Il Tempo del Postino: Hans Ulrich Obrist and Philippe Parreno's Opera in Manchester

Il Tempo del Postino
A Group Show
(12-14 July 2007)

It is only those exhibitions that make a difference that really make a difference.

To experience this difference, one needed a ticket to Manchester. Not on an airplane so much as on a luft-schiff, a hybrid machine transporting us into the 4th dimension.

Co-captains Hans Ulrich Obrist and Philippe Parreno had given themselves a mission: how can we curate “time” instead of “space”? After some three years of investigation and in search of a genius loci in which to experiment, the idea landed back on earth at the Opera House in Manchester to become a part of the world’s latest biennale, “The World’s First International Festival of Original and New Work.”

Curator Johannes Cladders believed that the best art exhibition conveys itself through theatrical means, no labels necessary: the art space should function as a stage for the silent theatrical play taking place in the mind of the beholder. Parreno and Obrist have capitalized on this notion, moving art into the theatrical realm, and in doing so have given us a stage in which an exhibition can evolve into new forms, not only encouraging slowness, but demanding it.

As we took our seats, the “opera” began by putting the finger into the wounds (Wunderpunkten) of subjective time, i.e., the fickleness of memory. To the right of the stage and in front of the curtains was a grand piano upon which snow was falling. One could hear the staccato performance of an invisible pianist in search of a tune half-remembered and half-forgotten.

Up front and center was a magnifying glass in the place one would expect to find a microphone (only it was about the size of a single-household residence of a lonely gold fish). Lit up from within, a man appeared behind the looking-glass, the ring-leader, apparently, Parreno’s ventriloquist, who informed us of the recent past and recent future to come.

At last, the “opera” could begin. The curtain lifted. And then it fell. The music swelled, filling the house with the waves of operatic expectation. And then the curtain began its dance, an inanimate object slapstick created by “situationist” Tino Seghal, his actor this time being the curtain itself, the signifier of the beginning and the end of any performance. With the beginning of the “opera” beginning before the beginning, the timing was even further muddled by the ushering in of the ushers. Last-minute guests hoping to board the time-space machine? Walking down the dark aisles with a guiding light in hand, slowly but surely, the gradual crescendo and echo of several auctioneers began, the kind of auction your grandfather would have attended in search of a used John Deere. But the auction wares were not to be seen: the maximal volume of the auctioneering was accompanied a minimalist visual: a large screen which gradually evolved from total darkness to blindingly light, a crescendo indicating a cinematic trope: the enlightened moment when one “sees the light” after being plunged into the darkness of death. Here Doug Aitken had presented us with a pandemonium of prices accompanied a vacuum of visuals.

The cacophony was called to a brutal stop, yielding to a moment of “moving” silence: Tacita Dean’s film of John Cage’s silence, 4’ 33”. Maybe twice, maybe three times, the old man in the film makes a move, crossing his legs the other way, mimicking the minimal motions of the audience. He sits in a dancer’s rehearsal studio with mirrors along one wall. In the mirror’s reflection, a figure counting down the time with their fingers is barely perceptible.

A lovely moment of transit, Dean’s silence was just what we needed after the sound-flood (Stimmeüberschwemmung) of Aitken’s auctioneers. And now the “opera” could begin, in medias res, the aria of Cio-Cio-San (Madam Butterfly) and Lieutenant Pinkerton was divided amongst four geishas and two lieutenants – surround-sound in the aisles and on stage was fragmented and shared, discombobulating, but tear-jerking nonetheless.

Too numerous to describe at length here, similar works of wonder were created by Trisha Donnelly, Douglas Gordon, Olafur Eliasson, Rirkrit Tiravanija, Dominique Gonzales-Foerster, Carsten Höller, and Koo Jeong-A, whose monstrously swaying severed tree was the most minimalist albeit the most potently symbolic of the potential in slowing down the time in an exhibition. Indeed, “Il Tempo del Postino,” (the time of the postman) the title given to this operatic encounter of a 4th kind, was punctuated by a repeating “chorus” – Liam Gillick’s snowed-on piano – and the comic relief of Pierre Huyghe’s 3 acts: the foibles of the offspring of Big Bird wedded to Snuffalufagus and a furry brown bat-monkey midget. Intermission was intermingled with the beginning procession of Matthew Barney’s interpretation of Norman Mailer’s Ancient Evenings: Act II was infused by Barney-esque mythology and the elaborate ritual – involving acrobatics and wrecked cars– required to induce a shaggy-haired bull into copulating with a machine.

Even if the bull refused to cooperate and copulate, who would have thought that an evening at Manchester’s Opera House could trigger a tsunami of thought whose repercussions were yet to be experienced by the rest of the world, frequent travelers on luft-schiff art?

One left the opera house with a kind of perma-grin tickling the mind; that unexpected titillation when one notices that the bearded man buying bananas next to you at the supermarket is wearing bright red stilettos.

April Elizabeth Lamm

(*written for German translation; originally published in Monopol, September 2007)


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