Bristol Biennial Round Up

This September I was swept up willingly by the Bristol Biennial’s prolific programme of performance, visual art and that which crosses the lines. Due to spanish lessons and camping trips i didn’t see IT ALL, so i’m going to write about what i did see… which was quite A LOT.

(Apologies in advance for a torrent of misused punctuation and spelling mistakes, i’m going to type fast!)

So, it all started with the neon sign I’M STAYING! (by Shaun C Badham) that moved from being a high beacon on the top of Arnolfini looking over the harbour to being a close low glowing warmth transforming the Folk House courtyard. This piece is interesting by how it is shaped by its location. Often a sign is what defines the locations, that is its purpose, but with this sign the roles are reversed. The combination of the specifics of architecture, space, view point, proximity re-frame and re-phrase the sign – and its exciting because this will happen every time. For me, its all about switching it on, the event-ness of turning on a light mirrors other small scale celebratory moments, like the candles on a birthday cake, everyone gathers round to cheer at the right moment. Celebrating a collective achievement with lights!


The first weekend was dominated by the force of the IPA (International Performance Association) Boot Camp co-hosted with The Island. This saw an exciting group of young live artists travel to Bristol for a weekend of workshops. The public elements were a forum and an evening of performance take-over. The forum is only of interest to industry professionals so I wont go into it, apart from that it was incredibly ambitious but a good room of people and conversation. The takeover on the other hand dug up some really exciting thoughts for me, through witnessing great live art rather than talking about it – proves the ever important ethos of art practice > Just do it! The complete gem of the takeover was the durational pieces in the cells (beautiful white tiled prison cells complete with metal toilet and in-built bed). Down a dark corridor are three doors, each open to reveal the white cell. In each cell is a woman – more specifically, there is a vocal chord and a diaphragm in one, fingers folding in another, feet and eyes in the last. Each performer had outstanding attention to there task, so much so that they almost become this concentrated body part that is delivering the task. The result was mesmerising, each piece visually composed and physically raw – trembling ankles, closed eyes, quite attention. Clusters of spectators gathered around the open doors, there faces illuminated by the light and their eyes wide, filled with emotion and gratitude for this live gift. The images they created burned onto my retina, imprinting their controlled and politicised body in my mind.

For me the takeover reignited live art, and I understood the practice again as a dedication to form and the power of the performed body – rather than a specific atmosphere, which has been clouding the work for me previously, maybe due to how it can be communicated. This take over highlighted a youthful culture of European live artists, who i would recommend looking into.


During this weekend I was also introduced to the work of Alexander Stevenson via outdoor performance Chimera. Viewed from the Clifton Suspension Bridge through monoculars (given as a gift to each spectator) we witnessed new wild creatures emerge along the banks of the Gorge. A fantastic merge of rogue climber and ancient wildebeest, the creatures had tails of climbing rope, harnessed neon bodies andwicker heads and hands, one even had impressive curled feet and huge cumbersome wings. The creatures scurried about, baffling close by cyclists as we witnessed from far and high accompanied by a kind-of ramblers group leader who spouted words on wilderness interestingly grander than the words you would expect from such a man – the words on the human psyche in relation to wilderness drifted over the imagery, creating a kind of radio soundtrack that you tuned in and out of. I thought this piece stood out as a real experiment in costume, landscape and performance and how all those elements can create an experience appropriate for reflecting on wildness.

The next piece of work I was fortunate to encounter was Manufactured Britishness, a film and short talk from artist Kristina Cranfeld. It was held at Loft 6D – a super new and energetic artist-led space by collective Lacruna Crux, who are being innovative and dedicated to the transformation and organisation ofthis new studio/exhibition warehouse. It felt really cool to be there, basically. The film was a brilliant and beautiful physicalisation of the British citizenship test, creating bizarre imagery in abandoned landscapes (old manufacturing sites no longer in use). The whole film and talk generated a passionate discussion on the banality of citzenship, presenting it as a fiction being crudely manufactured by operations such as the Britsih Citzenship test. The artist spoke about her own experiences of becoming a British Citizen, explaining it as an all or nothing situation due to being part Russian. The greater question of nationality/identity is being investigated thoroughly by artists, its a really potent topic that is currently so important to expand.


A mid-week treat was then had by Interval’s own Massive Owl and their performance ‘We used to wait’. This piece has some excellent material, that is so delicately woven together, the simplest change completely re-writes it. For those interested in themagical possibility of minimalist action – this is a winner! The piece is driven by a want/need to be present, to stay present with people, in a place and to recognise this. And instead of describing each way they did this, I will simply say that I was there, I was present, so were they, I met Ellie; the girl in the row opposite me, we ended up doing a conga-line around the space (initiated by an audience member). So, really you had to be there…

On the final weekend I lapped up the exhibitions, one of which stood out. Temporary Sculptures for Beijing Apartments by Nanna Lysholt Hansen was elegantly placed at the alter of a hidden Bristol church. An octagonal seat was surrounded by TV screens, these screens showing hour long videos of the artist holding a classic sculpture (think roman) pose on a filing cabinet, or sofa, or hunched into the top corner of the dining room as the inhabitants continue their daily lives. There was something fascinating about a white western woman standing naked in an oriental work/living space trying to be an anonymous decorative art object. It was a little humorous, it was visually interesting, and it started to unravel something for me about the female body, beauty, grandeur, cultural difference in art… its not the kind of work you leave with a ‘oh its about this..’, instead it forms a new curiosity.


My last day was a sunny sunday in St Andrews Park, around 2pm two interesting characters entered casually, Grass Men by Ashley Peevor. The Grass Men are completely covered in real grass, with small flaps to see…just about! They bare resemblance to a big foot, large, furry/grassy, slow moving and generally really relaxed. The reaction from the park was joyful, a stream of ‘Theres two of them!’ echo’ed down the hill, people felt compelled to hug them – the Grass Men hilariously not that into hugs, but politely stood for photographs. It was when the children spotted them that things started to feel a bit wild. I thought it must be so terrifying to be dressed in a full grass outfit and through the blades see hoards of children sprint towards you screaming. The Grass Men gave that park a little gift of the absurd. There was an atmosphere of; sooo, what are they going to do then…waiting for a pose, or a dance, or a something! But like real men they just came to hang out, it just so happened they were made of grass.

So, this is a swift round up to share my experiences with those who couldn’t make it and to congratulate the Biennial on giving Bristol such a generous helping of genuinely interesting, exciting and ambitious ART.

Over and out,

Hannah Sullivan

Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s