Manchester United

Kate Sutton at the Manchester International Festival


Left: Artist Marina Abramovic with Manchester International Festival director Alex Poots. Right: One of Ed Hall's hand-stitched banners in Jeremy Deller's Procession. (Except where noted, all photos: Kate Sutton)

ON MY WAY TO LAST WEEKEND’S OPENING for the Manchester International Festival, fellow passengers on my Moscow-London direct could hardly stop grumbling about the recent heat wave. Discouraged by the reports, I was pleasantly surprised to find Manchester in its characteristically dismal shade, stuck in that half-rain state that suits a city of bummed cigarettes, franchise sandwich shops, and red-tag sales at Primark. As if to make up for the weather, I was greeted at the train station by an army of alarmingly cheery MIF volunteers literally elbowing one another out of the way to hand me a festival map. They then provided a brightly colored umbrella and offered up plastic cups of white wine and orange juice, determined to at least give the impression of sunshine.

Following the breakout hit “Il Tempo del Postino” in 2007 (resurrected last month for Art Basel), this year’s hopes for a “Manchester Miracle,” as Hans Ulrich Obrist insisted on calling it, centered on “Marina Abramovic Presents.” The ambitious live exhibition, which required Manchester University’s Whitworth Art Gallery to move its entire collection to storage, imagines what a museum of performance might look like. Fourteen artists, including Abramovic, perform four hours a day for the duration of the festival (a little more than two weeks). On arrival, visitors are asked to don lab coats, leave their bags—and, more pressingly, cell phones—at the entrance, and commit to staying the full four hours, after which they are awarded a summer-camp-esque commemorative certificate. The project is dedicated to Tehching Hsieh, whom Abramovic introduced at the opening as her personal hero, applauding his decision to “quit art” and “just do life,” an act Abramovic interpreted as exemplary of the “transformative power of art.” Hsieh looked less convinced as he smiled shyly, shrugging off the praise and slipping to the back of the room to avoid attention.

Left: Artist Tehching Hsieh. Right: Serpentine director Julia Peyton-Jones, MoMA curator Klaus Biesenbach, and collector Julia Stoschek.

The program begins with Abramovic’s The Drill, a crash course in performance-art appreciation, during which the artist purrs instructions on how to breathe, walk, drink water, and stare deeply into another’s eyes. (Blissful in that yogic “less is more” way, though it might have been more fun to skip the rest of the show and just wander through the empty halls, feeling up the walls and gazing into air ducts in a Marina-induced trance.)

The erotic energy of Abramovic’s exercises suffused the rest of the exhibition experience. There were few, if any, rules for the other performances, though nudity seemed to be de rigueur. In a piece titled simply Nudity, Yingmei Duan “confronted” the taboos of her Chinese upbringing by spending the four hours naked, standing uncomfortably close to visitors, her eyes squinted in shame. (It would seem her fingers had a different upbringing, given the way they wandered freely along her body.) Meanwhile, Kira O’Reilly, also au naturel, spent the hours slowly tumbling down the stairs in a “reenactment” of Nude Descending the Staircase.

Though performed fully clothed, by far the most erotic work belonged to the phenomenal Eunhye Hwang, who did a kind of Dance of the Seven Veils using handheld radios tuned to static, followed by a coquettish duet with a green Jell-O mold. Afterward, visitors were given spoons and invited to partake. For his piece, Terence Koh curled up in a fetal position in the front hall. “I couldn’t tell if he was asleep or not,” one visitor confessed. She paused, biting her lip. “Then again, is that supposed to matter?” Clearly, The Drill had put the fear of performance art into more than one attendee. (“I just took my contacts out,” Koh later clarified. “I’m shy. I didn’t want to see all these strangers staring at me.” Because this is an artist known for his timidity . . .)

Left: Sculpture at the Manchester Cathedral. Right: Artist Gustav Metzger, the Serpentine's Hans Ulrich Obrist, and curator Norman Rosenthal.

