE UP theme continues at Tate Liverpool where curator Laurence Sillars has taken ‘between the real’ as the starting point for a diverse selection of commissions encompassing painting, sculpture, drawing, video and installation. Artists including Adrian Ghennie and Teresa Hubbard and Alexander Birchler penetrate the layers of histories, narratives and memories, whilst works like Omer Fast’s darkly comic video Take A Deep Breath playfully subvert the boundaries between fact and fiction. My personal highlight of the Tate show was The Drawing Room - a gallery space bringing together a wide selection of work by four artists who use drawing as their primary practice. Amongst them, Charles Avery’s fascinating images document the landscapes and inhabitants of an imaginary island partially inspired by childhood memories, whilst the wonderful Rachel Goodyear’s uncanny and beautiful drawings are resonant with myth and fairy-tale.

FACT and Open Eye Gallery both also have intriguing exhibitions exploring the theme MADE UP: FACT's Creature Creation Station in particular is well worth a visit, offering visitors the chance to re-imagine themselves as a strange, otherworldly creature, whilst upstairs in the bar, Lisa Reihana’s Colour of Sin: Headcase version 2005 invites us to listen to a series of conflicting stories piped through retro 1970s hairdryers.

Meanwhile, in the city’s public spaces, the former ABC cinema on Lime Street is the perfect location for Annette Messenger’s ghostly theatrical installation La Dernière Séance, whilst the back room of The Vines pub, which mixes fruit machines with opulent chandeliers, is a fabulous setting for Gabriel Lester’s film The Last Smoking Flight: images of floating clouds and wafting tobacco smoke are captured and reflected in a succession of mirrors around the room. A little further down the street, Manfredi Beninati’s new site-specific commission offers us a tantalising and uncanny glimpse of a secret life between the facade of an abandoned building covered with posters: a gap in the hoarding allows visitors to peep into an apparently empty apartment, where the remains of breakfast are still on the table and a newspaper lies on the floor. It’s still early days for Yoko Ono’s Liverpool Skyladder, an installation situated in the beautiful ruined church of St. Luke’s, which invites visitors to donate stepladders to create a ‘forest of steps’ reaching up to the sky, but it will be interesting to see how it develops as more ladders arrive. And of course, Richard Wilson’s impressive and wonderfully hypnotic Turning the Place Over is an absolute must-see.

This year's Biennial has received some mixed reviews: Charlotte Higgins, writing for The Guardian blogs, criticises it as "a patchy event" with "an awful lot of dull, indifferent or bad stuff going on that left me feeling underwhelmed." Personally, I can't agree: far from being indifferent or dull, there's no doubt in my mind that the Biennial has been a real highlight of Capital of Culture, and would absolutely recommend everyone to visit. Just make sure you remember to wear comfortable shoes.