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Load of bull?

Jonathan Schofield finds Manchester International <i>Festival’s Il Tempo del Postino</i> remarkable, disturbing, but all a little empty

Written by . Published on July 13th 2007.

Load of bull?

What the bull does on stage – as reported by Manchester Confidential - at Il Tempo del Postino didn’t quite work out. Well, not on the first night of the performances. The eye-witness accounts given to us by reliable folk at the preview didn’t quite happen that way. It must have been toned down if that phrase could possibly be used about this production. Lots of mad stuff did happen though, such as the girls urinating on stage…. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

We were informed at the beginning of the show that the name Il Tempo del Postino means ‘postman time’. Indeed. The first part was a series of sketches from various artists directed by Philippe Parreno, involving a darkened stage, a mirror reflecting the audience back on itself, people who’d spent eight days looking at the world upside-down and an echo orchestra which played any noises from the auditorium back to the auditorium. Gordo excelled himself here, who together with the editor of Man Con, yep this writer, were the only people to shout things out and get an orchestral response- the reserved Brits eh?

It was easy to see what was going on. We, the audience, were the play. The curtains, in the third sketch, had danced very charmingly, being open and shut but not on the stage, no, upon us, introducing us. The idea possibly came from the venue itself. On its facade in huge capital letters the Opera House spells out THE PLAY MIRRORS LIFE. Maybe the producers saw this and that set them thinking.

As such, some elements of the first part of the show were entertaining and thought-provoking, others failed. The most moving was Anri Sala’s ‘4 Butterflies’ with opera singers posted around the auditorium and on stage, the worst was Tacita Dean’s video installation of an old man watching us watching him, both of us, he and the audience in the Opera House, passive onlookers.

Then the interval and the ritual began, courtesy of Matthew Barney (Bjork’s husband) and Jonathan Bepler. This featured a disembowelled car, naked women, an orchestra wearing Provisional IRA gear of fatigues and balaclava and so forth. It was a distorted Egyptian ritual, there was Anubis, the jackal headed God, this an actor with a real dog on his head and so forth. The car was mummified with its inner parts placed in votive jars. And the bull did come and have a sniff about. Apparently all this was based on Norman Mailer’s novel Ancient Evenings.

The play mirrors life theme was continued too. The ritual on stage was performed as though it were real, but of course, the reverence was false: it was a fake ritual and the performers knew it. We, the audience, sat silent like worshippers knowing it was fake too - yet we watched it as though it had meaning.

So with the car wreck, the pornographic elements, the animals and so on we became complicit in the emptiness of it all. In other words art was showing us how meaningless our consumerist world is, how pornographic we have become: our lives only a mirror to a real existenceof full engagement. We’ll watch anything through the filter of the internet and the TV, from a distance as it were: as cold as a reflection. A play can only mirror life. And our lives have become plays.

If this was the message then how banal? It’s one artists have tiresomely repeated for 150 years. How very teenage too – that whole isn’t everything horrible response? The final applause was muted rather than enthusiastic. Nobody knew what to make of it. It left the people I asked feeling empty, shallow almost.

That was no doubt the point. The jolly first part, the kick in the teeth in the second. We are in postman time, delivering other people’s messages, go-betweens, stuck between real events. Well, speak for yourself, Il Tempo.

Interesting? Yes. Remarkable? Yes. Good for the Festival? Absolutely. Any good in its own right? Give me a couple of days.

Il Tempo del Postino: A Group Show is on at the Opera House on the 13 and 14 July. Contact 0871 230 1888. Tickets: £15 or £10 concessions.

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18 comments so far, continue the conversation, write a comment.

ElizaJuly 13th 2007.

Clever title! i think it was playing with our idea of reality, distortion, piano's, snow, cars, bulls...the zombies stole the show

BarryJuly 13th 2007.

Good to see ManCon redeem itself with a balanced article and debate on this topic (rather than the previous bum steer).

katiemarlowJuly 13th 2007.

