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manchester international festival


matthew barney meets monkey king

sarah austin connects with the first manchester international festival

Sarah Austin completed her MA at the School of Creative Arts, University of Melbourne in 2004, has worked as a festival director and theatre practitioner, and is currently part of the Creative Programmes team at Manchester’s Urbis, an exhibition centre focusing on city life.

Philippe Parreno, Il Tempo del Postino Philippe Parreno, Il Tempo del Postino
photo Joel Fildes
ON THE STAGE OF THE MANCHESTER OPERA THEATRE, CO-CURATORS HANS ULRICH OBRIST AND PHILLIPE PARRENO CHALLENGE LARGE AUDIENCES IN IL TEMPO DEL POSTINO; THREE HOURS OF REFLECTIVE AND EDGE OF YOUR SEAT PERFORMANCE FROM 14 OF THE WORLD’S LEADING VISUAL ARTISTS, TRANSFORMING GALLERY INTO THEATRE. CHEN SHI-ZHENG AND COLLABORATORS RADICALLY REWRITE CHINESE OPERA IN MONKEY: JOURNEY TO THE WEST, A SPECTACULAR ENGAGEMENT WITH RECENT CHINESE HISTORY AND EMERGING YOUTH CULTURE. ON A MUCH SMALLER SCALE, INTERIORS TAKES AUDIENCES OF 20 INTO A SUBURBAN HOME, WHICH COMEDIAN JOHNNY VEGAS IS ATTEMPTING TO SELL. THESE THREE WORKS EXEMPLIFIED THE FOCUS OF THE INAUGURAL MANCHESTER INTERNATIONAL FESTIVAL, IN WHICH INNOVATIVE, SOMETIMES PROVOCATIVE PROGRAMMING (ALSO INCLUDING HESTON BLUMENTHAL, PJ HARVEY, LOU REED, DANCER CARLOS ACOSTA, PERFORMANCE ARTIST DAVID HOYLE AND THEATRE DIRECTOR LIES PAUWELS) LOOKS LIKE CONTRIBUTING TO MANCHESTER’S BRANDING OF CHOICE AS THE ‘ORIGINAL, MODERN’ CITY.

interiors

Interiors was a project involving an audience of 20 who travelled together in a bus to a house in the outer suburbs of Manchester to be met by Jeffrey Parkin (Johnny Vegas). Parkin was trying to sell his two up, two down house and the performance, which started in the entrance hall of the house with Parkin asking everyone if the house had ‘spoken’ to them as they had walked in, began a journey through the psyche of a vulnerable man. Offering everyone a drink, Parkin, who fancies himself as a man with a real sense of style because he has watched DIY, home-renovation, reality TV programs, begins explaining why he is leaving this house. He has put his heart and soul into beautifying it with designer wallpaper features, bespoke pan rails and decorative carpets which, as he explains, make it not just a house but a home, and not just “renovation, but romance.”

Drawing on a narrative about a broken man who, it was revealed in the course of the show, had failed business arrangements in Montenegro and a failed marriage, the performance hinged around an effective interplay between the semiotic narrative of the house and the objects within it and the impromptu banter between the performer and his audience. Vegas was both believable and poignant as protagonist, using his skills as stand-up comedian to great effect by interacting with his guests. The house provided a kind of physical manifestation of Jeffrey Parkin’s psyche, with photos, books, mugs, magazines, furniture, DVDs and most importantly the empty nursery, providing hilarious and deeply moving insights into his situation. Despite the moments of comedy it was, however, an uncomfortable audience experience. Deeply voyeuristic and intrusive, the show ended with the audience quietly letting themselves out of the house as our host sat silently slumped at his kitchen table, wearing a cap emblazoned with the Montenegran flag.
Monkey: Journey to the West, Manchester International Festival Monkey: Journey to the West, Manchester International Festival
photo Joel Fildes
monkey: journey to the west

Monkey: Journey to the West was one of featured festival events and involved the unique collaboration between the duo behind the British pop phenomenon Gorillaz (illustrator Jamie Hewlett and musician Damon Albarn of British band Blur) and China’s rising star in theatre direction, Chen Shi-Zeng. This classic Chinese fable from the 1590s is an account of how the Buddhist sutras were brought to China from India by a supernatural monkey, a miserable sand demon, a monk and a pig man. The journey involves all kinds of magical characters: beautiful sirens spinning from floor to ceiling on red ribbons, amazing underwater sojourns with mermaids and flying, singing starfish as well as a raging volcano protected by a fan princess with a black belt. All the while, Monkey is battling the gold band Buddha has attached to his head as a punishment, which floors him with pain every time he acts violently or with anger. Chen Shi-Zeng’s performance as Monkey is one of the show’s highlights; in full body costume the actor creates an idiosyncratic physicality that combines an ape-like walk with a confident lad’s swagger.

The performance is a bold pastiche of traditional and contemporary theatrical styles including projected animation sequences, kung-fu, circus and Chinese opera. The result is a visual feast; spectacular live action and theatrical imagery dovetailing into brilliant cartoons.

