Off the wall

In the 90s, it was all about unexpected spaces,” says Hans Ulrich Obrist, one of London’s most energetic and engaging art world figures, co-director of the Serpentine Gallery and curator of too many projects to mention. He’s sitting in the gallery’s off-site offices in Kensington, sporting a dashing Madras check cotton suit and rattling off sentences in his Swiss-inflected English.

“But now you want to curate time. It doesn’t mean that objects are redundant – and great painting still happens – but a lot of important art happens without objects. There is a desire for a live experience.”

Obrist has been thinking about this performative aspect of contemporary art for some years. “I rang [American artist] Matthew Barney to wish him Happy New Year in 2000 and we had this conversation. He’d been working on all these Cremaster movies, and he said ‘I have a desire for immediate experience, for live experience’.”

Obrist and Barney had to wait seven years to fulfil their joint ambition, but in the meantime the appetite for the live and immediate in art had most certainly taken off. There is intense interest in work that is live, participatory, dramatic and immersive. Of the several shows I’ve seen in the past few weeks, from dancer and choreographer Michael Clark in Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall to conceptual artist Martin Creed performing with his band at Sadler’s Wells, not one has involved looking at art on a wall or an object on a floor, but performance, music, dance, fashion, film and, at Clark’s production, lighting by video and filmmaker Charles Atlas that was a work of art all of its own.

Among them all, though, perhaps the most intriguing was that of Swiss artist Christoph Buchel, who has turned Hauser & Wirth’s elegant Piccadilly gallery (formerly a bank with an unscathed turn-of-the-last-century Lutyens interior) into a temporary but fully functioning community centre – complete with lino floors, swing doors, tea dances and computer classes. Counter to all this productive social engagement, in rooms behind doors marked private (but which visitors are encouraged to access), are carefully curated scenarios of lives lived obsessively on the outside of society. These strange empty-yet-occupied spaces insinuate themselves deep into the memory and leave indelible visual imprints in the mind.

If the boundaries of art have blurred, it’s nowhere more visible than at the biennial Manchester International Festival, which opened last week. Now in its third cycle, the festival is dedicated to original work: it launched with the world premiere of Icelandic singer Björk’s new work, Biophilia. The festival’s director is 43-year-old Alex Poots, a former Tate curator and a trumpet player, who in his role as the English National Opera’s director of contemporary arts took the Valkyrie to the Pyramid stage at Glastonbury in 2004. Poots describes Björk’s piece, four years in the making, as a union of science, music and nature.

Obrist’s contribution to this year’s festival is a group show called 11 Rooms (the title comes from a series of 11 tableaux vivants by American artist John Baldessari, dating from 1970, that never got made) at the Manchester City Art Gallery, whose more usual attraction is a fine collection of Pre-Raphaelite painting. In 2007, at the first Manchester festival, Obrist worked with Philippe Parreno to curate Il Postino del Tempo, in which artists were each given stage time, rather than the more usual space on a gallery wall or floor. Among them, Barney filled his 45 minutes wearing a live dog on his head. The stage was taken up with contortionists and a crashed car, sculpted hunks of petroleum jelly and a bull.

This year, Obrist is in partnership with Klaus Biesenbach who, with his directorship of PS1 (the part of New York’s Museum of Modern Art devoted to contemporary art), matching enthusiasms and bold, bald-headed presence, appears to be Obrist’s transatlantic counterpart. For this project, they spoke to each other every day for a year.

“We allotted the rooms very slowly,” explains Obrist of their takeover. “This is going to be like a classic museum show. Each room is discrete, hidden behind a door, with tableaux vivants and tableaux morts. It’s living art: we consider it as a sculpture show in some way. And there are participatory moments, like with [artist] Roman Ondak, where the visitor takes in an object and takes away an object, so there is an exchange.”

Among Obrist and Biesenbach’s other chosen artists is Tino Sehgal, a practitioner who has taken the removal of the object from art to the extreme. Sehgal is so conceptual that when he sells pieces, which he does in the presence of the collector and his lawyer, nothing concrete changes hands except the idea – usually words – carried in the head. And he has plenty of collectors, including Tate Modern.

“It’s an extraordinary experience,” says Obrist of Sehgal’s work. (In the German pavilion of the Venice Biennale in 2005 it involved uniformed museum guards suddenly singing “This is so contemporary, contemporary, contemporary” – I’ll admit, you had to be there, but it really was funny and engaging). “It’s also interesting that there is more and more anxiety generally about resources not being unlimited. Maybe art is aware of that.”

Obrist also attributes the longing for the live to the internet. “I went all the time to concerts as a kid, then I didn’t and now I do it again ... So why do I go? Because I watch YouTube clips every day, then I have a desire to go to concerts.”

James Lingwood of Artangel, a commissioning organisation that has delivered more site specific and ephemeral work than most, says that he and co-director Michael Morris set up Artangel precisely “to see what would happen outside the white walls of the gallery and the black box of the theatre”. In his view, “artists always have a latent desire to do something else. Art has gradually embraced and absorbed many different materials, from Cubist collages, to Surrealist objects, to the everyday materials of Arte Povera. It’s a continuing expansion, now taking in space and time.”

Perhaps it is also a response to an artworld that in the last decade or two has been over-heated and over-hyped, with collectors acquiring work for reasons of status not passion, and artists running factory-like studios, flooding the market with product. Work that is ephemeral has a value based on its relationship to people, not money: if it does not entertain, inspire, excite or communicate, then it has no value at all. “We’re talking about a non-commodified practice,” says Sheena Wagstaff, chief curator at Tate Modern, who says she “fought very hard” to bring on board a curator for live and performance art shortly after the gallery opened in 2000. “It was very clear there was a whole new generation of artists who were not reviving the performance ideas of previous decades but were incorporating other genres into their work and in totally new ways. In the nascent years of Tate Modern, it was our job to define a museum for the 21st century, and this was one of the starting points.” she says. Or, as Alex Poots says, “I’ve just learnt to follow where the artists lead.”

‘11 Rooms’ is at Manchester Art Gallery from Saturday until July 17.

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