Manchester International Festival 2021 Tackles The Big Contemporary Issues

Marta Minujín, Big Ben Lying Down with Political Books, installation view at Manchester International Festival 2021. Photo by Fabio De Paola. Image courtesy of Manchester International Festival.
Forensic Architecture, Cloud Studies, installation view at Manchester International Festival 2021. Photo by Michael Pollard. Image courtesy of Manchester International Festival.
Laure Prouvost, The long waited weighted gathering, installation view at Manchester International Festival 2021. Photo by Michael Pollard. Image courtesy of Manchester International Festival.
[Left to right] Tarek Lakhrissi, Tracey Emin, Renee Gladman, Vivienne Griffin and Lubaina Himid for Poet Slash Artist, installation view at Manchester International Festival 2021. Photo by Fabio De Paola. Image courtesy of Manchester International Festival.
Cephas Williams, Portrait of Black Britain, installation view at Manchester International Festival 2021. Photo by Fabio De Paola. Image courtesy of Manchester International Festival.
Marta Minujín, Big Ben Lying Down with Political Books, installation view at Manchester International Festival 2021. Photo by Fabio De Paola. Image courtesy of Manchester International Festival.
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This year’s Manchester International Festival, held biannually since 2007, is about as diverse a platform for international art as you could imagine. New commissioned works—in genres from music, dance and film to exhibitions and outdoor installations—reflect diversity, and many tackle pressing global issues. But the festival also reaches out beyond elite art audiences, offering something for everyone.

 

TEXT: Herbert Wright
IMAGES: Courtesy of Manchester International Festival

There’s a strong radical thread running through much of Manchester International Festival 2021 (MIF21), but not everything has an agenda. For example, Global Playground‘s colourful, creative dance performance “Make Your Own Film” at the Great Northern Warehouse is child-friendly and frequently funny, while the opening outdoor event, “Sea Change” choreographed by Boris Charmantz, saw 150 young locals perform in the city along its main central street Deansgate. However, just surveying the visual arts offerings, we can see there were also plenty of serious stuff.

 

Forensic Architecture, Cloud Studies, installation view at Manchester International Festival 2021. Photo by Michael Pollard. Image courtesy of Manchester International Festival.

 

A key exhibition (which continues until 17 October) is Forensic Architecture’s Cloud Studies at The Whitworth Gallery, a public museum of international reputation. The London-based practice investigates human rights abuses and, increasingly, ecocide (environmental crime), by meticulously documenting and digitally modelling events and interviewing those there. The spatial analysis of events draws on architectural methods. Ironically, hostile regimes have dismissed Forensic Architecture as artists, and here they are exhibiting in an arts venue for an arts festival. For MIF21, they appropriate the meteorological idea of cloud studies to a decade of investigations into different artificial clouds used against people and nature. These include Israeli attacks on Gaza with herbicide and cement dust clouds from bombing, to the vast transnational swathes of smoke from Indonesian forest fires loaded with carbon, soot, methane and ammonia, and more. The “environmental racism” of industrial pollution poisoning Black communities in Louisiana, USA, gets a whole room. This multimedia exhibition does more than reveal dark truths—it has a relentless, shocking power that is numbing.

Nothing could be further from Cloud Studies than French artist Laure Provoust’s installation The Long Waited, Weighted, Gathering (until 3 October), which is both whimsical and enchanting. A screen opens up like a flower to show a surrealistic film where two local Jewish ladies reminisce and sew over tea at a dining table floating in the clouds. Their sewing work and dainty tea crockery are spread around the seating of the old synagogue preserved in the museum, adding to the show’s warmth and humanity.

The MIF21 feature showcase film is All of This Unreal Time, directed by Aoifa McArdle and screened in what was once an enormous railway terminus and is now the Central Convention Centre. Scripted by Max Porter, the film follows actor Cillian Murphy at night through bleak concrete tunnels, urban streets, a café and an empty park in first light, all deserted but for him. His words are an anguished and intensely personal monologue about guilt and a plea for forgiveness from those in his life, all spoken over an ominous soundtrack. This art-film reaches deep into the subject’s soul, to profound effect. Strangely, the film was shot in London, although Manchester would have served just as well.