When will critics and programmers stop insulting our intelligence by earnestly telling us that the arts needs shows such as ‘Il Tempo Del Postino – Guardian of the Veil’, to supposedly continue to push creative boundaries and to innovate. How about displaying a bit of integrity and good sense, just for once, instead of pandering to the hype. Really – what is artistically ‘important’ or challenging about watching half naked women on stage, publicly squatting, contorting, urinating and defecating?Never mind the bull, which was required to mount a car (by the way, congrats to the animal for failing to perform its ‘artistic duties’) – how about acknowledging Guardian of the Veil for what it was – a pointless, gratuitous, and tasteless waste of stage space, on a grand scale.Is this really the best that Manchester International Festival can offer in its efforts to be ground-breaking? What a bleak and dismal beacon for new commissions – an appalling Romanesque-orgy fest of self indulgent, ‘artistic’ bull.Come on – there are plenty of fellow arts-loving, intelligent people out there. Let’s lift the smokescreen on smug, soulless efforts like Guardian of the Veil and the critical commentaries that seek to validate them. This Festival could and should achieve so much more.

Andy AbbottJuly 13th 2007.

I was disappointed by the whole night but mildly preferred the Barney sketch at the end. The first half seemed like a diluted approximation of a Fluxus festival without any energy or wit. I wasn't alone in thinking that with '3 years planning' and so many international names (plus the funding that comes with it) that the artists would have responded to the framework with more imagination. The better pieces were maybe the ones that made some use of the space and situation (4 butterfly) but I thought they barely scratched the surface. Some of the theatrical/stage-based pieces were embarrassing (particularly the Spinal Tap style falling foam monoliths). Perhaps if the atmosphere had been more conducive to talking or interaction between the audience there wouldn't have been so much pressure on the pieces to impress. Who wants to go through the effort of making a noise or shouting if all your going to get in return is some half-arsed violin response? It felt like a wasted opportunity to mic up the whole audience to me - then people might have made some noise.In the main the first half failed in being fun where it was meant to be fun (dancing curtains aside perhaps). The 'upside down people' sketch could have been a snippet from a T4 between-reality-shows interlude - I hope that some of the volunteers on the other nights are old women, young children etc (or if not they at least have to do some hand-eye coordination tests with dangerous objects after removing the goggles). As my friend put it 'If I want to see student's blinking moronically I can walk around Hyde Park in Leeds at 10am'. I found the zombie bits were pretty smug ("THIS is the funny bit. Art can make you laugh too.")The pieces that were meant to be immersive I found were either too short, quiet or boring to engage with properly (in particular the presentation of the video of Merce Cunningham 'being still' seemed to ignore that it was not being shown in a gallery). The Barney performance was a bit more like what I was anticipating I suppose - more 'weird stuff' going off at the same time, being made to look around the room more and feel a bit nervous, some pissing. It moved at a snail's pace though and the obvious lack of confidence and ability to stand still from the 'actors/extras' wrecked any suspension of belief that might have made it feel surreal.It wouldn't bother me enough to spend time writing about it if it weren't for the fact that much more successful things like this event happen regularly elsewhere, organised by artists, theatre groups, local councils, collectives and clubs with no 'international profile' and with much smaller budgets - The Institute of Crazy Dancing's 'Treasure Hunt' that took place last year as part of Light Night in Leeds for example. If this is some of the Artworld's attempt to prove that the current crop of fashionable names can adapt their 'relational' practices outside of the gallery context I'd rather they kept them in there. Even the additional magic and importance that the Opera House provided didn't cover up how shallow and throw-away the work was like a gallery can.

PaulJuly 13th 2007.

