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"Il Tempo del Postino": the performance art group show comes to Art Basel

Constructed for a theatrical setting, this event makes space and time its materials

First unveiled to great acclaim at the Manchester International Festival two years ago and now at Art Basel in an expanded form, “Il Tempo del Postino” is a group show with a difference. Instead of the usual installation of objects arranged around a gallery space, each of the international line-up of 16 participating artists—including Olafur Eliasson, Doug Aitken, Tino Sehgal, Liam Gillick, Matthew Barney and Tacita Dean—has produced a time-based work of art specifically devised to be shown in a theatre setting. These artistic acts vary in format and length and are intended to be seen in sequence, resulting in a mould-breaking exhibition which has been described as “the world’s first visual arts opera.”

This artistic experiment is the brainchild of artist Philippe Parreno—who currently has two major exhibitions at the Pompidou Centre in Paris and the Kunsthalle Zurich—and global curator Hans Ulrich Obrist. The duo spent over a decade discussing the concept of what they describe as “an exhibition…structured not as a progression of physical objects, but around the notion of time itself.”

“Artists speak a lot about space—but the time of an exhibition is always given by the institution,” says Parreno, who has a long history of collaborative projects and whose piece for “Il Tempo…” consists of a ventriloquist’s dummy delivering a speech in praise of the late architect Cedric Price. “As an artist you can close down spaces, make them smaller or even bigger, but you cannot decide how long the show is going to last. So we imagined an exhibition where all the artists could have the key to their own time of visibility. Instead of going from room to room, the audience could sit down and have some moments of art.”

Both the exhibition’s title and central theme have their origins in Parreno’s 1992 essay “Postman Time”, which explores the time it takes to look at a work of art and how this experience is framed. “I noticed that people were spending more time reading labels and watching explanatory films on TV monitors than looking at the paintings themselves,” he remembers. Out of this observation emerged the idea for an exhibition which could be delivered—“postman style”—directly by the artists to the audience. However Parreno is keen to stress that “we are not talking about theatre or opera and we are not entertaining people with some pseudo-art. I believe that each form which is produced in Basel is a fantastic art object in its own right.”

The Basel manifestation of “Il Tempo del Postino” includes all of the original 14 artists, with the majority of their Manchester pieces receiving a second airing. These including Tino Sehgal’s dancing stage curtains, Douglas Gordon’s torch singer performing a live version of Joy Division’s song “Love Will Tear Us Apart” and Doug Aitken’s American cattle auctioneers patrolling the aisle with torches and selling off members of the audience. According to Obrist, the selection of artists was obvious from the start: “There’s this whole generation of artists who have always engaged very strongly with time—and we felt it was important to bring them together.”

But in keeping with an exhibition described by its organisers as “an open system”, there have also been significant changes for “Il Tempo’s…” second coming in Basel. Two of the participating artists, Rirkrit Tiravanija and Anri Sala, have now joined forces with Obrist and Parreno as co-directors, and there are also new contributions by Thomas Demand and Fischli & Weiss. “With Thomas, I had a very precise work in mind which is a film with a live musical element,” explains Anri Sala, whose own piece for “Il Tempo…” involves four sopranos singing an aria from “Madame Butterfly”, each illuminated by lights concealed behind their fans. “It is a very special piece which fits beautifully and really nourishes and adds to the show.”

The other notable difference in Basel is that Matthew Barney will not be performing Guardian of the Veil, a characteristically epic extravaganza which made up the entire second half of the programme in Manchester. Instead he is creating a new work made in collaboration with the composer Jonathan Bepler, who has worked closely with Barney on his Cremaster Cycle films. “The car that was in Matthew’s Manchester piece got shredded in a performance in Los Angeles and so it cannot be repeated,” reveals Hans Ulrich Obrist. “His new piece will be much more in the realm of 15 minutes long and although it is still related to the earlier work, he is developing something more to do with the idea of a musical score.”

The notion of a musical score or libretto not only runs through a number of “Il Tempo’s…” pieces, it also acts as a leitmotif for the show itself. Unlike conventional art exhibitions which, once they have toured, are dismantled and their objects dispersed, its organisers see “Il Tempo del Postino” as being like a piece of music or an opera which can be replayed at different times, in different places and in different circumstances. “We hope that after five, ten or even more years somebody else could re-do it,” declares Hans Ulrich Obrist. “We want it to be like a libretto that is open to new possibilities and interpretations.” However Anri Sala is also eager to stress that “Il Tempo del Postino” maintains its own identity. “It may be revisited in different ways but at its core it must be the same score. If every time you do a completely new thing then it becomes some kind of peculiar mini-biennial which is not the aim.”

So how do its curators view “Il Tempo del Postino” in the new context of an art fair? “Going through this economic crisis that we have today, its quite nice to make a clear statement that an art object is not only an object you can buy it’s also a moment in which you can experiment,” says Parreno. “It’s all about something that you can’t buy but which can still exist.”