Times Literary Supplement 22 October 2002
Hugo Williams

Off to Liverpool, where my daughter is working on the ephemeral tabloid Independent Eye, about the second Liverpool Biennial. She has left a list of things worth seeing at the Biennial, but mostly I follow my nose into whatever warehouse, school hall or deconsecrated church has the Biennial flag hanging outside. In the Church of St Peter is a group show called "To the Glory of God: New religious art", with contributions from Sebastian Horseley and David Medalla, among others. Wasn't it Horseley who had himself (non-fatally) crucified in the Philippines recently? There is a film loop of someone writhing on a cross, but it isn't him, it's another artist, Mat Collishaw. Perhaps they know one another.

From cod crucifixion to the real thing. I walk steadily uphill, keeping Liverpool Cathedral in the sights of ruined brick terraces, until they suddenly stand back and there it is, almost a caricature of towering impressiveness, "one of the great buildings of the world", according to John Betjeman. Begun in 1904 and finished in 1978, it was designed by Giles Gilbert Scott, designer of the red telephone boxes and grandson of the St Pancras Station Gilbert Scott. Simultaneously simplified and exaggerated, its modernized Gothic stuns you with its reticence, then withdraws to a vast distance above your head.

Outside, piles of concrete luggage on Hope Street make an obvious memorial to Liverpool's past. I duck down a side street to the defunct Pleasant Street Board Primary School, which has been given the full postmodern conceptual makeover, complete with vandalized offices and burnt-out school bus. One classroom, by Michael Ming Hong Lin, has a film of someone reading Robinson Crusoe to rows of tiny empty chairs, while a giant luminous potato sheds light on an empty reading room.

Two of my favourite things in the Biennial are by Japanese men. "Dwelling" by Hiraki Sawa at the Bloomberg New Contemporaries, a slow-motion, black-and white digital animation video of airliners cruising peacefully round the artist's flat, and "Villa Victoria" by Tatsuro Bashi, the sensation of the season. Bashi built a four-star hotel room, complete with room service, around the statue of Queen Victoria in Derby Square. For £90, visitors can spend the night with the middle-aged monarch, who nevertheless averts her eyes from the bed. "The viewer no longer has to 'look up' to the sovereign image, so that an act of democratization occurs", simpers the keen-to-be-correct note, but actually all kinds of perceptual slippages occur, almost by accident, which seems to suggest that money can make good jokes in the right (Japanese) hands. This is a claim which cannot be made for the winner of the John Moores Painting Competition at the Walker, a big daubed obscenity by a consortium called Bank. The competition is known to be jealous of the celebrity surrounding the Turner Prize and on the wall hangs an announcement castigating conceptual art as "subsidized show business" and mocking a recent piece which used the phrase "mis-spelt youth" -glass-house talk, in the circumstances.

Rainy art pilgrimages aren't my torture of choice, but luckily the Adelphi is home to the alternative Fringe programme called the "aconvention", which is at least indoors. The Adelphi, like most of Liverpool, was built for giants. The central convention hall, like something from 1950s Helsinki, is ice-rink-proportioned, with boardrooms leading off it which would be ballrooms anywhere else. In one of them, a young man called Tom McCarthy sits back in his chair and zaps his audience with a talk on the "International Necronautical Society" and "death as a form of space exploration". He is good and obviously enjoying the synapses of his fertile imagination as they project him from Melville to Aeschylus to the Kipper Kids. But it is hard to keep up with Rilke's terrifying Duino angels as Trade Center artists and/or Trojan Horse terrorists, even if the rap is delivered with a welter of modestly questioning, upwardly rising terminals. "We're interested in non-places?", he asks likeably. "Airports, supermarkets, aeroplanes, places of transport and leisure, which are the opposite of their utopias?" At question time, I ask why he is saying "we" and "us" all the time, when art is a matter of individual experience: was it an audience alienation device? I am so shocked by the sound of my own voice that I don't listen when he answers, but a woman next to me nods vehemently as he speaks and, turning to me, explains that we are old, this is the new thing, collective expression, group art. She squeezes my hand in a "you'll get over it" way.

Afterwards, McCarthy thanked me for my "question". What they were trying to do, he said, was use the metaphor of the avant-garde as a procedural structure, "a theatrical recreation, if you like". To my surprise, he says we have met before, when he was fifteen, at a dinner of his mother's. The two of them had driven me home afterwards and we'd run over a cat. I vaguely recalled the incident, but the future pilot of the International Necronautical Society remembered vividly how the poor animal had shot up into the air in the headlights.

The weekend was characterized by varieties of crossover, not to say chaos . . . and always the map with some streets not marked, the big show that has just closed, the hold-all to be held on to like a lifeline, occasional glimpses of my daughter, windswept with deadlines. I would like to have caught the Fashion Installation Unveiling, but it didn't matter because Confetti magazine was having a fashion show in the main hall and we were welcome to stand around and gawp as brides and grooms came and went on the catwalk. The suggestions for underwear more than made up for the exhibition of bespoke painted corsets by acclaimed contemporary artists. A performance by "The Order of the Golden Dolphin" at the aconvention might almost have been a presentation in the main hall. Two German girls in dolphin costumes intended to set up a global community of "Dolphins" within about three weeks, they said, and invited us all to join them at the Golden Dolphin Villa in the Dominican Republic.

Leaving the aconvention, I passed through the main hall again, where a reunion of the Royal Army Ordnance Corps was now in progress -big chaps with medals drinking sherry. I picked up a copy of their Gazette and read about "Remembrance Sunday", "Where are they now?", "The Visit by the Princess Royal", "Gallantry Medallists League". Items for sale included RAOC ties (polyester) £7, Officers Club Ties (silk) £13 and Guided Missile Company ties (polyester), only £3.

Was the 9/11 symposium the same thing as the William Burroughs seance? I remember a picture of the plume of smoke over Manhattan, visible from space, showing up on someone's laptop, Fabian Thomsett asking vainly: "How can I make my behaviour so that the war against terrorism doesn't happen?" Did I imagine him suggesting that the Bali bomb might be an American conspiracy to galvanize public opinion for the war? The art-versus-morality dichotomy was never so frightening.