Il Tempo del Postino

A woman, naked from the waist down, bends slowly backwards and sprays a perfect arc of piss onto the stage as she does so. A giant woolly creature resembling the Sugar Puffs Honey Monster with depression plays tennis with a small rodent-like animal. Three men are led on stage wearing glasses that turn the world upside down. These are three of the incongruous after-images that stay in mind after watching Il Tempo del Postino – “postman time” – a group show staged at Manchester’s Opera House as part of the Manchester International Festival in July.

The live show, put together by prodigious curator Hans Ulrich Obrist and French artist Philippe Parreno, aimed to answer the question “What if an exhibition is not a way to occupy space, but a way to occupy time?” Not an easy question to answer, even for 15 of the most successful artists working today. They were gathered to interact with an audience in any way they chose over the course of an evening, many working outside their usual mediums to varying success and surprise.

Several chose to interact with the language of the theatre, and specifically the opera house. Tino Sehgal created a beautifully simple piece using only the curtains as medium. They opened, closed, rose, fell, wiggled and wobbled to music for a mesmerising few minutes – a formalist choreographic composition with a refreshing economy of means. Anri Sala’s sumptuous piece had four Madame Butterflys wandering through the audience, relaying sound between them. Up close, their painted faces contorted into curious distillations of emotion, particularly disconcerting at moments when one “butterfly” was miming the soaring notes of another hidden in the darkness. Doug Aitken used a similar device of abstracting and bouncing around sound, with torch-wielding ushers engaged in an increasingly frantic bidding war that started to feel like a gabber track in a sweaty underground club.

The orchestra of the Royal Northern College of Music, which accompanied the performances, was made the subject of two pieces. Olafur Eliasson revealed the audience to itself with a giant mirror as the musicians mimicked any cough, yelp or deliberate heckle the somewhat reserved art-world glitterati uttered. In Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster’s segment, the orchestra one by one deserted its pit, until a single gallant cellist was left holding the fort.

From moments of humorous, sometimes moving simplicity in the first half, the second presented Matthew Barney’s supremely overblown, extravagant and wilfully complex Guardian of the Veil. If you’ve ever seen any of the artist’s Cremaster films, you’ll have some idea as to what a live performance of Barney might entail. Its sheer bravado and insane levels of detail and investment were thrilling, but it was too long and too laboured. The problem with presenting artworks as time and not space was that you couldn’t dip in and out, spend more time on things you found interesting and less on those you didn’t. Il Tempo del Postino, like many a group show, was a very mixed bag. The excitement around this rare production was palpable at the start, and had Pierre Huyghe’s genius moments of warped Sesame Street punctuated the second half as well as the first, that elation may have survived Barney’s over-long and solemn extravaganza.

One final image: a huge brown hairy bull with its horns painted gold is led down a ramp onto a stage filled with naked women, various immaculately welded and Vaseline-covered paraphernalia and Barney with a live dog covering his head. Sniffing the rear end of a cow-like attachment to a smashed-up car, the bull rejects its proposed mating partner and walks quietly away.

Visit http://www.iconeye.com to view this article in context, published in Icon magazine, September 2007