Liverpool One still trumps any parody I could make of it. This time, it was the ice rink on that high, artificial grassy hill. Behind security barriers, under a light, cold rain, happy shoppers skated round an Audi on a plinth. At least I found £1.22 in wet change in the grass.
My visit to the Liverpool Biennial began with the bafflement I’ve come to expect from encounters with a certain strand of contemporary art. It ended with a less predictable and explicable unhappiness.
I could happily live on the train from London to Liverpool. English lowlands in long shot, places I’ve seen so many times through a high-speed window but will never walk on. For a long time I would look from the train window and see a hilltop, a turn in a river seen through trees, a funnily proud little shed, and feel a poignancy, thinking that – improbable as the reality would be – that I could spend years getting to know that spot, the qualities of its sunlight, its patterns of dry and damp, its philosophical intimations. Something Mike said or wrote sometime made me once think this as I watched birds’ aerobatics from another speeding train – I would be filled with so much love for what I saw that I thought I could prolong that moment forever. Like going somewhere on holiday and wanting to live there. but now I know living doesn’t work like that. So it’s OK to enjoy being a tourist. It’s OK to enjoy the movie of a view from a train window. The real life is elsewhere. Is happening continuously.
The train pulls into Liverpool through a deep cutting into the foundational sandstone. Down there it’s tropical, wet rock, mossy, ferns, the works of Victorian giants.
Over the road from the station was the first Biennial venue, the old sorting office on Copperas Hill. Hoardings all around, including one ingeniously installed bit of woodwork inexplicably preventing access to a muddy flowerbed, as I remember it. Inside, emptied of furniture and machinery but with the quaint old works notices left pinned up. Not clear whether other signs were meant to for the departed postal workers or for the present art-trailers. A great empty space, smelling of oil and dust. And the art: enigmas in mixed materials; Abstract Expressionist painting revisited, badly; a lot of community projects documented; an exhibit about Birmingham heavy metal culture.
I couldn’t stand it, there or elsewhere. There was a big neon sign on the pillars of St George’s Hall reading ‘The right to right’, which meant nothing unless you’d read an accompanying pamphlet proposing a vacuous political perspective. There was some decent stuff, like John Akomfrah’s The Unfinished Conversation, but overwhelmed by the simple presentation of singular, unambiguous, pre-digested meanings.
I noticed another, more permanent insult to the eyes and mind, though: the proliferation of sentimental commemorative bronzes around the city. Two kinds of thing get celebrated this way: episodes of collective suffering and celebrities. They’re nearly all by someone called Tom Murphy, who has “has proved that he is among the leading sculptors and painters of recent times”, according to his own website. The MO seems to be to take a list of the eminent Liverpudlians and notable events remembered by over-60s: Ken Dodd, long-dead notables, footballers, Beatles, the Blitz (a particularly excruciating example) – and produce life-sized bronze zombies of them. As if being realistic was the highest aim of art, and we don’t mind if you fall significantly short even of that.
Feeling a bit queasy after coming across the Blitz mother and child in St Nicholas’ churchyard, I passed through the Cunard Building to see the art by some big names there. It didn’t help. Contemptuously bad. It’s not enough to notice something telling and put it in a gallery. It’s not enough to take a symbol and add it to another symbol. It’s not enough to show a video of a discussion group.
At Mann Island, I wonder, once again, what happened to the monument dedicated to international socialism that I’m sure used to be there. Pass a line of the irritating, jokey Superlambanana sculptures that seem to have taken its place – the 21st-century Liver birds – and then to the place where my heart broke. Beside the great river, beside the Tate, is the Biennial’s big gun, Doug Aitken’s The Source – dull documentary ineffectively installed in a crudely functional structure to which I’m astonished David Adjaye lent his name. It has no reason to think itself better to its neighbours: another awful Tom Murphy, this time a representation of a second-division pop star from half a century ago; but he doesn’t have the monopoly on banal bronze – there is also a gift from the Mormons, a poor but heroic family setting off for the new world, with a plaque explaining the allegorical symbolism embodied in the piece, and a statue of a carthorse – £120,000! – lest we forget that animals suffer too.
What I remembered, though, was the last episode of Boys from the Blackstuff, George’s Last Ride, in which an old ex-docker is wheeled by his son around the romantic dereliction of the old docks, ending up in the pre-redevelopment Albert Dock, all mud and pigeon shit:
“Saturday dinnertime and not a soul about. Once upon a time, Chrissie, once upon a time…”
“If you’re going to tell me about Cinderella, I’m taking you home now.”
“Saturday afternoon. We’d have been looking forward to it from the previous Saturday. Payday Saturday, you know. No five-day week and off to the leisure centre then, boyo.
“Oh, there’d be hundreds coming along here. There’d be the ship-repair men, the scalers, the dockers, the Mary Ellens who used to swab and clean the big liners, and right behind us there’d be them great big shire cart horses. Ah, Chrissie, there was many a good old horse went down the hill but he came back up in the knacker’s cart. The vet had put a gun to its head, a straw bolster around its neck and he’d wind it up into the knacker’s cart. As its big head was turning, you could see the whites of its eye.
“And yet those horses of privilege, who just pose outside Buckingham Palace and ponce and parade up and down the Mall, they’re turned out into a meadow, of cowslip and clover, and guaranteed a full provend bag for the rest of their lives.
“Forty-seven years ago, I stood here. A young bull. I watched my first ship come in. They say that memories live longer than dreams. But my dreams, those dreams of long ago… they still give me hope, and faith in my class. I can’t believe that there’s no hope. I can’t…”
A turn around the pointless new Museum of Liverpool, a stroll through Liverpool One, just to keep the wound open. I kept seeing old couples, people who grew up and lived in a world of steady jobs and socialism, factories and things getting better, dutifully peering at the interactive displays and cake shops that World Heritage Liverpool presents. This city was certainly dying when I was growing up in it – is all this excessive celebration of what we were the proof that it’s finally dead? Is the new waterfront district the 21st century’s funeral eulogy on Liverpool’s decaying corpse, which becomes clear as soon as you walk ten minutes in any other direction?
Appropriately, a cold rain was now falling. I semi-consciously picked a route to the Walker Art Gallery that took me along Victoria Street, so that I could peer up the narrow streets running up to Dale Street, where my dad used to have his offices. I realised I’d done this last time I’d been there. I hadn’t been able to find the building for sure. I think it has been redeveloped, the archway that I remember being open from Dale Street through to the back street was glassed in; the building that had contained a sandwich shop where my dad’s employees would spend their Luncheon Vouchers seemed to have gone. I remembered the glazed bricks that some of the buildings had, though. The green lino, the smells of cleaning products and tobacco smoke must be long gone too, with the old cage lift, with the black rubber buttons that lit up in green when you gave them a push firm enough to bend the transparent plastic surround. The grimy street out the back seems to have been replaced by a rather nice little open area with benches; but down the next turning is a gap where a building has been torn away, the ragged brickwork showing where walls and chimneys used to be. Steel doors. I walked up and down, avoiding the muddy puddles, and wondered just what I was doing.