I thought this was terrible to be quite frank and I almost asked for my money back as I left. I did an A-level in Drama and it reminded me of the pretentious, thoughtless and achingly clichéd tosh I regret ever being involved with during my final practical exams.There were admittedly a couple of enjoyable pieces, such as the four butterflies and the echo sketch. But really, what was the silent tree in the darkend theatre realy about. The only message I got was "you paid good money to watch nothing".And please don't write me off as vacuous and uninsightful, I just know cr*p when I see it.

Gemma BrierleyJuly 13th 2007.

*wow (sorry typo error)

PiratemattJuly 13th 2007.

Fair points Mim The operatic mime [which really was enjoyable], and the dancing curtains were indeed highlights of the show but from, my maybe too expectant point of view, were way off being a top class international eventAuctioneer ensemble I can't agree with. This wasn't experimental, new or clever. It was a tedious foregone conclusion.Whilst on the one hand, I'm glad I witnessed [most] of the performance - I couldn't recommend it.

Pirate MattJuly 13th 2007.

No, No. I think we all went because: of descriptions such as "By focusing on time-based work, this group show will aim to redefine how visual arts can be created and experienced. Set in a theatre, it transforms the established gallery model into a unique, shared audience extravaganza." Furthermore, if the Bridgewater ever feel the need to introduce a rampant [or not] bull halfway through a rousing concerto then I'll be the first to write a strongly worded letter to my local MP.

GemmaJuly 13th 2007.

Woe i think that pretty much summed it up but that blank piece of paper did have a watermarked graphic on it.

GemmaJuly 13th 2007.

I really enjoyed the first half apart from the video, which I to missed the whole point of. However, maybe because only one woman urinated and the bull didn’t mount the full effect of what was trying to be achieved in Mathew Barney’s act was not felt. The people that I was sat with found it peaceful and entrancing, but I merely found it arduous and slightly unsettling. Sorry, did nobody else notice the self-fisted lady? Who was apparently meant to remove her fist after the bull had been relieved and squirt on stage.

KarenJuly 13th 2007.

I hate this sort of pretentious crap. I was there, I was bored in the first half, disgusted in the second half. And Mr Schofield if we have to think so hard about meanings then there's something wrong with the show. Waste of money.

MimJuly 13th 2007.

Pirate Matt, where you at the same show? - did you miss the stunning operatic mime, the graceful dancing curtains, the playful little zombies. And I personally loved the auctioneer ensemble.I'm really not the type of person who gets off on stroking my chin at abstract performance art but surely this was exciting, stimulating entertaining.There definitely was an issue about the organisation, the re-shuffle on the programme was a bit of a shambles. I also really didn't enjoy the final piece, it was draining and exhausting but hardly the kind of thing you get to see every week.And maybe that's all part of the privelege of having been to the opening of a top class international event - something that we surely would all like to see more of?

WayneJuly 13th 2007.

Kate - respect, you win. said it all.

AlJuly 13th 2007.

So let me get this straight, the opera house gets packed out on a Thursday evening just because word's got around that a bull might have it off WITH A CAR!!!?? It's saddening that the residents of Manchester will pitch up to rubbish like this whilst the Halle orchestra, one of the finest in the whole country, regularly play to a half empty Bridgewater Hall! There's so much culture in this city (Halle, RNCM, Royal Exchange) that is neglected by many, yet because this has the honour of being part of the Manchester International Festival, it's packed out!

JamesJuly 13th 2007.

Yes, the zombies were great. And during the Echo Orchestra my friend was the first to shout out - bogies, very loudly - so you weren't the only ones

Mark Garner: The PublisherJuly 13th 2007.