The next morning, participants in the “VIP” program congregated at the Manchester Cathedral. The sculpture (a figure who looked to be contemplating a handheld device) presiding at the cathedral’s entrance reminded me of the previous day’s unofficial reception for Gustav Metzger, when I had snared a seat on the couch with MIF director Alex Poots, Obrist, RoseLee Goldberg, and Klaus Biesenbach, all of whom were furrowing their brows over their respective BlackBerries. Inside the cathedral, the art dignitaries pocketed their phones (briefly) and huddled in close—one curator literally cupping his ears—to hear the elfin Metzger speak about his Flailing Trees, a project consisting of twenty-one willow trees that were flayed and then placed upside down in cement outside.

Not up for another round at the Whitworth, I skipped out on the VIP version (thus missing the opportunity to stare deeply into the eyes of musician Antony Hegarty), rejoining the (noticeably diminished) crowd for dinner. After our meal, the bulk of the crew climbed onto buses headed for a Bach concert in the Zaha Hadid–designed chamber hall at the Manchester Art Gallery, while those lucky enough to have snagged tickets for Antony and the Johnsons hung back and discreetly hailed cabs to the Opera House. Most festival events sold out within a matter of days, but the Antony tickets were particularly coveted. (During the Whitworth reception, the participating artists had been called to the stage. Thinking they were being recognized, their smiles flickered when Marina announced that they had to draw for tickets to the concert. “I have fourteen artists and six tickets,” she exclaimed. “This is only fair!”)

Any pangs of guilt I had over my own scored tickets dissipated as soon as a beautifully attired Rufus Wainwright slipped past me in the Opera House’s narrow aisle, flashing a smile. Without missing a beat, Louisa Buck leaned over my shoulder and whispered, “Yes. It was . . .” By the opening strains of Antony’s cover of “Crazy in Love,” my bliss was complete. (Never mind the exhausted performance artist slumbering in the seat beside me.)

Left: Artist Matthew Stone. Right: Performa director RoseLee Goldberg with artist Fedor Pavlov Andreevich.

After the concert, Serpentine director Julia Peyton-Jones, artist Matthew Stone, and I braved the walk to Room, the design club hosting the festival’s opening party. This, of course, meant making our way through a Mancunian sea of shiny skirts and the thugs who keep them drunk on gin cocktails. The club featured a gaping hall, enormous windows, regrettable accent lighting, and a perplexing take on finger food. “This used to be the Reform Club, you know?” volunteered a member of the Courtauld contingent, which had arrived en masse that day with curator Sarah Wilson. “This is where capitalism was invented.” (And apparently where it has come to die, judging from the 70 PERCENT OFF! sale signs plastering the storefronts outside.)

Sunday morning began with a conversation between Abramovic and Metzger, mediated by Obrist. During the two-hour Q&A, the audience reached the conclusion that performance art was essentially a selfish endeavor. Satisfied, they then moved on to the last and liveliest event on the weekend’s agenda: Jeremy Deller’s Procession, which mobilized the most marginal of the Mancunians into a citywide parade. Participants ranged from cruisers recruited from the Stockport Toys “R” Us parking lot to the Shree Swaminarayan Gadi Piping Band, an all-British Southeast Asian bagpipe group, and hearses bearing memorials to Manchester’s long-shuttered clubs. (I picked out Hacienda and Corn Exchange.)

The crowd, which included Hadid, Obrist, dealer Hilary Rose Crisp, and artist Lynn Hershman, among others, was particularly entertained by “The Adoration of the Chip,” a float featuring an extravagantly costumed gospel choir singing the praises of the potato, and more than a few festival participants could be seen joining in under the banner of “The Unrepentant Smokers.” Similarly memorable was the very first Rose Queen, a serene seven-year-old who mesmerized everyone with her ultra-slow-motion “Beauty Queen” wave. The Procession ended with Steel Harmony’s all-percussion rendition of “Love Will Tear Us Apart.” All of which led me to wonder: Who’s sticking around for the MIF De La Soul concert?

Left: “The Adoration of the Chip” in Jeremy Deller's Procession. (Photo: Tim Sinclair)

Left: Artist Eunhye Hwang with Whitworth director Maria Balshaw. Right: Artist Terence Koh.

Left: Curator Andrea Lissoni (left). Right: Curator Mathieu Copeland.

Left: Thomas Dane Gallery director François Chantala. Right: CUBE's Jane Anderson.

Left: Visiting Arts's Adam J. Knights and artist Lynn Hershman. Right: Artist Amanda Coogan. (Photo: Joel Chester Fildes)