Do It at the Manchester Art Gallery: A perpetual exhibition, constantly regenerating itself

The latest reincarnation of Hans-Ulrich Obrist’s ongoing exhibition encapsulates both the allure and danger of participatory art.

The gallery audience seems happy to dance to Hans-Ulrich Obrist’s tune. The air is thick with the smell of Thai chilli paste and fragmented conversation; scattered coloured notes are periodically swept from the floor; lemons are squeezed on an inverted bicycle seat. Do It is a series of artists’ instructions, firmly rooted in the appeal of the conceptual avant-garde, steadily accumulating over two decades, and freshly interpreted in each new reenaction.

In 1993, curator Hans-Ulrich Obrist sat down with artists Christian Bolstanski and Bertrand Lavier in a Paris cafe. Bolstanki and Lavier had previously been exploring the role of written instruction in the translation and interpretation of artwork. Now, drawing from this personal obsession with instruction, as well as Duchampian ideas of the lifespan of exhibitions, the trio’s conversation led them to the idea for a compilation of "interventions". "The exhibitions we remember are the ones that invent new rules of the game," Obrist recently observed. Do It looked to capture the ethic of a DIY handbook filled with artists’ instructions for staging artworks, and the possibilities that this offered of a perpetual exhibition, constantly regenerating itself. Between its multiple reincarnations, Do It remains in a kind of stasis.

Do It has had over 60 different lives, infusing both the underground and mainstream, embracing over 250 artists from Marina Abramovic to Damien Hirst, and issuing demands that border on the surreal and psychotic. The radical movement grew up in the age of the internet and the rise to prominence of the curator, both of which have been critical influences on its evolution. Its latest resurrection as part of the Manchester International Festival has taken up residence in the Manchester Art Gallery’s annexe, where visitors engage with instructions in an Active Room, while Archive and Film Rooms document the exhibition’s history. But Do It’s spirit of instruction, risk and chance also permeates through the gallery’s corridors of neoclassical and contemporary architecture, with engineered conversations and rapid performances spreading virus-like down to the permanent collections of predominantly Victorian art.

Beneath Do It’s unabashed enthusiasm for written instruction are darker spaces where living artists confront the instructions of artists past. So Louise Bourgeois’ instruction ‘Smile at the Stranger’ is submerged in shadow via Tracey Emin, who instead proffers: "I smile at a stranger, the stranger I know, but they didn’t smile back…" Do It derives its artistic force from this idea of a living score and the art of interpretation.

But Obrist’s collective of stellar names might easily induce sickening overload. Yoko Ono instructs us to "make a wish. Write it down on a piece of paper. Fold it and tie it around a branch of a wish tree." Elsewhere, Olafur Eliasson’s Your mindful meteorite positions a piece of space rock in front of half silvered glass. I last encountered the Scandinavian artist dealing with similarly cosmic themes back in his 2003 The weather project which bathed the Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall in dampened sunlight. Here he notes that this is the first time the observer will have touched something from beyond the earth. "Take your asteroid perspective," Eliasson advises. "Be outside and inside yourself at the same time, present in the multiverse. Become an asteroid. Do it."

Obrist, who in 2009 topped ArtReview’s Power 100 list, deftly plays his part as the art world’s guru. But the exercise in self-delusion begins as Obrist seeks to relate Do It’s open curatorial model to a particular sense of activism. "The instructions from the last couple of years have a kind of parallel energy to Occupy Wall Street," he told ARTnews.

Perhaps Do It’s subversive potential is at its most tangible in a set of instructions from the dissident Chinese artist Ai Weiwei on how to tackle a CCTV surveillance camera, utilising a spray paint can, pole and corkscrew. Elsewhere, Suzanne Lacy’s Cleaning Conditions seeks to bring museum staff together in "cleaning actions" and "cross-sector meetings" as a consciousness-raiser over low-paid working conditions.

This might all seem rather well-intentioned, but for the fact that Do It encapsulates a far wider problem. Participatory art’s political retreat under neoliberalism has been a phenomenon well documented by radical critics such as Claire Bishop. Far away from its origins as an empowering counter to the gold rush fever infecting the art market, it now acts as an image, not reality, of social cohesion.

As Bruce Altshuler notes, Do It’s very title evokes two seemingly conflicted messages: both the familiar Nike advertising slogan, "Just Do It", as well as the spirit of protest as embodied by activist Jerry Rubin’s 1970 publication DO IT! Do It plays a rhetorical game that, while partly offering concessions to audience empowerment, is far more rooted in insidious obfuscation. On recognition of this, the spectacle becomes increasingly obnoxious. In this interrogation of artwork, exhibition and curator, ideas are sometimes darkly comic, and all too often divorced from meaning.