I don’t need two days, mate. All I need is the time to write this. The first half, thought provoking and enjoyable. And, funny. Apart from the Frostie staring at us for four minutes and thirty three seconds. Hello Zombie had it perfectly right. One of the Opera singers in 4 Butterflies was stood, four foot away from me, making the considerable number of hairs, not only on the back of my neck but across my whole back, stand on end.Here was a message that will be debated by people far more intelligent, but a good deal more shallow than I over many a cup of fair-trade coffee and warm piss poor white wine. This piece took talent both on the part of the entertainers and the director, as well as being a truly original piece of thought. I was spellbound. 4’33” took the talent of an Eton sixth former wondering how to please the Arts master as fast as possible in order to get to the back of the Wall for a spliff with his pals who, no doubt, would use the second half of this show as wanking material for a good many months to come.For the second part of the show was utter, utter boring middle class pretentious crap. If I ever meet Bjork's husband I will give him a slap and advise him to go and dig some holes in the road for six months or so. Then come back and talk about the human condition. Because it has fcuk all to do with this dogs dinner of nonsense. I am of course talking about the bits where some old tosser got a woman to stand on stage naked with her finger up her asre, for what seemed like two hours, the take a ****. Then contortionists, both female, one who was having problems doing the contortioning, the other who urinated across the stage. Then Barney the Bull, who was a handsome beast but like so many other great looking blokes couldn’t pull it off in the end. I WAS BORED!Tracy Emin's bed didn’t do that to me, staring at that for nearly an hour told me everything I wanted to know about that particular department of the human condition. Being mesmerised by Matisse’s chapel for nearly eight hours on a cold, wet January day made me understand as much as I ever will about art as teacher. And actually made me cry and go to mass the next day, lighting candles for my Gran, who was a darling. That’s the point, DO NOT FCUKING BORE ME. Make me do something.Then, the slap in the face. On the way out: “Would you like a souvenir of the show”. Ta, says I. A black envelope, white cross on the front, white card inside, with a simple black print of the title of the show. Bottom left, in tiny type. “Peter Saville”. I then realised why I was bored and threw it into a very wet gutter and decided not to go to the after show and have a nice cup of tea instead curled up on the couch back home.By the way Peter, don’t give me that patronising crap, you know, the crap which goes “it’s a bit like Shakespeare, you need to understand it…”, yes that crap. Willie wrote for the masses in his day, they laughed their bollocks off, even the ones who couldn’t read and write. Get me a guillotine.Schofield says it’s all good for the festival. As it ‘appens, I agree with him. Lord Poots, a brave move which I for one applaud. You at least got it half right.Mark GarnerPublisherManchester Confidential.

GezzaJuly 13th 2007.

Was it just my friend and I that noticed that there was pooing as well as urinating? The girl at the front of the stage with her hand up her bum pooed herself when she pulled her hand away! I am still shell shocked!

Pirate MattJuly 13th 2007.

I unfortunately missed the second half - due to my other half being able to stand no more. This is fair play to her. It takes a strong constitution to listen to the ramblings of a stock market dog race or sit still for 15 minutes watching a projection of a man, watching you.However, morbid curiosity kept me hooked. How could anybody think that an echo orchestra was something new, thought provoking or worth devoting 15 minutes too? Did the artificial musings of people who had seen the world the "right way up" cause me to question my own view of reality? Could I really take any pleasure from watching snow falling on a piano self playing, almost offensively staccato melodic tune which many people [hoped no doubt] signified an interval, causing mild confusion and brief panic in some of the attendees. I can only answer ‘no’ to all the above. Maybe this was the double bluffed point, but no score for execution, effectiveness or enjoyment.Ok maybe I missed the whole point of the show maybe the whole ‘arty’ thing sailed over my head. I don't think it did - I could see some of the tenuous messages being portrayed. Though it was rather like bringing in a bull dozer, to demolish a house of cards. I left my brother to the second half. As I mentioned earlier I left with an exodus of disillusioned soul mates, who seemed bewildered, confused and in some cases even angry. My brother, who bravely sacrificed another 90 minutes of his time, remained behind for the no doubt more intimate second half. I believe he was treated to a bull with stage fright, whilst two women urinated. I've not heard from him since, no text, no email, and no phone call. I hope he’s ok, as I fear his view on the world has been distorted beyond repair.

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