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Tracey Moffatt, 'Corner Store', from First Jobs Series, 2008

‘House prices are up 25%’, someone shrieked as Liverpool was plucked from the party bag that is the European Capital of Culture. Nothing lasts forever. In August I visited Cork and there’s no capital of culture legacy to speak of. Worse, there’s a toxic dimension to viewing art in this context—the scale and randomness of competing agendas and a feeling that art has lost something it can’t easily replace. ‘Biennal-creep’ encourages the thought that there’s just too much art in the world.

Liverpool’s four previous Biennials were an important route to its status as England’s regional centre for contemporary art; the road taken is similar to Glasgow’s route to culture in the 1990s. Independent-minded, energetic ‘on yer-bike’ values were promoted during the metropolitan regeneration of Liverpool’s long march away from broken-bottle urban wilderness towards totemic cappuccinos. Riotous decadence has been displaced by easy money. Why this matters now is never more evident while weaving around Liverpool’s welcoming neighbourhoods seeking out the Biennial 2004 commissions, presented under the patronage of the international exhibition Made Up .

During my last visit to the Liverpool Biennial Yoko Ono’s image of a breast flashed across the city on posters, badges and souvenir carrier bags. The public realm plays a central role this year. In 2004 Cherie Blair opened the show and this year it’s the turn of minister for culture Andy Burnham, glossing the art with a social engineering agenda. Such thoughts flash through your head as you run past housing estates towards architects Diller Scofidio + Renfro’s serenely designed ‘Joyful Trees’, which gently revolve hornbeams and their viewers on three rotating circular bases in a literal tribute to the curatorial premise for art’s capacity to generate new realities.

This year the city is neither backdrop nor simple repository to the many artworks and interventions, but gets you thinking about modern Liverpool. The city plays the kind host, serving up that decent principle of allowing informed access to complex art, administered by the partnership of urban elites, supplementary corporate capital and local government. The city’s physiognomy is now an increasingly elevated skyline of facades. Artists since the renaissance have always had a role in decorating the city, all the way up to the ‘Grand Council’. Sure, everyone’s talking about Ai Weiwei spinning a spider’s web of light across the entirety of Liverpool’s Exchange Flags, but it reminds me of Christmas lights.

Ono’s back and this year it’s your stepladders she’s after. ‘Sky-ladders’ appear in the unadorned ruins of St Luke’s church. Reference to her much earlier ‘Ceiling Painting’, 1966, is unavoidable; then, text and a magnifying glass were suspended from the ceiling of London’s Indica gallery. Visitors who climbed the ladder to read the text were rewarded when discovering it said ‘Yes’—art as affirmation.

This year say ‘No’ to easy rewards and seek out the quieter, darker works. At a former DIY store Richard Woods’ dumb aesthetic has lent itself poorly to the extension of his ubiquitous floorboard woodcut effect and now includes a multifaceted abstract sculpture and reworked shop signage.

Jesper Just, 'Romantic Delusions', 2008
Jesper Just, 'Romantic Delusions', 2008

Upstairs is the far better Jesper Just’s compelling video-projection ‘Romantic Delusions’ in which the actor Udo Kier’s hermaphrodite undertakes a disturbed transit to heaven. Rumour has it Lars Von Trier is currently working on a film with Kier that spans 30 years. Every year they meet to shoot footage and the film will show the actor age without special effects. However in Just’s film the strange death of Kier is suddenly upon us; it shows him on a tram, on foot, aghast after a stroke and then floating across a marble floor while gently mouthing Purcell’s ‘Cold Song’ with much the same energy as the pouting of a drowning goldfish.

There’s more transcendence across at the historic Vines pub. The staging of Gabriel Lester’s suspenseful video ‘The Last Smoking Flight’ lends the work a certain Steppenwolf ‘magic theatre’. ‘Backroom’ downplays the setting; it’s a chandeliered lounge into which we visitors blissfully sink amidst film of drifting smoke and piano accompaniment. Succumbing to the smoke is easy, it is by its nature slow motion. In an editorial sleight-of-hand the film cuts silently to a cloudscape seen below an aeroplane. The next cut takes us into the aeroplane; we watch the passengers’ nervous preening, sweaty claustrophobia and their general shifty alertness. One man lights up and then its the whole ponderous cycle all over again. Lester and Just’s saturnine ambitions, represented as grand panoramas of life and the liminal, are ‘just’ rewards for this day-trip.

Three jewels in Liverpool’s metropolitan renaissance include the renovated Bluecoat Gallery, FACT and Tate Liverpool. Digital communication in the modern urban centre demands technological fluency. Now under the direction of Mike Stubbs, FACT might well be expected to lead the way. It wants to be a gallery of the future. In FACT, Yang Fudong’s 2004 mesmerising multi-screen ensemble of musicians at the edge of the sea sets the bar for the Biennial. In the same gallery, Ulf Langheinrich’s stereoscopic panorama is the antithesis of comfort. However, once your visor-covered eyes stop resisting the extreme artificiality of the experience, your perception of scale is suddenly lost. Better known as a sonic artist, Langheinrich’s projection emerges from a series of algorithms but blasts us into a world not unlike Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris, the ocean-mass secreting a probing alien intelligence. I’m reminded of Updike’s sublime phrase, ‘vast, dying sea’. Can science explain philosophical ‘truth’? 3D projection is unanchored from the screen onto which it is set. The screen becomes a vacancy and a chasm appears. This is psychological-space. Does Langheinrich’s project encourage temporary mental disintegration? The critics can’t agree.

Anette Messager, 'Final Screening', installation view, 2008
Anette Messager, 'Final Screening', installation view, 2008

At the derelict ABC Cinema, in Annette Messager’s individualistic ‘Final Screening’, skeletal hands drop down like the hooks at the end of toy fishing rods, touching inflated globes. Above, a spinal column runs up to a skull appended with a long spiny nose, a nod to Bosch. Description renders the experience sensible—it is not. The black silk awning which covers the seating periodically hisses and inflates with compressed air. The lights fade… and it’s the whole ponderous cycle all over again!

Tracey Moffatt’s ‘First Job—Self Portrait’ photographs are light-hearted evocations of antipodean suburbs, instantly forgettable lollipops. This is a ruse intended to forefront thoughts for the true horror themes of our time; the attraction of the instant and the tedium of the popular. At Bluecoat, Moffatt’s politicising of the familiar image has some kinship with Richard Hamilton, her works have moral tonalities without being pofaced. The faces of those pictured, working in a Pineapple Cannery or Selling Aluminium Siding, appear as sunny ‘punctums’ and are Moffatt’s own Zelig-like insertions. One of the payoffs for a dead-end job is escape to the Friday night cinema and Moffatt has mashed together fireballs, tidal waves and galactic confrontations in ‘Doomed’. As Superman’s dad, Marlon Brando intones ‘we must evacuate this planet at once’ the planet explodes. ‘Bring it on’ is the imagined whispering of one of those trapped in the real nightmare of a Pineapple Cannery. But we Earthlings know we only have this one planet. My fellow gallery-goers watched it twice.

How about that toxic dimension? Perseverance is important, a tray of chips eaten on the trot can alleviate ‘Biennalcreep’. Who curated what? ‘It’s collaboration’, suggests a press officer. Liverpool’s public realm has been accommodating and the big galleries have an ambience of conviction. 2010—it’s in the bag, and all this, the 3D sea, the smoking man, the pineapple cans, will be fading memories. Meanwhile the Liverpool Biennial this year is a marvellous rekindling of that love affair between art and the city.

Craig Richardson is an artist and lecturer at Oxford Brooks University