ZANG TUMMM TUMB ARTICLES “the first draft of history”

The quality of Mersey

Liverpool Biennial/International 2002, various venues (0151 709 7444), until 24 November

Yesterday, a sculpture was to have been unveiled on Liverpools Albert Dock, as part of the second Biennial art exhibition in the city. A figure by Paul McCarthy, the Californian artist best known here for his disquieting artworks, such as the animatronic peasant fornicating with a barrel, had to be pulled from the show, as the artist rendered it in black. Down at the Albert Dock, where there is a slavery exhibit as part of the Merseyside Maritime Museum, this was thought to be open to misinterpretation.

Still, thats public art for you. And remember: the name is McCarthy, OK? None of Paul McCartneys safe daubs is included in the second Biennial, an enormous, eclectic exhibition which, despite the above hitch, kicked off yesterday showing 300 contemporary artists at sites across the city. The biggest art exhibition in the country, its aim is to reposition Liverpool as a place with a future rather than a past; one in pole position for 2008s European Capital of Culture gong ahead of rivals Newcastle/Gateshead and Birmingham.

There will be no Beatles. Liverpool is being rebranding away from its 1960s glories and as far from its tragic ‘self-pity city image as possible. With multiple agencies involved, the aim is to attract visitors, particularly from the South-East. Lewis Biggs, the Biennials chief executive, expects to lure a quarter of a million people and the local newspapers and hoteliers are supportive.

Last week, it seemed perfectly possible. The weather was brilliant, the Victorian architectural fabric of the centre as charismatic as that of downtown New York; the people friendly. It was enough to make you browse in an estate agents window, where if you did, you could find a terraced house for £20,000.

Liverpool is the first city in the UK to host a biennial, although the construct is long established in the international art world. Essentially an arts festival, there are now about 50 around the world, usually pitched between an art fair and an expo; occasions for national breast-beating and financial renewal. Liverpools event claims to be different in that it is locally driven, with up to 80 per cent of the artists involved somehow responding to the city by making original work.

But ‘regeneration and ‘cultural tourism — havent we heard it all before? The notion that art can hotwire your needy economy has become a millennial cliché.

In fairness, the Liverpool Biennial convinces you to look again, particularly as Biggs is keen to accentuate the art rather than its social benefit. ‘The regeneration is a side issue, says Biggs, who has been here for 15 years, since he came to work at Tate Liverpool. ‘It is not why weve got a biennial. Hed rather it was ‘sensual, explorative and unprescriptive, right down to the lack of coherent theme.

For two months, visitors wont be able to miss it. Even as you arrive in Lime Street station, there are two public artworks, one on the platform itself. Welcome Box from LOT/EK is an old sea-going container turned into a walk-through video installation, with a caption that points out its ‘playful take on ‘cultural tourism. Another exhibit at Lime Street, a kind of metal maze called Crossing by Wolfgang Winter and Berthold Hörbelt, rests on a balcony above the 1960s retail shacks, from where you can scan the city centre.

This is the second Liverpool Biennial, but the first, in 1999, was fatally underpublicised. Three years have now elapsed because the various agents waited for the citys Walker Art Gallery to be refurbished and pegged it to converge on the Liverpool Biennial platform with the Bloomberg New Contemporaries exhibition and the biggest painting competition in the UK, the 1957-vintage John Moores.

If Liverpool wanted to play Florence to Londons Rome and create a separate power base rather than play second fiddle, the John Moores show wasnt doing much to help it along, with established London-based artists such as Martin Maloney and Bank on the walls. Peter Daviess winning painting is called Superstarfucker — Andy Warhol Text Painting and features stars containing exclamations such as ‘Faux sincerity and ‘Charlatanism, an artists joke and irritating in the context.

The Walker is a good place to start, though. It is central and offers a base from where to work out the slightly confusing Biennial, which is in several parts. The core is the International 2002, where curators have invited international artists to create some work in response to the city. Then theres the Independent, which is kind of the Biennials fringe although they dont want you to call it that. Here is the vibey part, with work to be found in take-aways and churches, including a rainbow created by Marc Quinn at the Cammell Laird Shipyard, and The House of Holly, singer Holly Johnsons exhibition.

Jayne Casey of the organisers foundation, is vocal about her city. ‘We inherited a shithole, she said. ‘Now a new Liverpool is on the horizon. It is, she said, a city defined by contemporary enterprises such as mega-nightclub Cream, although that is due to close; rumour has it that it might become a contemporary art space. And Liverpool currently has a high population of artists. ‘You can tell them, said Casey. ‘Theyre the ones with bags open and their purses hanging out.

Another part of Liverpools art renaissance is the Fact Centre, a museum of technology, art and new media. The idea that it would join the Biennial was abandoned and now it opens next February. Meanwhile, Facts Eddie Berg has acted as a curator in the Biennial and he bought in some of the work in Tate Liverpool, including Mark Lewiss meditative films of Algonquin Park, cinematic takes of the American Sublime. Notable elsewhere in Tate Liverpool are Patricia Piccininis ‘car nuggets, shiny blobs of mutant custom car, Iftikhar and Elizabeth Dadis Hollywood-type billboard called Clash of Civilisations (the only post 9/11 work I saw) and fascinating man dalas of pills, cannabis leaves and magazine cutouts by Fred Tomaselli.

As well as the McCarthy piece, there were other small glitches. A major work by Jorge Pardo — a permanent piece of coloured balls hanging from stalks to be installed in Wolstenholme Square — hadnt arrived.

In Derby Square, I saw the one-room Villa Victoria hotel, constructed around a statue of Queen Victoria by Tatsurou Bashi. Itll be running until November and is the novelty highlight of the Biennial. Another on-site piece is the Coffee Stand by Dré Wapenaar at the Liverpool Post and Echo building, an amoeba-shaped bit of brown canvas above a tubular steel structure. The artist is conducting ‘research into togetherness, and how it starts in public space but sadly wont be making coffee there, which somewhat scotches the idea.

Still, it has charm, as does the Pleasant Street Board School, a small, derelict school where the hopscotch grid and goalposts are still visible, and where eight artists have made environments from the old classrooms and playgrounds. In one classroom is Christine Hills Volksboutique, something like a screwball early 1960s office complete with receptionist; outside is the neo-pop work of Stephen Powers, painted posters of imaginary ads which create a sense of urban folk art.

But will all this change our perceptions of Liverpool? Well, the closest model is Glasgow, and that changed our reflexes from gangs and Gorbals to art and architecture. Here in the ‘pool of life, as Carl Jung called Liverpool, the task is to rid itself of the scallies and shellsuits, and place itself as an agenda-setting, twenty-first century city. Its cultural tourists could claim to be helping rewrite Liverpudlian folklore.