The northern English town of Manchester may be the only city in the world to have a creative director. He is the graphic designer Peter Saville. Six years ago, to help revive the town's sagging fortunes, he picked music impresario Alex Poots to found the Manchester International Festival, a three-week biennial of live music and live art.
Its third edition, June 30-July 17, 2011, had headliners like Snoop Dogg, but it also had artsier types like Björk, who appeared in her killer-app new stage show wearing a scarlet wig with a wingspan that would have been the envy of a 1970s Diana Ross.
Manchester loves the stylized and the creative. (One street in the northern quarter is all hairdressers; another is replete with vinyl record shops.) Practically the birthplace of the industrial revolution, it is where both Marx and Engels formulated their economic theories, where the atom was first smashed, and where Joy Division, Oasis, the Buzzcocks and the Smiths all got their start.
On Saturday, July 9, the rare sunshine brought an invasion of costumed hen and stag parties to streets already swarming with hairy-chested trannies in town for the weekend Sparkle Festival, a cross-dressers' convention celebrating "gender diversity" in all its forms.
As if that weren't a colorful enough collision of competing cultures, the day also saw two art-world premieres: Robert Wilson's production of The Life and Death of Marina Abramovic, a spectacle in itself, and "11 Rooms," a group show of performance art that was put together by Serpentine Gallery co-director Hans Ulrich Obrist and MoMA PS1 director Klaus Biesenbach.
Both shows were commissions from the International Festival, as was Dr. Dee, a precious performance opera that Gorillaz frontman Damon Albarn concocted with director Rufus Norris about a mystic from Manchester. On a pedestrian street near the gothic Town Hall, Irish artist John Gerrard erected a projection screen for Infinite Freedom, a motion-capture video of a balletic soldier demonstrating protective positions in an Iraqi desert.
The mix offered an alluring study in contrasts between the performing arts and performance art, where flesh-and-blood humans make themselves into visual objects instead of entertainments.
That was the substance of "11 Rooms," which opened at the Manchester Art Gallery, a city museum with a cache of pre-Raphaelite painting. Though advertised as if the 11 artists involved had taken over furnished salons in a palace, the actual exhibition played out in small, mostly white-walled cubicles, each about the size of an average art-fair booth.
The close quarters forced visitors into claustrophobic intimacy with the human sculptures, all calculated to work the nerves of the audience. The door to Brazilian artist Laura Lima's room, for example, was a crawlspace that required getting down on hands and knees to peer through it. A crumpled figure lay against the far wall, under a ceiling that Lima had lowered to a height of 17 inches. Only the wall text revealed that the person lying in the room was in some way disabled. That made the piece seem outrageously exploitative. Or was Lima showing us how we ogle the disadvantaged? The atmosphere was one of puzzled pathos.
Santiago Sierra's room also had a figure facing a corner, this time standing upright. The Nauman-like title of the work told the story: Veterans of the wars of Northern Ireland, Afghanistan and Iraq facing the corner, 2011. One at a time, in shifts, three former British soldiers selected by the artist stood there in silence, their noses to the wall, as if either reprimanded for, or ashamed of, their service. Viewers were left to decide for themselves. Some were quite moved by the experience. I felt it was too obvious. But when the Northern Ireland veteran came off his watch and I asked what he was thinking, he responded by expressing sympathy for New York on September 11 -- something his welling eyes told me he understood. That touched me.
Allora and Calzadilla often refer to military operations in their work, as they did at this year's Venice Biennale. In Manchester, they had a team of men and women dressed in gray sweats link arms and march in a circular pattern to become a human revolving door. Some visitors had the good luck to get caught in the barricade as the performers goose-stepped, pranced and high-kicked around the room. Regimentation and entrapment became the issue, once you had a chance to think about it.
"11 Rooms" had a historical side, too. It included Joan Jonas's 1970 performance, Mirror Check, in which she examined every inch of her body with a small mirror, and Marina Abramovic's 1997 Luminosity, where she perched naked for hours on a bicycle seat fixed high to a wall, seemingly crucified by a bright light. Though both artists were present for the opening, each work was staged by young "re-performers," who comported themselves fitfully enough, but absent the political and social context of the originals, and the personal intensity of the artists, the restagings came off as footnotes.
In Tino Sehgal's room, a 13-year-old girl introduced herself as "Ann Lee," a fully human realization of Annlee, the Japanese manga character appropriated by Philippe Parreno and Pierre Huyghe ten years ago, for a series of digital animations. The girl moved like a CGI doll and spoke of her life as an international artwork. In typical Sehgal fashion, she also asked questions. Had anyone in the room heard of her? One woman gave a resounding "No."
