The Liverpool Biennial, which opened 14 July and runs to 28 October, is celebrating its tenth edition with a question. The show's title, Beautiful world, where are you?, comes from Friedrich Schiller's poetic work invoking the Greek gods, Die Götter Griechenlands, or The Gods of Greece. Written in 1788, Schiller's text was set to music by Franz Schubert in 1819, by which time the French Revolution and the fall of the Napoleonic empire had rocked Europe. Die Götter Griechenlands became a lament for a time of instability—a mourning that is echoed in the world today and the incessant stream of anxieties that plague it.
Drawing this history into the present, curators Sally Tallant and Kitty Scott have commissioned works by over 40 artists from 22 countries, which are presented in 16 historic and contemporary venues across the city. An online hypertext-based work by Morehshin Allahyari, She Who Sees The Unknown: The Laughing Snake (2018), can be viewed on the Biennial website; a collaboration with FACT and Whitney Museum of American Art.
As always, Liverpool's complicated ancestry as a dockside city that rose out of Britain's Imperial boom, is central to the exhibition's investigation overall. At Tate Liverpool, which resides in what was once a 19th-century warehouse within the Albert Dock, photographic imagery of quay cranes are collaged with folk imagery in Haegue Yang and Mike Carney's collaborative digital print, Dockside Rock and Roll (2018), which wraps around the entire interior of the ground-floor Wolfson Gallery. In the centre of the space, Yang's ongoing project The Intermediates (2015–ongoing) questions embodiments of folk traditions in the midst of this collaged industrial world: artificial straw weaves into fertility statue-like forms surrounded by plastic greenery, and woven ribbon designs ascend columns mimicking both the Maypoles of England and Saekdong—a traditional patchwork textile—of Korea (where Yang was born).
Upstairs, historical overlaps rooted in trade, industry, and conquest are brought out in Dale Harding's Wall Composition in Bimbird and Reckitt's Blue (2018). Reckitt's blue, a pigment used for whitening laundry up until the mid-20th century, has been applied directly to the gallery walls using the techniques of Aboriginal rock art. Harding's painting sees this specific blue pigment come full circle in this presentation—centuries ago, Reckitt's blue was transported to Harding's homeland, Australia, from ports like Liverpool to the workhouses of colonial settlements throughout the world, a reminder of Liverpool's place in support of the British Empire.
Much of the postcolonial critique on display seems to suggest that the beautiful world the Liverpool Biennial is searching for remains hidden or forgotten—in some cases, historically suppressed by imperialist structures that imposed their rule centuries ago. Positioned in front of Harding's wall painting are Brian Jungen's Warriors 1, 2, and 3 (2017): Native American style headdresses sculpted from the soles of sports shoes arranged in the centre of the space, mediating connections between past and present. Duane Linklater's installation The marks left behind (2014), a series of hanging skunk furs strung from metal clothing rails, is alcoved to the right of Jungen's work, serving as a reminder of Canada's colonial past and the fur trade's devastating impact on its indigenous people.
Drawing out a revolutionary angle to colonial history is Naeem Mohaiemen's marathon three-channel film installation Two Meetings and a Funeral (2017), installed in the Crown Court room at the 19th-century neoclassical St George's Hall, which once functioned as a criminal court. The film carefully chronicles the various countries involved in the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) during the Cold War period, with an emphasis on Bangladesh, Mohaiemen's home country, and its fight for independence from Pakistan, which was achieved in 1971. Through archival footage and interviews, Mohaiemen constructs a narrative that draws parallels between the liberation movements taking part across Africa, Asia, and Latin America at the time, while considering the implications of this ongoing history in the present.
At the Open Eye Gallery, Madiha Aijaz's documentary film installation These Silences Are All The Words (2017–2018) reflects on some of the reasons behind such struggles by exposing the gradual extinguishing of Urdu language and literature in favour of English, through conversations with librarians and library users in Pakistan. (In one example, the documentary tackles issues of censorship through the librarians of Ghalib library as they remove copies of Urdu poet Daag Dehlvi's work to avoid criticism from the academics who visit.) Unmasking the lasting impact of India's partitioning post-independence, the film touches on the difficulties in disentangling traditional culture from its colonial influences in our current globalised society; a theme that George Osodi's series 'Nigerian Monarchs' (2012–ongoing) continues in richly saturated photographs of regional rulers in the artist's home country. The composition of these photographic portraits gesture towards resilience and subversion through the means of self-representation. Men and women are composed in studio settings, their dignified poses reminiscent of neoclassical portraiture, and the intricate beadwork and lush fabrics of their clothing alongside the loyal servants crouched around them.