The quality of Mersey

As a glamorous backdrop for a European biennial of contemporary art, Liverpool on the river Mersey comes second only to Venice. Both are old ports with a city fabric reflecting a great imperial past. Both boast solid public museums – in Liverpool, the dockside Tate, plus that lovely Victorian time-warp, the Walker Art Gallery – offset by a quirky art scene. Both strive to prevent historic grandeur overwhelming contemporary offerings.

Liverpool 2012 has lost that battle at the off. Its highlight is architectural: the brief unprecedented opening as an art venue of the Cunard Building, one of the “Three Graces” lining the city’s waterfront. Never mind that the work here is so vapid that the place looks empty: a gaggle of hand-painted “To Let” signs by collective Superflex; artist Andrea Bowers’ poster for the asylum seekers’ charity “City of Sanctuary”, hanging forlornly among towering marble columns and brilliant glass and mirrors.

The squandered opportunity is the Cunard’s gain; we get an untrammelled view of a defiant first world war masterpiece that revels in its twin allusions to Italian Renaissance palaces and New York beaux-arts constructions, and still evokes poignant moments – here, travellers purchased their (often one-way) passages across the Atlantic. “The Unexpected Guest”, Liverpool’s theme this year, refers to such passengers plus many other visitors, historic and contemporary. Unexpected, however, the art is not.

The congregation of visa-seekers in Nadia Kaabi-Linke’s short film “NO”, chanting replies to a disembodied voice singing absurd, regulatory questions, installed in a Cunard back-office; the mock-activist urging Jews to return to Poland in the first instalment of Yael Bartana’s trilogy “And Europe Will be Stunned”; the antics of Elmgreen & Dragset, a door in Liverpool’s shopping centre manned by a bouncer who denies you entry (“But I’m on the Guest List Too!”) – all deliver the worthy pieties about global belonging that make biennials the world over such predictable, identikit experiences. (Bartana’s film was on show in Venice last year.)

Animal visitors are no exception: the exterior of the Walker is decked out with some hundred life-size brightly coloured model pigeons – an installation with which Patrick Murphy “examines social order and society, and communities that find themselves in a state of constant flight”.

The most original, frightening guest here is cellular: the body as devastated host to the Aids virus, depicted in the multiply-layered, elaborately manipulated, disturbingly lush photograms of Mark Morrisroe, who created them from X-rays of his own body in a makeshift dark room in the hospital where he died, aged 30, in 1989. Lungs and skulls in lurid pop-art hues, the body as a place at once of hazy, fleeting illusion and rough, dark reality – Morrisroe looks back to the expressive self-examination of Egon Schiele, shares an informal, psychologically probing aesthetic with fellow Boston-trained friends Nan Goldin and Philip-Lorca diCorcia, and is the discovery of this biennial.

Mark Morrisroe’s ‘Untitled’ (c 1987)

Morrisroe is on display at the excellent Open Eye Gallery, which also shows Kohei Yoshiyuki’s photographic series “The Park” (1979) – grainy but elegantly composed nocturnes focused on voyeurs watching sexually active couples, straight and gay, in Tokyo’s Shinjuku and Yoyogi parks. Yoshiyuki, with a concealed camera, joined the pack of voyeurs – and so must we. Each visitor to the show is equipped with a small black torch and ushered into a pitch-black gallery, where we stalk our prey on the walls. “I wanted people to look at the body an inch at a time,” Yoshiyuki explained. Although the crisp images recall 18th-century ukiyo-e woodcuts of voyeurs and participants, their underlying subject – boundaries of privacy; how voyeurism drives photography – remains engaging now.

Not so most of the pieces at Tate’s “Thresholds”, a presentation of recent acquisitions loosely relating to the unexpected guest theme. Sophie Calle’s “The Hotel”, which is also about voyeurism, is a dismal bore. Mark Titchner’s agitprop posters are Gilbert & George wannabes. However, Martin Parr’s nostalgic, satiric, generous photographic dissection of global tourism – close-up dissolving ice creams, Costa del Sol panoramas studded with peseta price labels – is hard to resist. Meanwhile, Kader Attia’s immaculate model reconstruction of the Algerian city of Ghardaïa made out of couscous is a delightful riff on the influence of the colonised on the coloniser.

The increasing convergence of art and architecture today is inescapable. Liverpool houses a new commission by Doug Aitken in David Adjaye’s circular wooden pavilion, specially designed to resonate with Aitken’s film. Sadly, this double venture flops: Aitken’s simultaneously screened films discussing creativity with figures including Tilda Swinton, Mike Kelley, William Eggleston, is a self-indulgent Tower of Babel, shrivelled by theory and vanity.

The pavilion stands on Tate’s doorstep, its weakness exposed by the context of Tate’s superb Turner Monet Twombly exhibition – not part of the biennial but, by force of quality and the intense engagement between history and modernity in such works by Twombly as the sweeping, violent “Camino Reale”, an inescapable, lofty presence throughout.

Painting is the truly unexpected guest at 21st-century biennials. A well-loved feature of Liverpool is the annual John Moores Painting Prize, a pleasingly, reliably chaotic installation that nevertheless illustrates evolving trends or retrenchments. Here, those include moves back to geometric abstraction and away from the human figure, which features in only six works. One is 2012 winner Sarah Pickstone’s large-scale but timidly illustrational “Stevie Smith and the Willow”; it left me cold, though judge George Shaw, whose paintings I admire, praised its “gesture of doomed romance” evoking Ophelia, Actaeon and death “lurking in each corner”.

For painterly bravura, a feathery yet rigorous small cream-grey abstraction by Laura Lancaster – who works by distorting figurative found images – stands out. I also admired Wayne Clough’s miniaturist “Down the Acapulco”: an eerily still grisaille of firemen in a derelict cityscape, in tempera on paper, framed in a box like a vintage photograph, and contrasting evocations of time in painting versus photography. Both artists are new to me: pockets of commitment and seriousness like these, amid swaths of banality, are why Liverpool survives, and lures us back for the next time.

Liverpool Biennial, to November 25,

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