Mai Abu ElDahab and Dessislava Dimova in conversation about The Liverpool Biennial, “A Needle Walks into a Haystack”, 5 July – 26 October 2014, curated by Brussels-based curator Mai Abu ElDahab and Anthony Huberman, Director of CCA Wattis.
Dessislava Dimova “A Needle Walks into a Haystack”. How did you come up with the title?
Mai Abu ElDahab It was such a long process and we went through so many options until we got to this one. Both Anthony and I wanted to make sure we had a title that was light, not trying to make a big statement about art at large. Something which as soon as you read, you could see is an image rather than an idea.
DD Can you tell us a little about the particularities of the Liverpool biennial. It has always seemed quite different from the usual biennial format of a big thematic international exhibition. Instead it appeared scattered in smaller projects among the various institutions in the city. How is it organized this year?
MA Yes. The biennial used to commission a curator, who proposed a general theme to the local institutions who in their turn curated their own shows, according to this theme. So it was a kind of a local collaboration.
This year the biennial organisation tried to do something closer to the international biennial model, with Anthony Huberman and I as the curators who still worked with the local organizations like Tate Liverpool, the Bluecoat or FACT as venues. I must say I am not sure which format is better. One might be tempted to think this year’s biennial is a better articulated show, something more in dialogue with the international biennial circuit but I think the show was very important for Liverpool and its institutions as it was in its previous format. I don’t know how much the institutions feel they are really partners in the biennial now, or if they are comfortable being hosts in their venues.
DD Liverpool was initially a biennial for art in the public space. Did you continue this line this year?
MA This is the first time there isn’t art in the public realm. But we used a building that was opened up for the exhibition – The Old Blind School. In fact they have always opened up a new building for the biennial, the city is full of empty buildings. It’s a city that was built for a million people and today it has a population of 400 000. As soon as you leave the centre there are roads and roads lined with boarded up houses. But also in the centre, there are lavish buildings that are completely empty, that used to be the headquarters of big companies some 100 years ago. A lot of them are in really good condition, they are used for films so they are maintained.
The School is a very odd building. After it was a school it was an important trade union centre. It is funny how now, as I start to read reviews for the exhibition, people wonder why the artists didn’t respond to the building’s architecture and history. But in our case the building was found about four months before the opening, when the show was already developed. So the exhibition is not site-specific. The only thing that we knew we wanted was to use a building that had rooms and spaces of a regular scale and not a big industrial space. We wanted an intimate space. This building has rooms with fireplaces and various sizes. It’s labyrinthine but not massive.
DD So you would call it an intimate show. It is also impossible not to notice that the artists’ list is very short for a biennial.
MA One of the things that were very important in this biennial is that there is a relatively small group of artists, twenty one in total. Both Anthony and I try to work in general with practices and languages and not individual pieces. In the group show you see the work of artists recurring in the show. Sometimes it will be one artist in one space and then the work might come back in a group show situation. We wanted the artist and the practice to be the heart of the show.
Even the texts that we wrote to accompany the show are not our thematic but come from the works. When you see the show you see exactly what the concept and description are referring to. We talk about habits and habitat and bureaucracy and comedy and it’s really right there. You talk about bureaucracy and comedy and you see Chris Evan’s or William Leavitt’s work, so it is not our ideas about art but really thoughts coming directly from the works.
DD The Guardian came out with an article saying it was a gloomy show.
MA Well, this is in the title. If you continue the article it doesn’t continue that thought further. I think it’s not a joyful exhibition but it definitely does not deal with misery or depression, there is a lot of humour in it. The Independent on the other hand said that the exhibition did not respond to the difficult situation of Liverpool.
The wonderful thing about this show is that a lot of the people I spoke with said they are moved by it. It is really nice, because the show is in a way quite simple and a lot of the work there is not at all spectacular. The show is mainly about scale and the scale in which the artists negotiate ideas. It’s very accessible. So what you see is for instance William Leavitt’s work which is about the facades of suburban houses mixed with the idea of realistic science fiction. Also Judith Hopf’s work with baskets and ropes and architectural space.
There is also the show at Tate Liverpool which I curated. I worked with their collection and the works we chose to show are mostly about domestic things. So it’s about 50 artists, but the one theme that goes throughout is domesticity. For instance, we have many of Patrick Caulfield’s, the British pop artist, silk screens, these very simple pop images of domestic things like lets say a clock. It is all about shifting perspective of these objects, they are really beautiful and they punctuate the entire show. The whole show is a selection of works of the collection looked at through a very naïve lens as if they were simply domestic objects. Like Joseph Cornell’s box with wine glasses (Planet Set, Tête Etoilée, Giuditta Pasta (dédicace), 1950) Or Andrew Lord who made a lot of ceramics – teapots and vases. It’s not too staged but that was the entry to how to put this together, in a naïve way that lets the work then take center stage rather than an extended narrative, it’s like a decoy.
DD Tell me more about this naïve side of the show. How did you make this point of view visible?
MA Mainly through the selection, which was so obvious that we had to move away from it in the way it was put together. So there were moments for example like the little room we built in the middle of the exhibition space with a funny mint green colour and a carpet inside. In this room there was a Warhol painting of perfume bottles (Untitled (Beauty Products), 1960) and across from it Patrick Caulfield bathroom mirror silkscreen (Bathroom Mirror, 1968) and just outside is a work by Sherrie Levine of children’s shoes (2 Shoes, 1992).
