The title for the latest Liverpool Biennial, “The Stomach & The Port,” makes direct reference to the tangled threads of global trade and disease transmission, plumbing the history of a city that has, over the last three centuries, found itself at the center of both. The curatorial “entry-points” for the Biennial are “porosity,” “kinship,” and “stomach,” all themes which have taken on new resonance during the Covid-19 pandemic: the show, which spreads from the waterfront up into the city, taking in nine venues and various public commissions, displays a timely fascination with what it means to be a body alongside others in the world.

The city’s port, a place of commerce in both people and goods, here serves both as metaphor and as real site of human connection and consumption. Curator Manuela Moscoso's commitment to interrogating the past is particularly striking—and necessary—in light of recent policy moves by the British government to hamstring museums and other cultural organizations in reckoning with the colonial violence embedded in their collections. The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, currently making its way through the UK legislature, proposes harsh penalties for those enacting “criminal damage” on a memorial, ignoring the real criminal damage done by those enshrined in stone that has gone without retribution or reparation. Rashid Johnson’s Stacked Heads (2020) look over Canning Dock in a parody of the arrogant gaze given to statues of slaveowners like Edward Colston, toppled last year from his plinth in Bristol. One wonders whether these faces would be as fiercely protected by the British government.

The Biennial is at its most illuminating in flashes of pointed confrontation with Liverpool’s historical connection to the slave trade. Lamin Fofana’s sonorous composition Life and Death by Water (2021), playing on the second floor of the old Lewis’s Department Store, offers one such moment. Inspired by M. NourbeSe Philip’s poem cycle ZONG! (2008) and the writing of W. E. B. DuBois, the installation layers recordings of the city, archival material, and newly produced sounds atop one another in a room perfumed by a sharp, salty scent and shot with beams of blue light. The impression given is of walking into waves, as though the River Mersey, just visible from the window, has swallowed the space. It is a surprisingly subtle act of retribution, and eerie too: the ghosts of murdered slaves are invoked in this building itself haunted by commodities—personified-objects and objectified-people refracted through the wake of industrial and imperial capitalism.

Against this traumatic backdrop, “The Stomach and the Port” also provides pockets of much-needed joy. To watch the almost pornographic ecstasy of plant-human love in Zheng Bo’s Pteridophilia (showing at FACT) is to feel the euphoria of connection to unimagined communities beyond binaries and borders.11
Zheng Bo’s Pteridophilia was reviewed by Pedro Neves Marques for art-agenda: https://www.art-agenda.com/features/340292/zheng-bo-s-the-soft-and-weak-are-companions-of-life.
Likewise, Camille Henrot’s surreal sculptures in the basement of the Lewis’s Building—like campy genderqueer Henry Moores—provide a burst of levity (quite literally: I was not the only one surprised by the jet of steam escaping Iron Deficiency, 2021).

But where does this discharge go? Like the steam condensing, it is recycled back into the same ecosystem. Here, the line between the stomach’s “digestion” and absolute assimilation is fine. Hard to ignore is the fact that in galleries, biennials and fairs, viewers are consumers of art—a subject position that is strangely literalized in Liverpool due to the choice of the cosmetics shop Lush as a venue, with works displayed on the top floor above the shop and spa. Despite the Biennial’s commentary on the historical exploitation and environmental degradation caused by trade in the repurposing of Lewis’s and the Cotton Exchange, this location (and the brand’s festival sponsorship) produces strange incongruities that dampen the force of this criticism. In leaving the vicinity of Ayesha Hameed’s newly commissioned, devastating sound installation, I sing of the sea I am mermaid of the trees (2021), and descending past Lush’s in-shop spa on the floor below, the work’s guttural birdsong—a motif that speaks to the violence embedded in colonial control of communications infrastructure—is overtaken by the store’s own sugary sweet twittering soundtrack.

Porosity and interdependence are concepts predicated on power disparities. Watching David Zink Yi’s 2009 video Horror Vacui in the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Building (previously the Albert Dock Traffic Office, now owned by the International Slavery Museum) several instances emerge in which the onscreen performers are uncomfortably framed: Black women reduced to dancing torsos, drummers visible only as disembodied hands. In the absence of narrative agency or collective authorship, works like Horror Vacui and Laura Huertas Millán’s Jíibie (2019) risk tipping into ethnographic illustration. Framed by those curatorial buzzwords of skin, stomachs, and kinship networks, the represented bodies become subject to mechanistic readings, their biology and needs abstracted from their lives: a divorce that potentially reinscribes the thingification of people and the environment under capitalism and colonialism.

Repairing this rift is the substance of Black Obsidian Sound System’s (B.O.S.S.) The Only Good System is a Sound System. The installation reworks the group’s 2019 film Collective Hum, expanding it to occupy the whole ground-floor gallery at FACT. Multiple monitors are mounted on curved black dividers which guard the work’s core: a column of speakers upon which spot-lit pans of water vibrate. Entering the installation is an act of reorientation—viewers become listeners, using their ears and body to find space in the dark room. This sensorial shift marks a re-enchantment of a cultural production and community consistently devalued by white British society; the voices pumped through the gallery relate tales of finding release in the communal resilience provided by music.

B.O.S.S’s elaboration of a previous work can be seen as an act of resistance itself: an attempt to disrupt the cycle of extractive and exploitative practices where “Black, brown, working-class, disabled, queer bodies are desirable, quickly dispensable, but never sustainably cared for.” But as the collective’s statement in response to their nomination for the Turner Prize (from which this quotation is taken) demonstrates, such attempts may end up simply being more fodder to be digested by the machine. Visibility of marginalized bodies is no guarantee of structural change.

The works in the Biennial deserve to be seen, but to celebrate its vision enthusiastically is to accept a bar that has been set far too low. “The Stomach & The Port” does little to challenge the wider ways in which such a festival is implicated in the systems it critiques, with the curatorial team unwilling (or unable) to push the boundaries of what is possible within the framework of a biennial. This is not easily done, but the exhibition must be judged on its own ambitious terms. Perhaps with greater interrogation of its funding models, a more judicious choice of partners, and increased transparency, the Liverpool Biennial could have avoided undermining its own proclaimed vision. “The Stomach & The Port” has heart, but it could have had more guts.