Art: Yoko is shocking the city

    Ladettes are playing it for laughs. Not all of it is on target, but there’s a lot to like about the Liverpool Biennial, says Waldemar Januszczak

    Ono has flooded the city centre with two images: one of a woman’s naked breast, the other of her pudenda. The two images flutter everywhere from banners and shout at you from carrier bags and badges. There’s a huge one in front of a church and another at the airport. They are simple, sweet and very innocent, a timbre that she emphasises by adding the words “My Mummy Was Beautiful” to them, thereby making of them a testament to the instinctive biological love that a baby feels for its mother.

    As always with Ono’s art, a simple act has become a radical one. In particular, her decision to turn the main shopping street of Liverpool into a long parade of naked breasts feels distinctly prickly. We may be bombarded by sexualised imagery during every minute of our daily media lives, but in-yer-face giant breasts, un-airbrushed and close up, prove absurdly discomforting. I spent some of my evening hours in Liverpool listening to the radio, and the talk everywhere was of Ono’s city-centre bits. Heavens, how everyone was annoyed by them. But what with the city being a cultural capital and all, what with the new airport being called John Lennon Airport and all, what with the picture being a tribute to John’s “mummy” and all (Ono’s political masterstroke was to dedicate the piece to Lennon), the angry scousers had no choice but to take it up the rear channel from Ono and her art. Which gives us a result, I suggest, of Liverpool 0, Yoko Ono 10.

    Ono’s breasts are part of the section of the biennial that calls itself the International. The International is the event’s main show, and bits of it can be found scattered all around the city, as well as in the chief galleries. Apart from Ono, most of the artists involved are encouragingly obscure. One of the things I really like about the Liverpool Biennial is its refusal to parade before us the same fashionable inter- national favourites who pop up in all the other biennials. Experiencing this show involves relentless exploration: traipsing around the city and getting to know its faraway corners, including the poor and subfusc ones.

    Somewhat perversely, the International’s main theme is Liverpool itself. All the artists are supposed to be responding to an aspect of the city. Thus, Ono’s dedication of her breasts to John Lennon’s mother. Predictably, lots of works in the show concern themselves with Liverpool’s disgusting role in the slave trade. But this institutional navel-gazing quickly feels awkward. It’s like me inviting people round to my place to talk about me. Thankfully, some of the artists have chosen to interpret the leaden theme less leadenly than others. Turning a corner at Pier Head, I was amused to find Abba’s Dancing Queen blaring out of a bright red Scandinavian village house erected on the banks of the Mersey by Peter Johansson. Slap in the middle of Gerry and the Pacemakers country, Abba are taking on the Beatles, and a set of Scandinavian clichés is taking on a set of scouse ones.

    Elsewhere, in an urban stretch undergoing trendification at an alarming lick, Paolo Canevari has suspended a bomb above the street, in reference, I read, to the 870 tonnes of high explosives dropped on Liverpool in May 1941. Canevari has called his work Seed. His piece is about the fertility of ruins and the regeneration of Liverpool, topics that badly need addressing here. Looking up at one city-centre crossing, I saw a pair of underpants stuck onto an old statue: they were advertising Liverpool as the 2008 European Capital of Culture. Sticking underpants onto a statue isn’t a display of culture. It’s evidence of a distressing lack of culture.

    I went up to the Anglican cathedral to see a rather moving sculpture made from battered old coats donated by the equally bombed-out people of Cologne, and noted that there is a debate coming up in the cathedral entitled: “Can culture regenerate cities?” On the evidence I encountered around Liverpool, the answer is: no. What’s certainly being generated here is grotesque marketing and trendy bars. With the overkill for the Capital of Culture already making the place look like a sticker-plastered racing car, 2008 is to be feared, not awaited. Thus, the most pertinent of the exhibits included in Tate Liverpool’s generally disappointing contribution to the International is a hilarious Monopoly-style board game, devised by Thailand’s Navin Rawanchaikul, called How to Be a Successful Curator. Set in 2054, in a fictitious Liverpool Biennial of the future, the wickedly accurate art-game tests a player’s ability to replace real cultural values with trite marketing ones. The underpants would certainly have been a winning move.

    Overall, the standard of the contributions to the Inter- national has dropped from the last biennial. The whole thing has an underfunded look to it. Even Ono’s unmissable event consists, in the end, of a set of posters and no more. But the biennial’s outer reaches remain fun to explore. Rampant gentrification may be turning Liverpool into somewhere just like everywhere else, but the process is hardly complete. I particularly enjoyed the Independent, a kind of official fringe located in some scarily decrepit warehouses set back from the Mersey, which, judging by what’s happened to the spots where the Independent was located in previous years, some canny developer must be buying up even as I write.

    One of Britain’s more useful exhibitions is located in this grubby Independent sector. New Contemporaries, which has been going for decades, selects the liveliest graduates from the current crop of art-school students. It’s a kind of junior Wimbledon for Brit Artists. Usually disappointing, the show manages this time to be lippy and fresh, with notably snappy contributions from its ladettes. Oriana Fox produces amusing takeoffs of Sex and the City, in which she gets to play all the female roles. Sarah Gilder gives us a surreally impoverished Baywatch, where a woman in a swimming costume bathes suggestively in the water splashed up from the kerbside by passing lorries. Nicky Magliulo unveils Elton John Is a ****, a poolside scene featuring a sunbathing hunk who belts out an inappropriate version of I Guess That’s Why They Call It the Blues. I suppose Nicky Magliulo is a woman: the name is unspecific. But the piece seems to be about blokes and their delusions.

    There are lots of jokes in New Contemporaries, but none at all in the show next door. Jump Ship Rat is the most affecting thing I saw in the biennial. It features the sad, strained, weird world-view of a group of artists from Colombia. Wilson Diaz deposits us in the Colombian jungle, where we spend time with anti-government guerrillas, some of whom shouldn’t even be at secondary school yet, let alone in the rebel ranks, toting AK-47s. Think of a social problem and Colombia has it. Plus plenty you could never imagine. Among Jose Alejandro Restrepo’s monumentally strange video shorts was one about self-harming followers of Jesus who attach lorries to their naked bodies with hooks, then drag them up hills.

    The final part of the biennial jigsaw is the 23rd round of the John Moores exhibition at the Walker Art Gallery. Supposedly a search for the best painting in Britain, the John Moores must be doing something very wrong to come up with a selection as lacking in lustre as this. With £25,000 on offer to the best work in the show, you would have imagined that all the nation’s liveliest painters would be submitting here. But they clearly haven’t. No Glenn Brown, no Yuko Shiraishi, no Gary Hume. If these people are not sending in paintings, or, worse, not getting through the selection process, then something needs changing.