Doing Time

Nicolas Trembley on “Il Tempo del Postino” in Manchester


Left: Manchester International Festival codirector Peter Saville and dealer Chantal Crousel. (Photo: Nicolas Trembley) Right: Ventriloquist Jay Johnson in Philippe Parreno's Postman Time. (Photo: Joel Fildes)

As tersely reported in Friday’s edition of the Manchester Evening News, “People traveled from across the world to see the premiere of a bizarre performance art show on stage at the Manchester Opera House.” Surely it’s no surprise to find that this was the handiwork of curator Hans-Ulrich Obrist and artist-cum-director Philippe Parreno, who masterfully manipulated the art world’s fickle laws of attraction to draw an international crowd of artistic heavyweights—and at the nadir of summer, no less. Rarely in one night had the city seen the convergence of such an assortment of artsy individuals—many of whom had never before set foot in Manchester. All manner of artists, dealers (Shaun Caley Regen, Barbara Gladstone), collectors (Patrizia Sandretto Re Rebaudengo, Maya Hoffman), curators (Martijn van Nieuwenhuizen, Suzanne Pagé, Maria Lind, and even Japan’s Akiko Miyake), fashionistas (from Ramdane Touhami to Stefano Pilati), and actors (including up-and-coming French hunk Melvil Poupaud) were present.

The occasion was Thursday’s world premiere of “Il Tempo del Postino,” an unusual group show presented onstage at the opera house as part of the Manchester International Festival, directed by Alex Poots and legendary graphic designer Peter Saville. The cocurators’ goal was to rethink the notion of an exhibition venue, seeking to answer the question “What if a show were not about occupying space but rather occupying time?” The only information that had been released was the star-studded artist list, comprising more than a dozen of the most internationally famous artists of the past twenty years. After jumping off the plane in the rain—typical Manchester weather—accompanied by dealer Chantal Crousel and critic Stéphanie Moisdon, I made a pit stop at the traveling Kylie Minogue exhibition at the Manchester Art Gallery; in contrast to “Il Tempo,” here a star of stage was presented in a museum. Though the gold lamé hotpants from the “Spinning Around” video were, um, shiny, the show itself was nothing extraordinary.

Left: Olafur Eliasson's Open House. (Photo: Joel Fildes) Right: Artist Koo Jeong-a. (Photo: Nicolas Trembley)

At 6 PM, we all gathered at a bar for a small preshow reception hosted by British collector Frank Cohen (“the Saatchi of the north”), where everyone was given tickets before being shuttled away in buses to the opera house. We also learned that the organizers had made a last-minute modification to the order of the performances; Matthew Barney’s would be presented last and was tantalizingly restricted to those eighteen and over. Most who had seen the dress rehearsal the night before wouldn’t discuss the piece, but someone did tell me, “If you like fist fucking, you’ll get your money’s worth!” To which I replied that I did, and I would have happily paid for a ticket if I hadn’t just received one for free.

Meanwhile, Air de Paris’s Florence Bonnefous, who had just returned from the Imperial War Museum with artist Bruno Serralongue, had purchased a Stalinesque mustache, and we decided that everyone who had his or her picture taken should wear it—not that we’d exclude anyone who refused.

Left: Artist Rirkrit Tiravanija with CCA Kitakyushu program director Akiko Miyake. Right: Dealer Tommaso Corvi-Mora. (Photos: Nicolas Trembley)

At 8 PM, ventriloquist Jay Johnson took the stage, his face distorted by a huge magnifying glass, and announced the opening of the show. This was the contribution of Parreno, who has previously collaborated with such ventriloquists as Ronan Lucas (busy that night filming an episode of Nip/Tuck). Each artist had fifteen minutes to present his or her work. Performances were followed by interludes during which an unmanned piano was played by an “invisible” Liam Gillick. Tino Sehgal presented a well-received work that consisted of swaying stage curtains, Doug Aitken offered up a group of fast-talking/singing American auctioneers, Tacita Dean showed a film about Merce Cunningham, Anri Sala revisited Madame Butterfly, and Olafur Eliasson installed a mirror that filled the entire stage, reflecting an image of the audience. Douglas Gordon brought in June Tabor to sing Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart” a cappella on a dark stage, following which Koo Jeong-a revealed a grove of densely foliated trees that shook as though buffeted by a strong wind. Carsten Höller brought to the stage a clutch of human guinea pigs, who had been wearing masks that made the world appear upside down for the previous eight days.