Until September 22, www.manchestergalleries.org

 

The exhibitions we remember are the ones that invent new rules of the game", says Hans-Ulrich Obrist.

En Liang Khong is an arts writer and cellist.

Follow on twitter @en_khong

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Orhan Pamuk's The Red-Haired Woman is playful and unsettling

At times, the novel seems to owe as much to Dostoevsky as to the epics of the long-distant past.

When cultures collide or begin to merge, what happens to their myths? In Orhan Pamuk’s psychodramatic and psychogeographic tale of fathers and sons, the protagonist Cem mentally collects versions of the Oedipus story from across Europe – Ingres’s painting of Oedipus and the Sphinx hanging in the Louvre, Gustave Moreau’s work of the same name, painted 50 years later, Pasolini’s film adaptation, Oedipus Rex. But he also fixates on the epic poem “Shahnameh”, written by the Persian poet Ferdowsi; and in particular the story of Rostam and Sohrab, a reversal of the Oedipus story in which father kills son rather than vice versa. As Cem and his wife travel the world’s libraries to inspect copies, what they learn is “how ephemeral all those ancient lives had been”.

Nor is Cem immune to the act of readerly projection. “Like all educated Turks of my father’s generation,” Cem tells us, “what I really hoped to find on these trips wandering the shops, the cinemas, and the museums of the Western world was an idea, an object, a painting – anything at all – that might transform and illuminate my own life.”

Cem has more reason than many to seek clarification: his own father has been absent – whether for reasons of underground political activity or romantic complications is, for a long time, unclear – for most of his childhood; he and his mother become impoverished and, as he tells us at the very beginning of the novel, his dream of becoming a writer yields to a life as a building contractor. But these matter-of-fact bare bones are deceptive, for what unfolds is a far more fabular account of a life gone awry.

Even beyond his father’s departure, Cem’s life is shaped by his teenage apprenticeship to Master Mahmut, a well-digger of great renown. It removes him from his protective mother’s sphere of influence and immerses him in a world at once simple – long hours of physical labour – and highly skilled. As his and Master Mahmut’s quest for water on a patch of land slated for development runs into difficulties, so their relationship – boss and employee, craftsman and disciple, quasi father and son – becomes antagonistic, beset by undercurrents of rivalry and rebellion. Before too long (and avoiding spoilers) matters come to a head.

Throughout, their story gestures toward the fairytale, as underlined by Cem’s irresistible attraction to a travelling theatre troupe performing satirical sketches and classical scenes in the town near their excavation, and to the red-haired woman of the title. But Pamuk, in the style that characterises much of his work, fuses this material with political and social commentary. Over the three or four decades covered by the narrative, which takes place from the mid-1980s to the present day, the landscape of Istanbul and its surrounding areas literally changes shape. Residential and commercial developments spring up everywhere, many of them courtesy of Cem and his wife Aye, who have named their business after Shahnameh’s murdered son, Sohrab. Water shortages belie the sophisticated nature of these new suburbs, which eventually begin to form an amorphous mass.

Cem is preoccupied by the differences between Turkey and Iran, the latter seeming to him more alive to its cultural past. Turks, he decides, “had become so Westernised that we’d forgotten our old poets and myths”. While in Tehran, he sees numerous depictions of Rostam and Sohrab, and finds himself stirred:

I felt frustrated and uneasy, as if a fearful memory I refused to acknowledge consciously might suddenly well up and make me miserable. The image was like some wicked thought that keeps intruding on your mind no matter how much you yearn to be rid of it.

The extent to which individuals and societies suffer by not keeping their mythic past in mind is Pamuk’s subject, but it becomes more ambiguous when different stories are brought into play. What is the significance of a son who kills his father in innocence rather than a father who kills his son? Which is the more transgressive and ultimately damaging act and should both killers be regarded as guiltless because they knew not what they did?

But, as its title is perhaps designed to suggest, these accounts of fathers and sons omit a key element of the family drama: if paternity becomes a focus to the exclusion of all else, maternal energy must find an alternative outlet. As this strange, shifting novel edges to its conclusion – becoming, in its final act, a noir thriller – that energy makes a dramatic return, changing not only the story but the entire narrative paradigm.

The Red-Haired Woman is a puzzling novel; its intentions are often concealed, and oblique. At times, it seems to owe as much to Dostoevsky as to the epics of the long-distant past; it moves forward by indirection, swapping modes and registers at will. Playful and unsettling, it reprises some of Pamuk’s favourite themes – the clash between the past and the erasures of modernity, so charged in a Turkish context, and the effect on the individual’s psyche – without quite reaching the expansive heights of some of his previous novels. It is, nonetheless, an intriguing addition to his body of work. 

The Red-Haired Woman
Orhan Pamuk. Translated by Ekin Oklap
Faber & Faber, 253pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 14 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The German problem