Chen Shi-Zeng believes that the story of Journey to the West offers a unique perspective on Mao’s bloody Cultural Revolution of the 1970s, and the show features footage of Mao and military marching in Tiananmen Square. The political message of the work pivots on twin notions of individual and state. In a contemporary context, the show offers an interesting perspective on the rapidly emerging youth culture in contemporary China, represented through the lively and subversive central character.

il tempo del postino

Perhaps the most ambitious production of the festival was a group show co-curated by Hans Ulrich Obrist and Philippe Parreno, Il Tempo del Postino. It provided a theoretical challenge to 14 of the world’s leading visual artists, asking, “what if an exhibition was not about occupying space, but about occupying time?” With the aim of redefining how visual arts can be framed, experienced and interpreted, artists were each given 15 minutes to transform the established gallery exhibition model into a unique shared audience extravaganza.

The event featured works from artists such as Merce Cunningham, Tacita Dean, Douglas Gordon, Tino Sehgal and Anri Sala as well as highly visual theatrical imagery such as gynocentric, dancing stage curtains, interactive mirrors implicating the audience, a symphonic chorus of American auctioneers and Chinese butterflies and surreal Sesame Street-like characters playing tennis. The performances were diverse, exhilarating, visceral and, at times, shocking. The juxtaposing of works forced the audience to work to make meaning of the show as either an integrated whole or a series of disparate works.

French artist Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster had the 50-piece orchestra (providing the score for the first part of the performance) play a Beethoven symphony and gradually, one musician at a time, leave the orchestra pit, in some cases carrying their instruments, exiting by crossing the stage.

As the sound from the orchestra pit became thinner and the tension of the symphony built, the audience were on the edges of their seats, waiting to see the last instrument left, and hear how the solo would sound. A simple metaphor emerged from the work about power and clarity in numbers, of talented groups slowly going their separate ways and the gradual and inevitable demise of generations. By distinguishing each performer and having them emerge from the orchestra pit, where they are usually invisible, Gonzalez-Foerster’s intriguing ‘ending’ to act one was a literal deconstruction of conditioned theatrical expectations.

Act two comprised American artist Matthew Barney’s controversial and shambolic The Guardian of the Veil. The corpse of a sequinned and feathered woman is carried through the auditorium and placed on top of a burnt-out car wreck by four pall bearers in military gear. Barney himself enters the auditorium and makes his way on stage, wearing a black plastic apron and the head of a dog, a representation of Anubis, the Egyptian God of the Dead.

Barney symbolically ‘embalms’ the dead woman, removing engine parts from the hood of the burnt-out vehicle and placing them in funerary urns. Throughout, a female contortionist stands on stage with her back to the audience and her fist positioned between her buttocks. Two men in paramilitary gear drape her in a black rubber veil from head to waist, a sort of literal representation of woman as penis wearing a coloured condom.

After the embalming, another woman, naked apart from stiletto heels and a veil, does a back bend and then urinates copiously over the stage. At this point, a garlanded bull paraded on stage, crosses perilously close to the naked woman, is manually stimulated and encouraged to mount the back of the car. The bull fails to be aroused and is led away. The woman wearing the black rubber veil then removes her hand from between her buttocks and defecates as the curtains are closed.

Many have interpreted this performance as a reflection on the psychological state of Islam and a comment that the horrors of terrorism possibly stem from a phenomenon of sexual repression. With the use of such powerful symbols as bulls, cars and guns, an alternative reading is that Barney has symbolically represented the male ego and its fear of Woman as toxic, leaking and abject. In Guardian of the Veil, this visceral representation of Woman as Dangerous Other is paralleled with depictions of the Middle East as exotic and terrifying.

Currently positioned as the ‘second city’ in the UK, Manchester like other post-industrial cities is faced with the challenge of needing to reinvent itself. An international and uniquely Mancunian arts festival is part of a creative and cultural renaissance in the city, feeding into a growing global profile and a wider cultural awareness within the local community. These three works suggest a festival that is not afraid of ambitious, sometimes overtly political work. With a diverse curatorial strategy, the festival generated an innovative, international program, and for 18 days invigorated the city with its risky, political and brave artistic choices.


Interiors, Two Bedroom House, Old Trafford/Chorlton, writer-devisers Johnny Vegas, Stewart Lee, performer Johnny Vegas, June 29-July 15; Monkey: Journey to the West, adaptation, direction Chen Shi-Zheng, composer Damon Albarn, visual concept, costume, design, animation Jamie Hewlett, Manchester Palace Theatre, June 28-July 7; Il Tempo del Postino, A Group Show, co-curators Hans Ulrich Obrist, Philippe Parreno, director Philippe Parreno assisted by Ann-Christin Rommen, artists Doug Aitken, Matthew Barney & Jonathan Bepler, Tacita Dean, Trisha Donnelly, Olafur Eliasson, Liam Gillick, Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster, Douglas Gordon, Carsten Höller, Pierre Huyghe, Koo Jeong-A, Anri Sala, Tino Sehgal & Rirkrit Tiravanija, with Darius Khondji, Peter Saville, music director, conductor Ari Benjamin Meyers, lighting Chahine Yavroyan, costumes Ramdane Touhami, Manchester Opera House, July 12-14; Manchester International Festival

Sarah Austin completed her MA at the School of Creative Arts, University of Melbourne in 2004, has worked as a festival director and theatre practitioner, and is currently part of the Creative Programmes team at Manchester’s Urbis, an exhibition centre focusing on city life.

RealTime issue #81 Oct-Nov 2007 pg. 10

© Sarah Austin; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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