Liverpool Biennial
North West England

Will Kwan

Flame Test, 2010

Mixed media

New commission for Liverpool Biennial 2010, Touched

Scandinavian Hotel, Nelson Street Liverpool

The Scandinavian Hotel is a disused building at the end of Nelson Street in the heart of China Town, Liverpool. Its glory days saw tens of thousands of Scandinavian emigrants passing through the port en route to the New World, used in the main by thriving steam packet companies. It’s now a stylish white elephant of a building, with a long history of disputes over ownership, use and threats of compulsory purchase. In becoming the site for a new commission by Hong Kong-born Canadian Will Kwan. the building’s history takes on an ironic twist.

Upon the facade of the building Kwan has installed thirty six colourful national flags from all around the world. They are displayed in two rows of eighteen, equally spaced and running the full length of the white building.

As you approach this structure, Spanish colonial in style, it has an air of official celebration; a state endorsed ceremony or event; all the flags are out! On the day of our visit, with the sun shining, it felt like an ‘other’ place, a cinematic view of a Spanish or South American townscape.

On closer inspection the colourful flags reveal themselves as symbols of protest rather than Nationalistic pride since the flags display images of their own destruction. Will Kwan has sourced multiple photographs of flag burning from across the world, creating a series of overtly decorative banners which carry sinister undertones. The photographs have been gathered from various international news agencies who have documented protests, demonstrations and conflicts. The viewer is drawn into a guessing game of trying to name that flag/conflict! It’s quite a shock to see our own Union Jack in flames, even though we’re accustomed to viewing the flag burning of other nations’ banners from our distant perspective. Somehow we forget that we, as a nation, have provoked hatred and criticism in many countries. The demonstration of national flag burning is presented as a frequent event, no matter the struggle or cause, the common and effective visual statement is to publicly burn the symbol of your enemy’s national identity. The modern day protestor is keenly aware of the power of the global media machine. Through news agencies, such as Reuters, images of the ceremonial burning of a flag are instantly relayed across the world by way of new technological platforms.

In calling his site specific installation “Flame Test” Kwan would appear to be testing our point of provocation before we too are “ignited” to respond. His title could be read as a metaphorical description of a measure of the limits of our national pride. How much do we identify with our flag? Do we feel offended by other nations’ hostility towards us?

Taken at face value “Flame Test” is an innocent, decorative display of colour which draws attention to this usually anonymous, unoccupied building. And yet, with further consideration, you discover it is politically loaded and highlights the inherent dangers and fears of nationalism. The casual passer-by may completely overlook Kwan’s artwork but maybe this is where its subversive success lies. The subtle propaganda of this piece may gradually infiltrate the consciousness of an apathetic audience and make them question the importance and significance of the symbol of the flag in this age of multiculturalism.