PRINT September 2007


Il Tempo del Postino

For a joint commission between the Manchester International Festival and the Théâtre du Châtelet, Paris, curator Hans-Ulrich Obrist and artist Philippe Parreno orchestrated a series of performances by artists, which premiered last July at the Opera House in Manchester, UK. Artforum asked two of its regular contributors to give their impressions of the works presented onstage.


FOR “IL TEMPO DEL POSTINO (The Time of the Postman), which took place on three evenings this past July in Manchester, curators Hans-Ulrich Obrist and Philippe Parreno offered contemporary artists not previously known for their onstage performances up to fifteen minutes of “exhibition time” before a seated audience. This unusual format set up a basic question: If you are deprived of the liberty you enjoy in a traditional spatialized exhibition—where you can alight hither and yon, and autonomously fast-forward over unproductive ground—what do you get in return?

Tino Sehgal’s untitled contribution was a near-perfect answer: something spectacular that’s too smart to smack of spectacle. Although the third of the works presented, it was a literal curtain-raiser. Red velvet stage drapes were whipped—to a barreling orchestral arrangement of Daft Punk’s “Aerodynamic”—through a complex choreography of movements that transformed the otherwise blank backdrop into a huge, balletic, mobile sculpture; there was one showstopping moment when the entire curtain rig dropped, like an exhausted diva, to the stage floor. Crucially, this piece disclosed its excitements and implications swiftly, then exited. Doug Aitken’s Light Bright Now (all works 2007), which followed, didn’t—and illustrated a potential rule for the evening: Make your idea commensurate with its length. In a gallery, I’d depart fast from four auctioneers speedily swapping tongue-twisting bids on nothing, referencing not only a superheated art market but the verbal pyrotechnics of Jamaican ragga; here, the conceit didn’t repay the time it sequestered. Particularly given that Aitken’s early video These Restless Minds, 1998, one of his finest works, similarly featured auctioneers (albeit walking through corporate settings, their language reflecting the stockmarket rhythms of technocracy), the failure to compel here suggested that context is indeed everything.

The more adept contributors kept this in mind, while not necessarily kowtowing to the audience. Tacita Dean, for example, nodded to an entire history of avant-garde obduracy with her 16-mm film projection of Merce Cunningham performing a new choreography, Stillness (In Three Movements), to a sound track of John Cage’s 4'33". The result: lots of rumbling room tone, and a diminution of activity whereby Cunningham shifted his pose only three times, when his dance company’s executive director, Trevor Carlson, indicated that a new movement of Cage’s work was beginning. The work was against-the-odds hypnotic and intelligently negotiated (through apparent disavowal) the commandment that implicitly hung over this whole enterprise: Thou shalt not bore.

It turned out to be difficult to disentangle the show’s notion of “time-based” art from one that merely seeks a wider audience. Does a theatrical context like this—in which art is “delivered,” hence the word postman in the title—automatically lead an audience to expect to be passively entertained? The weakest works implicitly answered yes, consequently failing to foreground the depth and complexity that should characterize the art experience. Several works even did so derivatively: Anri Sala’s 4 Butterflies, with its geisha and male tenors singing an extract from Madame Butterfly, could be credited almost entirely to Puccini; Douglas Gordon’s It’s Only Real When It’s Dark— English folk singer June Tabor performing a breathy a cappella version of “Love Will Tear Us Apart” on the darkened stage—was indebted first to Joy Division and second to David Lynch, whose estranged and anxiety-laced nightclubs often seemed the model for the evening’s ambience of warped commerciality.

Then again—as Lynch’s own work implies—maybe it is possible to simultaneously tap the receptors for art and entertainment. Pierre Huyghe’s three short inclusions, slapstick vignettes collectively entitled Hello Zombie, suggested so. They starred two costumed figures—one large, yellowish, glowing of eye, and looking like a furry cross between a squid and Sasquatch; the other smaller, cuddlier, and bearlike. In the best of their three brief interactions, they sat on a bench, facing a Dalí painting that wobbled, airborne, in blackness, the bear figure gently stroking the larger beast’s back. Here were obscurity and irrationality, as well as tenderness and humor—something that felt like both amusement and artwork, and which, moreover, didn’t outstay its welcome for a second.

But the real puppet-masters of “Il Tempo del Postino” were, of course, the curators. If the artists determined reception, they did so within strictly imposed parameters—which was why it was refreshing to see the show’s pièce de résistance delivered by Matthew Barney and composer Jonathan Bepler, who commandeered the show’s entire second half with a forty-five-minute-long work titled Guardian of the Veil. This project certainly felt bigger than the curatorial auspices it arrived under. Bepler’s spacious, fretful composition—all orphaned plucks, drones, accelerandos, and martial percussion—underwrote a series of characteristically allusive rituals. A naked woman was veiled in plastic; Barney, in a workman’s apron and with a sleepy dog on his head (presumably making him Anubis, Egyptian god of the dead), dropped automotive parts into mock-antique vessels and laid a Golden Eagle decal and a cowhide on a trashed car; veiled women, naked below the waist, contorted themselves and urinated. A real, golden-horned bull was led to the car and led away again.

