ARTS: God Is in the Details ; in a Deconsecrated Liverpudlian Church, WILL SELF (Left) Discovers a Rare Moment of Joy. Does That Mean This Year's Biennial Festival Is Providing Divine Inspiration?
Self, Will, The Independent (London, England)
Neal Brown, a lugubrious presence at the best of times, is sitting picking at a vegetarian chow mein in a restaurant on Brook Street in Liverpool's Chinatown. It's pretty unfair of the curator of an exhibition of New Religious Art to insist on dining at this establishment - given that he's a rabid vegetarian. But then Brown, whatever his other foibles, has never been anything but uncompromising, and just as he urges the "white pig skin", which is the restaurant's speciality, on his reluctant guest, so he's prepared to urge his concept of the divine on the visitors to Liverpool's second artistic biennial.
Brown himself is a believer, albeit of a peculiar stripe. "I only think God is joy," he tells me, "that's all, nothing fancy, nothing organised, nothing intellectualised, merely the little moments of joy that we can experience in life." Personally, I find Brown's theology of joy a little difficult to take, as I've known the artist and curator for some 16 years and I've never seen him take much pleasure in anything. If you observe his collapsed souffle of a countenance with great attention, while relating to him a particularly amusing incident, you might just notice a little moue of wry amusement - but that's about it.
Still, there's nothing that joyful about contemporary Liverpool, so in a sense Brown is the perfect man to bring a concept of the divine down to the ground of this benighted burgh. Like Zeus impregnating a raddled maiden in the form of a shower of gold, Brown's patron for this exhibition has been James Moores, a scion of the Merseyside Pools fortunes. The Moores family are responsible for numerous arts benefactions hereabouts, and through his A Foundation, Moores is one of the prime movers in the Biennial. There's a certain symmetry about this, and symmetry is one of the emergent aspects of contemporary art that Brown is keen to identify as evidence of transcendental preoccupation. After all, the Moores's fortune was, arguably, built on a kind of magical thinking - if I look hard enough into the future I can see those score draws - and now, this levy on credulousness pays, in part, for organised suspensions of disbelief.
Since its inception in 1999, the Biennial has proved another lopsided addition to the topsy-turvy world of Liverpool. Brown told me of an opening speech given by a city councillor for the first Biennial, throughout which he referred to it as the "bi-anal".
But this isn't altogether a malapropism: as far as the Liverpudlians are concerned, most of the exhibitions are a load of shit. Besides, it's taken another three years for this loose agglomeration of artistic events to be staged again, and during that time the city's attitude towards the arty-farty interlopers from down south hasn't by any means improved.
It's difficult to imagine that even the biggest and most socially cohesive of art exhibitions could truly have an impact on the social and economic devastation of inner-city Liverpool. There may be the odd trendy bar and designer emporium, but what strikes the art tourist are the burnt- out hulks of houses and commercial premises abutting even city centre properties. At night, in the shadowy concrete cleavage between the twin peaks of the city's cathedrals, tracksuited wraiths flit hither and thither, emphasising the fact that this is a dark star of a metropolis, winnowed out by the loss of its traditional industries. The population of metropolitan Liverpool has more than halved in the last half century, and you feel this as you wander through its echoing thoroughfares and traverse the scrubby patches where old buildings have been razed, but no new ones raised.
What better place for Brown's menhir of postmodernism to instantiate? Like the creativity-enhancing, monolithic slab in 2001: a Space Odyssey (itself the locus classicus of Modernism), To the Glory of God: New Religious Art is a white, plaster pillar, 30ft high, which fills the crepuscular core of a deconsecrated Georgian Catholic church on Seel Street, just around the corner from where the curator and I face off over the pig skin. …