at the Liverpool Biennial 2012

ARTS, Features, Visual Arts
Guests of the port city of Liverpool, artists David Bennewith, William Hsu and Marnie Slater explore the theme of ‘hospitality’ via the ocean and Wellington as a starting point.

I inevitably write first about the social and economic histories of the city I’m visiting when I write about contemporary art biennials. This is probably a hang over from my tertiary art theory education, a mid-2000s focus on site specificity, relational aesthetics, and community engagement. When I sit down to write, I find it hard to shake these theoretical lenses—although the artwork I am writing about here, Watermarking, effectively disrupts these preconceived frameworks.

This was the original opening paragraph I wrote: The exigencies of capital are overt in Liverpool, more overt than anywhere else I have been. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, 40% of the world’s trade came through Liverpool’s docks. 40%! The wealth that came from trade in cotton, sugar, brandy, tobacco, and slaves from West Africa and the Caribbean, is evident in the monstrous nineteenth century neo-classical buildings that weigh heavily on this port city.[1] The currents of capital have emptied these buildings and Liverpool is in the process of ‘reinventing’ itself, as they say euphemistically in the tourism business. Tate Liverpool and a plethora of other museums have taken up residence in the Albert Dock buildings on the waterfront. Other vacated industrial buildings are now arts centers, gastropubs, and coffee shops. Tourism, culture, and consumption are the new capital.

The Liverpool Biennial, now in its seventh year, is a key part of this cultural ‘reinvention’. This year it is entitled ‘The Unexpected Guest’ and grouped around the theme of ‘hospitality’. Dubious as I am of biennial curatorial themes—which often operate more as branding exercises for vast quantities of disparate artworks than provocative rubrics around which to group art—I found ‘hospitality’ to be a timely thematic for these post-identity politics times. ‘The Unexpected Guest’ proposes that the traditional distinction between guest and host is at best fictitious, and at worst destructive, and allows for a productive space for art which examines the power politics of border control, global migration and trade, contemporary nation states, and the efficacy of socially-situated art.

I want to write specifically here about Watermarking, the collaborative project of three New Zealand artists, David Bennewith, William Hsu and Marnie Slater. I must make clear I had the chance to assist peripherally with the project in Liverpool, and was in the city during the Biennial’s lead up and opening weekend, so have had the insider involvement which is sometimes difficult to avoid in the New Zealand art world.

Watermarking is Wellington’s representation in the ‘City States’ section of the Biennial, located in a large, unused Royal Mail sorting office in Liverpool’s city centre (I can’t remember where I saw it, but the building was described excellently in a text as ‘post-postal’). Thirteen cities from throughout the world were invited to produce exhibitions in this space, which responded to the Biennial’s theme of ‘hospitality’.

So, the art. Watermarking set up a lattice of reference points. A pool of water, constructed from one the original tables used while the building was still functioning:

“Watermarking” (2012), David Bennewith, William Hsu, Marnie Slater. Image by Clare Noonan.

This pool was salinated with chemicals to the same level as Wellington harbour. Sand was also collected from the mouth of the Hutt River and left in a muslin sack to permeate the water with Wellington harbour’s own specific impurities for the run of the exhibition.

A publication:

“Watermarking” (2012), David Bennewith, William Hsu, Marnie Slater. Image by Clare Noonan.

This slim book had begun its journey in Wellington where a local print business was invited to print an image of Wellington’s harbour, in a colour of their choosing, on one quarter of a sheet of paper. From there, the printed sheet traveled to printers in Melbourne, Taipei, and Rotterdam, before arriving in Liverpool. In each port city, a local printer was invited to repeat this task, until the page had accumulated prints of four harbours, each of different colours from the pantone colour range:

“Watermarking” (2012), David Bennewith, William Hsu, Marnie Slater. Image by Clare Noonan.

When it arrived in Liverpool, the sheet was bound into a publication alongside a text by Laura Preston and Matthew Preston, and displayed with the pool. Visitors to Watermarking were invited to pick up a copy of the publication, dunk it into the salinated pool of Wellington Harbour, and take it away with them to dry:

“Watermarking” (2012), David Bennewith, William Hsu, Marnie Slater. Image by Clare Noonan.

Watermarking organises itself in multiple and over-lapping spaces. The title would suggest that the artwork is grouped around the central metaphor of ‘watermarking’, the process by which a printer would faintly mark paper with a specific design during manufacture to identify the maker. Another work could have easily relied on the slightly predictable metaphorical potential of this process (the image as identity and marker, the imprint, the image’s desire, etc). However, Watermarking enthusiastically conflates both the physical and symbolic opportunities of watermarking to reveal the contingent construct of ‘hospitality’ and also the politics of the biennial model.

