Beautiful World, Where are You?
The 30,000 Minton tiles of St George’s Hall in Liverpool, one of the most spectacular surviving Victorian floors, are usually far too good for everyday use. But the covers will come off for nine days in August, as the city gets some of its greatest treasures out of storage to celebrate the Biennial arts festival.
Other eclectic treasures include “Waterloo teeth”, the Allerton oak, believed to be about 1,000 years old; centuries of art treasures from the Walker Gallery, from Giovanni Bellini to David Hockney; the civic silver collection including a mace once part of the regalia of Charles II; and the Central Library’s precious copy of Audubon’s Birds of America, one of only 120 elephant folio copies in the world.
One object that has been on display since it was acquired by the Liverpool Museum – now rebranded the World Museum – more than a century ago is the Haida pole from Canada, a remarkable survivor. It was too tall and heavy to shift when other objects from the collection were moved to safe storage during the second world war, and it survived the fire caused by an incendiary bomb that destroyed the gallery around it, sustaining only minor shrapnel damage.
Sally Tallant, the director of the Biennial, said the collections, which tell “the story of Liverpool as a port city, its great prosperity, its post-industrial decline and its post-colonial histories”, had helped inspire the theme of the Liverpool Biennial 2018, which opens on 14 July.
At St George’s, the 42 metres by 22 metres floor, featuring the famous Liver birds and other heraldic aspects of the city’s coat of arms, as well as a dizzying array of other imagery, was the largest in the world when the Grade I-listed hall was built in the 1840s. The dazzling floor remained on permanent view for only another 20 years, when it was covered over to provide a less vulnerable surface for dancing. The result is that while the tiles around the edge are worn and their original brilliant colours dulled, the central section is in pristine condition.
Since the last major restoration work on the hall, the floor has only been on display on seven occasions. This time, the city’s official historian, Steve Binns, is coming out of retirement to give talks and lead tours.
The 10th Liverpool Biennial, the largest contemporary art festival in the UK, takes its ominous title, Beautiful World, Where are You? from an 18th-century poem by Friedrich Schiller, given a contemporary frisson by political, environmental and economic turmoil in so many countries.
Tallant has said she began thinking of this shadowed programme during the 2016 festival, which opened just after the vote for Brexit. “Depending on your point of view, the world began to collapse into a new chaotic order,” she added.
The programme is always strikingly international and multicultural, but the 2018 event has deliberately cast its net even wider. The programme includes working in venues including the city’s museum and galleries, civic spaces and universities – including the 90-year-old film director Agnès Varda, .
“Any incoherence is part of the narrative,” Talland said when she introduced the programme.