Bristol Biennial Review


Written by Becky Black
06 Monday 06th October 2014

This exciting move towards internationalism was reflected in the programme for the Bristol Biennal, which, in its second year, was already boasting work from as far away as Denmark, Norway and North America, as well as work by more local artists. The diverse programme included everything from performance pieces and film showings to traditional art exhibitions, but it was clear that the emphasis lay on performance and immersive projects.

The quality of the events I attended was so high that it left me in no doubt as to the importance of the festival. It was obvious that the organisers were keen on quality over quantity, with each event only being offered to a small audience at a time. Each event had a feeling of real intimacy, with the performers and artists showing that they were really focused on the experience of the individual.

The first event which I attended was Holly Corfield Carr’s MINE, which was both fascinating and moving. With each performance, 6 guests were invited to take a lantern outside Goldney Hall in Clifton, at which point we were then guided through the beautiful gardens of the house towards a mysterious looking cave. Inside we found the stunning Goldney Grotto, Bristol’s best kept secret and possibly the most intriguing find of my two years in Bristol. Built by Thomas Goldney in the mid 18th century, Corfield Carr explained through poetic language how the glistening grotto, covered in shells, quartz and crystals, was essentially funded by the slave trade. A bittersweet feeling was evoked by her revealing of the city’s dark past, in contrast with the beauty of the grotto. Corfield Carr also explored themes of time, loss and mortality through her poetry. It was a haunting experience that left me desperate to find out more about the grotto. 

Next, I went to watch performance collective Massive Owl’s piece, ‘We Used To Wait’. Well, I say ‘went to watch’, but it was a much more immersive experience, not for those who fear audience participation. Seated in a circle, the audience were invited to consider what it means to be ‘live’ and present together in an increasingly digital world. The title of the piece references a (brilliant) song by Arcade Fire, which has a similar message. The song, like the piece, considers the speeded up pace of modern life and hopes desperately that ‘something pure can last’. The piece cleverly makes us consider how to reconnect with each other in the modern world by celebrating simple gestures such as holding someone’s hand or even just greeting them. By the end of the piece, strangers were dancing with each other, the barriers of awkwardness having completely collapsed. It was a strangely uplifting experience with a message that is more relevant than ever.

Lastly, I went to take part in ‘HUG’, a performance piece which had already received excellent reviews, having been shown in the Wardrobe Theatre earlier in the year. With less than 20 audience members invited to each showing, ‘Hug’ is by far the most intimate theatrical experience I have ever had. The piece began with us being led into a dark room, where we were instructed to blindfold ourselves. Next, a wave of singing took hold of the room; before long, I felt myself being guided from my chair into the arms of a strange man who held me closely whilst singing gently into my ear. It was a strange experience but also a powerful one; the combined sensations of feeling his breath on my neck and his body vibrate as he sung was both comforting and intense. Not being able to see heightened all the sensations and served as a reminder of the unique power of the human voice. When it was over, it felt strange; the empty room showed no signs of the event that had just taken place. It was as if it had vanished into thin air, a fleeting moment that cannot be replicated.

Bristol certainly deserves its reputation as a cutting edge, boundary-pushing city of the arts. Nothing about any of these events was tame or safe. All were genuinely thought- provoking, some even startling. If you missed the Biennal this year, you will have to wait patiently for 2016 to roll around - but until then, there’s no time like the present to start enjoying the vibrant arts scene that Bristol has to offer. It can be found all over the city!   


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