The girl I saw -- there were four appearing in rotation -- continued unfazed, asking more questions: "Is it better to be too busy or not busy enough?" "What is the relationship between a sigh and melancholia?" Most people seemed unsure what to make of an artwork that talked back. I thought the piece less than challenging, but sweet.
Most fantastic was Xu Zhen's In Just a Blink of an Eye. In this 2005 work, a lone performer clad in sneakers, jeans and a windbreaker lies suspended in mid-air, as if stopped in mid-fall, with no visible means of support. It took quite a while to figure out that there had to be an armature hidden in the performer's clothing. But still. This was an amazing sight. A brochure identified the piece as one the artist made about Chinese migrant workers. Here, it was an artwork that dramatized a real-life problem by harnessing the marvelous.
Yet the most resonant work in the show didn't have a live performer, only printed emails pinned to the walls. They detailed the frustrated efforts of the exhibition's organizers to produce an unrealized piece of shock art by John Baldessari dating from 1970.
Baldessari's idea was to display a refrigerated human corpse in the frontal manner of Mantegna's Dead Christ, which viewers would see through a peephole fashioned after the one in Duchamp's Étant donnés. "One would possibly be appalled," Baldessari wrote in his original, typewritten statement, also on view. But, he added, by lighting and staging the cadaver to approximate the Mantegna figure -- "making it look like art" -- viewers might more easily see it as sculpture.
The year-long process involved in trying to bring Cadaver Piece to Manchester raised a dizzying number of sticky legal, ethical, privacy and practical issues that pitted art against science and the state. I was glad not to have to see it in the flesh. The presentation of the problem, however, was fascinating.
That evening, the opening of The Life and Death of Marina Abramovic brought an audience that included Laurie Anderson, the singer Rufus Wainwright, actor Chloe Sevigny, Tate director Sir Nicholas Serota, Givenchy designer Riccardo Tisci, and London newspaper magnate Evgeny Lebedev to the Lowry Theater in Salford Quay.
Onstage were three coffins on which three Abramovics in white death masks and black shrouds were lying, sporadically attended by three sniffing Dobermans. (Abramovic has said that she plans to have funerals in New York, Amsterdam and Belgrade, and leave mourners guessing as to which city her body will be interred.)
A gorgeously lit, surreal, three-hour staging of what amounted to the performance diva's own Mommie Dearest, the show heavily depended on a kick-out-the-jams Willem Dafoe. Made-up, and sounding, like the Joker, he played the narrator of Abramovic's personal melodrama, ticking off the highs and lows of her emotional life in histrionic fits and starts alleviated by straightforward speeches.
They alluded to, rather than spelled out, Abramovic's Serbian childhood as the daughter of Serbian Communist party leaders, her psychosomatic hemophilia, her difficulties with a restrictive and punishing mother, her parents' divorce, her breakup with Ulay, her move to New York and her own divorce.
The choreography of one exhilarating passage included a sea of tiny hospital beds that moved beneath the dancers' feet. Svetlana Spajic, a traditional Serbian singer, added soaring vocals to other moments, but the show achieved lift-off every time its musical director, Antony Hegarty (of Antony and the Johnsons) sang one of the nine songs he composed for the production. (William Basinski contributed an additional electronic score.) Antony's first-act closer, The Cut, with Abramovic mounted on a giant wooden horse and the entire, 11-member company onstage waving white banners, was so achingly beautiful I nearly wept.
It was interesting to see a narcissist like Abramovic become an object in the Wilsonian universe. For all the charisma she exudes in her own performances, she is not an actor. While she was playing her demonized mother, she seemed awkward and withdrawn. As herself, she was more relaxed, but the only time she seemed really at home on stage was during a second-act, punch-and-parry dialogue with the steely Dafoe, who improvised a series of guttural, tittering responses to the drone of her heartaches, and made what could have been a downer of a scene hilarious. And when she had to sing, the sound was uncanny -- she could have been channeling Marlene Dietrich.
This was the sixth time Abramovic has asked another artist to stage her ongoing biography. (The first was a performance video by Charles Atlas, shot in 1989.) At this point, Abramovic and Wilson seem made for each other. They share a similar minimalist esthetic and love the sumptuous. What's more, his elastic sense of time and space parallels her sacrificial acts of long duration. But theater and performance are not the same, and they require different skills.
"Performance is easy," Abramovic joked backstage, after the show. "Theater is much harder!"
It's also an art form, which for Wilson is based on striking images and unexpected sounds, not story. Abramovic has a good one, but it is not heroic, only human. And that is what this satisfying piece of theater wrought: a sense of humanity that is fallible, cunning, brutal and beautiful all at once. I enjoyed it.
The Life and Death of Marina Abramovic will have a return engagement at Teatro Real in Madrid in April 2012.
LINDA YABLONSKY is an art critic who writes for Artforum.com, the Art Newspaper, T: The New York Times Style Magazine, W and other publications.