By inviting printers in different parts of the world to contribute to the project, the artists effectively dispersed their invitation to take part in the Biennial and opened the work up to multiple subjectivities. Each page of the publication is a personal interpretation of each city’s harbour, revealing the individual’s relationship with the city they inhabit. However, these responses were circumscribed by the standardised palate of the pantone colour scheme from which the printers had to pick, preventing the action from slipping into a latent humanism.

The invitational nature of the artwork was continued by the artists’ offer to the Biennial visitor to dunk the publication into the salinated simulacra of ‘Wellington harbour’—the chemical composition of the water caused it to feel rough and strange, underlining the sense it came from a far away, foreign ocean. The dunking was both a playful and solemn activity and was enacted in various ways: gently soaking each page, reading the text underwater, turning the publication into a boat to sail across the pool. During the dunking, the publication became process, its object-ness was undermined, and it was returned to its starting point of Wellington.[2] However, a holistic reading of this cycle was disrupted by the fact that the visitors are able to take the publications away with them, so the damp book’s circulating and signifying will continue in un-prescribed places.

I have equivocated when writing about this work. It sometimes frustrates me when art writers do that (‘the work is at once present and absent, at once general and specific’) but Watermarking productively forces me to do so. I think this is because the artwork deconstructs both itself and the nationalist positioning one might associate with the biennial model—particularly in the ‘City States’ section of the Biennial, where national borders are clearly demarcated. None of the three artists live in Wellington; Hsu lives in Auckland, Bennewith in Amsterdam, and Slater in Brussels. How then, as they were invited to do, to make a work determined by Wellington as a starting point? The artwork answers this question by locating Wellington as the nexus between several journeys: the journey of the publication (to the Biennial and then away again with the visitors), the journey of the sand from the mouth of the Hutt River to Liverpool, the journeys of the artists and curators from across the globe, and the myriad digital journeys of their correspondence.[3]

The artwork is also attuned to the strange twinning of Liverpool and Wellington. Both are obviously port cities, but also both have a small, walk-able city centre, which gently declines towards the harbour. Their ports share a selection of nineteenth century dock buildings, and both also have a large, post-modern museum built amongst them. Liverpool is as windy and cold as Wellington. Wind blew some grit in my eye while I was walking along the waterfront, and it made me think nostalgically of home.

Watermarking plays off these civic similarities and suggests the artists and curators are knowing and active ‘guests’ in the quasi-familiar ‘host’ city. They have been here before, whether through colonial histories, the opportunities afforded by digitally networked culture or a simple shared human relationship with the ocean. In Watermarking, Wellington and every city is as different (from where?) or the same (as what?) as the populace perceives it. Every city is networked, contingent and re-made every day in its own likeness.[4]

Watermarking is a nimble and intelligent artwork. It is also indicative of the alacrity of New Zealand’s contemporary art scene that the exhibition was put together by two freelance curators, Melanie Oliver and Laura Preston, funded on a small budget from by Creative New Zealand and the Chartwell Trust, supported by an international network of helpful individuals, and presented at an significant international biennial. Of course, each exhibition is determined by the artist and the nature of their work, but Watermarking is perhaps a new model of presenting New Zealand art overseas, one which moves swiftly from multiple cities across the world, unencumbered by outmoded nationalist rhetoric, big budgets, and bureaucratic expectation.

David Bennewith, William Hsu and Marnie Slater
Curated by Melanie Oliver and Laura Preston
A work in the Liverpool Biennial 2012
September 15–November 25 

“Watermarking” (2012)
David Bennewith, William Hsu, Marnie Slater
Photograph: Clare Noonan

[1] The Cunnard Building on Liverpool’s waterfront, where a large proportion of the works in the Biennial are located, was modeled on the Farnese Palace in Rome, which was designed by Antonio da Sangallo and completed by Michelangelo in 1544. This gives a sense of Liverpool’s architectural, maritime megalomania.

[2] The artists were unconcerned about the likely possibility of running out of publications towards the end of the Biennial’s ten weeks. The publication and the process of dunking it seemed to me to be the locus of the work and the installation elements subsidiary. Even though the exhibition invigilators are encouraged to explain the absent components of the work, the audience will be unnecessarily disenfranchised and excluded from a full understanding of Watermarking without the publication present; the art turns in on itself.

[3] In some way, Watermarking correlated with points made by Nicolas Bourriaud in his theory of ‘altermodernism’, first proposed through the 2009 Tate Triennial, particularly his idea that traveling is a new way to create forms: “…a new type of form is appearing, the journey-form, made of lines drawn both in space and time, materialising trajectories rather than destinations.”

[4] Here I don’t want to suggest cultural relativism but rather a model which departs from multiculturalism and resists a global homogeneity, but neverthesless recognises the specific historical contexts of nation states. This seems particularly pertinent during the 2012 Olympic year in which nationalism is encouraged by economic opportunism.