It wasn’t only in its resistance to the fifteen-minute rule that this bad dream of relations between the United States and the Middle East stole the show. Barney, of course, has worked in performance before (and that’s what this was, as opposed to some newfangled “time-based art”), but what was notable here, and served as a salient rejoinder to most of the novelties that preceded it, was his utter lack of deference to the audience. Guardian of the Veil didn’t nervously fill the moments; instead, relying on slow-building atmospherics and imaginative potency, it transported us into a realm where the only time that mattered was Barney Time. I didn’t look at my watch once.

Martin Herbert is a writer and critic based in Tunbridge Wells, Kent, UK.


ALTHOUGH BILLED AS an exhibition “not about occupying space but about occupying time,” Hans-Ulrich Obrist and Philippe Parreno’s “Il Tempo del Postino” (The Time of the Postman) involved a crucial change of venue from museum to theater. This made for a unique group show of more than a dozen artists who have often exhibited together, and it underscored this generation’s interests in collective production and collaboration, ideas reminiscent of the 1960s. The evening thus brought to mind a couple of significant artistic endeavors from that decade. The first was an unrealized project by the visionary British architect Cedric Price, who in 1960 began planning (along with Joan Littlewood, founder of the experimental Theater Workshop in East London) a “Fun Palace” with flexible and interactive facilities for music, dancing, and fireworks. “Choose what you want to do,” Price wrote, “or watch someone else doing it. Learn how to handle tools, paint, babies, machinery, or just listen to your favorite tune. Dance, talk or be lifted up to where you can see how other people make things work. Sit out over space with a drink and tune in to what’s happening elsewhere in the city. Try starting a riot or beginning a painting—or just lie back and stare at the sky.” The second project emerged a few years later, as Öyvind Fahlström, a restless artistic soul who was experimenting at the time with most disciplines and trying to invent new ones, came up with a similar idea. Insisting that new architectural concepts for music, dance, and art were necessary in his day, Fahlström argued for “pleasure houses for meditation, dance, fun, games and sexual relations”—as well as a new kind of art, he said, that fused pleasure and insight. “Reach this by impurity, or multiplicity of levels,” he urged, “rather than by reduction.”

Multiplicity of levels were certainly on offer in “Il Tempo del Postino,” a collective attempt to finally make the Fun Palace materialize. Here was first-rate adult entertainment for childish grown-ups such as myself: monsters, magic, romance, sex. Price himself was discussed in Parreno’s act, Postman Time (all works 2007), which was second on the bill. A man stood onstage, holding a huge magnifying glass before his face, and speculated on Price’s idea of time as an element in design . . . without moving his lips: a ventriloquist without a dummy. Fahlström’s highest ideal in art was “artificiality,” but of course, in a work of art, nothing is for real; separating voice from body, Parreno foregrounded the act of illusion.

Many of the contributors adapted elements of their visual art for the stage: Doug Aitken’s Light Bright Now continued the artist’s fascination with the verbal pyrotechnics of American auctioneers. Here four of them performed live, producing a strange, intense music that reached more and more ecstatic levels. In Echo House, Olafur Eliasson created one of his typically interactive situations: A large reflective surface on the curtain turned the stage into a mirror, as the orchestra mimicked the audience’s sounds. The musicians successfully lured viewers into an increasingly lively exchange—some people certainly love to hear themselves go wild. A highlight was Carsten Höller’s “scientific experiment,” which made use of his well-known optical device that makes the world appear upside down. Höller had managed to convince a group of volunteers to wear these goggles for an entire week. For the show, he brought the guinea pigs onstage and interviewed them about their experiences, before having them remove the goggles. A nutty idea, but the facial expression when someone sees the world right again is priceless.

Absurdist deconstructions of the opera’s conventions aren’t exactly new, as every Marx Brothers lover knows, but as this Fun Palace was, in fact, an opera house, here they were certainly appropriate. Tino Sehgal’s good-humored curtain dance and Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster’s disappearing orchestra were charming and light—which didn’t hurt, considering the muscular rituals that marked the conclusion of the evening. In Matthew Barney’s massive performance Guardian of the Veil, with new music by Jonathan Bepler (who conducted in a manner befitting a mystic priest), both stage and auditorium were turned into an occupied zone, with paramilitary forces, ritual animals, a sacred car, and the most beautiful hookers. Or were these half-naked contortionists meant to be priestesses? Whatever they were, the reason why they were costumed only in veils became clear when they began peeing in the most decorative manner.

Don’t ask me what it all meant, but one thing is clear: Bulls just don’t want to fuck cars. Despite the anticlimax, however, this night at the opera managed to inject new life into the artificial. And there’s still hope that the monstrous fertilization will occur in Paris, where the show travels in February. That would certainly be more than Price or Fahlström could have hoped for at their Fun Palace and “pleasure house,” but one assumes they would approve.

Daniel Birnbaum is a contributing editor of Artforum.