 

Laure Prouvost, The long waited weighted gathering, installation view at Manchester International Festival 2021. Photo by Michael Pollard. Image courtesy of Manchester International Festival.
[Left to right] Tarek Lakhrissi, Tracey Emin, Renee Gladman, Vivienne Griffin and Lubaina Himid for Poet Slash Artist, installation view at Manchester International Festival 2021. Photo by Fabio De Paola. Image courtesy of Manchester International Festival.

Poet Slash Artist, co-curated by Hans Ulrich Obrist and local poet Lemn Sissay, shows a cornucopia of works by 25 artists in which images and poetry cross over. As Sissay explains, “The relationship between poetry and art goes right back to Egyptian hieroglyphics”. As well as posters mounted at different street locations, the main exhibition (which is on view after MIF21 until 30 August) is taking place at cultural centre HOME. The group show is completely absorbing. It includes charming cartoons by the late Friederike Mayröcker, an edgy urban drawing/poem diptych by Inua Ellams called Fuck/Concrete and a hand-written text in neon by Tracey Emin. Xu Bing has disguised a poem by Sissay in what appears to be Chinese calligraphy, as well as describing One Day in Manchester using symbol icons on a poster outside, while in The Bastard Scroll, Hong Kong-born Tiffany Sia muses on history in two metres of hanging computer print-out.

 

Cephas Williams, Portrait of Black Britain, installation view at Manchester International Festival 2021. Photo by Fabio De Paola. Image courtesy of Manchester International Festival.

 

Photographer-activist Cephas Williams’ Portrait of Black Britain offers even more public access, because its audience is the crowds circulating in the Arndale Centre, the bustling shopping mall at the heart of Manchester. Banners hanging throughout the venue and displays along passageways show 1000 Black high-achievers with the name and their family roots given for each. Williams clearly asked his subjects to look serious for the shoot, building an impression of contemporary British Blacks with dignity and pride.

EART: A Manifesto of Possibilities is a project by Pakistani artist Rashid Rana in the Dantzic Building. His big vision claims to chart a new path for “the evolution of art”, for which he appropriates an ancient word “eart”, apparently implying self-expression. However, this is where things start going wrong, as the word’s source is unidentified, and what he proposes is actually not about whatever it is, but rather brand-free retail, social networking for intellectuals, and urban planning. Rather than clarify the ideas behind them, walls of dense, taxing text obscure them in semi-academic language. The final part describes Exit, an urban development model that proposes cubic modular units to compartmentalise different urban activities such as work and education. Digital graphics show these units clustering upwards in a future Lahore. As a utopian ideal, it seems preset to fail. But the EART show does redeem itself in a satellite venue some 100 metres away, which demonstrates Rana’s concept for a “Minus Glocal” shop. In it, shelves carry grocery products in plain, unbranded pastel-coloured containers, which you can buy. The shop is a strangely relaxing experience, and the products are priced economically.

 

Marta Minujín, Big Ben Lying Down with Political Books, installation view at Manchester International Festival 2021. Photo by Fabio De Paola. Image courtesy of Manchester International Festival.

 

Just as progressive in its intentions but, by contrast, completely legible, is the walk-in installation Big Ben Lying Down with Political Books by Argentine artist Marta Minujín. Situated in the central Piccadilly Gardens, the structure is as its title describes. The approximately 40-metre-long new Big Ben is sheathed in plastic in which 20,000 books chosen by local institutions can be seen. Inside, a ramp leads to a multi-screen wall showing Big Ben blasting off, transforming to its new look as it flies over England, and landing in Manchester. The film is fun and Minujín’s message is that “things need to change”. Creating a new Big Ben for the people is “a way of being liberated”, she says.

There is yet more to MIF21, especially beyond the visual arts. The festival has maintained its progressive, wide-ranging approach ever since its first iteration, and has grown in both reputation and footfall. But future editions are unlikely to spread so much across the city, because MIF23 will be based in a vast new cultural centre called The Factory, designed by OMA. Hopefully, this epic festival will still reach out in terms of artistic territory and wide audiences as MIF21 has done.

 

 

Manchester International Festival 2021
1 – 18 July 2021
Various venues, Manchester

 

 

 
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