The reactions of the people from the museum were wonderful, for them the show was very exciting because it was so different from the museum making its own collection display. As someone from the outside you can really do something that eliminates all the symbolic value of these objects that has to do with the museum – it is usually a relationship that is about ownership, narrative and establishing a cannon. For me it was like a candy shop, you are able to look at the artwork as work and forget about all the historicisation. I think what comes out through that is that then the approach of how to display things can be much more free. There is a humour in it, and I don't think it's my humour but the humour of the artist in making those pieces that somehow isn't usually able to play itself out.
For example one of the centre pieces was Thomas Schütte's ceramics, Four Sisters in the Bath, 1989. You see the heads of these four women. And it's very funny. When you look at it you don't understand if the bodies are sunken into the floor and it plays with scale and architecture, and if you see it in a Thomas Schütte retrospective the humor will be totally lost. It was really nice this possibility to put together works that would be a very big no no for an art historian curator. I think it works, the works finally stand for themselves at the end. To do a collection show was a choice. You could do a show in the museum or you could do something in the collection. Part of the entire logic of the exhibitions was how to use the essence of each venue.
DD What was the idea behind inviting architect Claude Parent in this context?
MA You know I keep thinking how did that happen, but I can’t remember, I was simply interested and curious about his work. It also had to do with the Tate and how to somehow reinvent the museum. He was the obvious and most interesting choice because he is an architect who does not deal with research and abstraction but makes real propositions for how to live. One of the most exciting things he did was the construction for the French pavilion in Venice in the art biennial in 1970. If you look at the images of the pavilion you won’t recognize the building at all. I thought it would be interesting to invite him now, some 40 years later to also invent something for an art context. Which was exactly what he got excited about.
DD Then there is the show of James McNeill Whistler, the 19th century American artist, at the Bluecoat – the Liverpool centre for contemporary arts. How did you come up with Whistler, did he have some connection to Liverpool?
MA Not exactly. I had a hint that it was interesting. Having an amateur interest in this character and at the same time thinking about the Bluecoat as a place bringing together an art community. To think about the art community was so important for Whistler. Thinking what is at stake to do a show about this community, because for us the show was about the context of art, the art world that is valid anywhere and not the context of Liverpool.
Whistler was the first to act as a contemporary artist in the logic of contemporary artist today. He was the first artist to insist on the way his work was presented inventing a lot of ideas about what an exhibition is. He was collecting all of the reviews about his shows. He did shows where he used the bad reviews as titles of his work. We reconstructed a lighting system that he invented. It is called "the velarium" and is a piece of loosely hung fabric, which was put under a skylight, the effect of it was like fluorescent lights today, to diffuse the light.
The show is narrated by Whistler’s letters. There is one letter from his mother to him, which is the start of the show. It’s the classic, she is saying “Jimmy why did you decide to be an artist, why didn’t you become a doctor or an engineer?” We showed mainly drawings and etchings, with a few watercolours. We didn’t try to do a Whistler show but a show about Whistler.
The most flamboyant thing in the whole show is in a small space upstairs where we recreated the famous Peacock room. Whistler had a commission to do this room for the London home of a collector from Liverpool, Frederick Leyland. They had big fights, because Whistler kept making massive changes to the interior of the room without the patron’s knowledge or consent, and the main panels of the room are these two big fighting peacocks, one represents the artist and the other the collector. The whole room is now in the Smithsonian so we got a set designer who recreated a part of the room and it is really beautiful.
DD You also showed Jef Cornelis’s films, which he made for the Belgian TV channel VRT from 1963 to 1989. It is always challenging to present this type of archive in exhibitions.
MA We worked on it with Koen Brams. He is the expert on this. These are incredible, crazy films, Cornelis made over 250. It was all made for TV. It’s incredible to imagine who watched this, it is so quirky and sharp, and already critiquing television and mass consumption. We didn’t want to have an archive show with just endless monitors and Koen found an amazing location, which is a social housing project. It is a round building and in the middle of its court there is a pavilion, and the show is in this pavilion. It is very small, a kind of recreation centre, like a lounge where the people in the building can come to watch TV and sit outside. He set up a weekly screening program and there are monitors where you can choose, from about 60 films, so it is not so much like a show, but it is there and people can keep coming back. Seeing people watch the biennial and then see Jef’s films, there are links that are so strong, it makes you think about the representation of art from within an exhibition.
DD I'd like to return to the question of scale and the word domesticity you mentioned on several occasions. Did you think of domesticity simply as the opposite of the large scale, the official and the historicized, or was there something else behind this idea of domestic space?
MA It was just a tool really. Inevitably if things are intimate or immediate the home is one of the places where this is most visible. But domesticity was not an idea in itself. I it is so difficult today when to find yourself, when looking at exhibitions or working with art, in a context that just trusts art to be able to say or do something. There is an amazing variety of conflicting interests that are pushing and directing what we are actually seeing and I think the idea, the possibility of a relevance for art is completely lost. The show speaks also about that. By showing things we found interesting, some of them important works of art but also the kind of work where you can see where the importance of art is and how it can speak to really immediate questions.
All photos by Mark McNulty