At that point in the original program, there was supposed to be a forty-five minute recess to prepare for Barney’s show. Everyone was a bit uneasy about Barney (whose real mustache trumped our artificial one) and his opus. A burst of music heralded a strange procession of men sporting balaclavas and T-shirts bearing the words DEPARTMENT OF SANITATION. They carried Aimee Mullins (the actress/model/athlete and Cremaster 3 star with dual prostheses) on a stretcher, leading the audience back into the theater.

Left: Artist Matthew Barney. (Photo: Nicolas Trembley) Right: Matthew Barney and Jonathan Bepler's Guardian of the Veil. (Photo: Hugo Glendinning)

And there, Barney, with a small dog perched atop his head like the Egyptian god Anubis, proceeded to perform a kind of funeral ceremony under the hood of a crashed car. For those—like myself—who missed his apparently very similar performance in New York last April, he presented a ritual that involved contortionists who peed on stage, a young woman (alas, not Björk) who fist-fucked herself, and a bull named Ross, who made headlines by “mounting” the rear end of the car—a Cadillac, no less—thus attracting the attention of animal anticruelty agencies. Some in the audience found this all a bit too much and deemed it “macho”; I even heard the word fascist. In any event, we can safely say that Barney excels in baroque avant-drama, and—should he ever be asked—he’s well prepped to direct one of those Wagnerian operas in Salzburg. It was easy to understand why the order had been changed: The full-frontal artillery, Jonathan Bepler libretto, and musicians in military attire would have brought the night to an early climax, overshadowing the numbers that were originally slated to follow—a sketch with Rirkrit Tiravanija puppets, comic interludes by Pierre Huyghe, and a concert by Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster. Only Trisha Donnelly, who loudly beat a bass drum in front of musician Helga Davis, could have competed with Barney’s surreal Sabbath.

Finally, everyone got together to drink a pint or two at an event organized by the participating artists’ galleries. I spotted curators Mark Sladen (he, too, with a real mustache), Nancy Spector, Louise Neri, and Jessica Morgan, as well as the designers behind M/M Paris. Jean-Luc Choplin, director of Paris’s Théâtre du Châtelet, where the show will tour in 2008, seemed pleased, but I couldn’t help but wonder how the regular Châtelet audience, accustomed to more conventional operettas, will react. Then again, what better preparation for “Il Tempo” than the violent, choreographed spectacle of West Side Story?

Left: Carsten Höller's Upside Down People. (Photo: Joel Fildes) Right: Manchester International Festival codirector Alex Poots. (Photo: Nicolas Trembley)

Left: Artists Douglas Gordon and Pierre Huyghe. Right: Choreographer Jérôme Bel. (Photos: Nicolas Trembley)

Left: Artist Liam Gillick. Right: Air de Paris's Florence Bonnefous. (Photos: Nicolas Trembley)

Left: The Guardian art critic Adrian Searle. (Photo: Nicolas Trembley) Right: Anri Sala's 4 Butterflies. (Photo: Joel Fildes)

Left: ICA exhibitions director Mark Sladen. Right: Artist Tacita Dean. (Photos: Nicolas Trembley)

Left: Rirkrit Tiravanija and Arto Lindsay's What Are We Doing Here? (Photo: Howard Barlow) Right: Richard Leese, leader of the Manchester City Council. (Photo: Nicolas Trembley)

Left: Pierre Huyghe's Hello Zombie. (Photo: Howard Barlow) Right: M/M Paris's Michael Amzalag. (Photo: Nicolas Trembley)