Hans Ulrich Obrist

At last Art Basel, I had the chance to see Il Tempo del Postino at Theatre Basel. The Independent called this unique show “The world’s first visual arts opera” after its first and only presentation at the Manchester International Festival in 2007, for which a group of the world’s leading visual artists created a major experimental presentation.

Il Tempo del Postino
(Postman Time) presents a sequential display of time-based art on the theatre stage. Each of the twenty artists have created an act of different length. In addition to works from the artists who participated in Manchester in 2007 – Doug Aitken, Matthew Barney & Jonathan Bepler, Tacita Dean, Trisha Donnelly, Olafur Eliasson, Liam Gillick, Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster, Douglas Gordon, Carsten Höller, Pierre Huyghe, Koo Jeong-A, Philippe Parreno, Anri Sala, Tino Sehgal and Rirkrit Tiravanija& Arto Lindsay – Il Tempo del Postino in Basel included new contributions by Thomas Demand and Peter Fischli / David Weiss.

I found Il Tempo del Postino an amazing and spectacular experience which I will never forget. It was beautiful, challenging, interactive, unique and unusual. This is certainly one of the best performances I’ve ever seen.


In order to understand Il Tempo del Postino better, I asked Hans Ulrich Obrist, to answer my questions, which he agreed to do. Here is the interview in exclusivity for Art is Alive:

How is Il Tempo del Postino born?
Il tempo del Postino was probably born before it was born. It was such a long story somehow.

It became concrete when Philippe Parreno and I started to work on an exhibition at the Musée d’Art Moderne (in Paris) in 2000. I kind of always had thought about it in the 90s when I was an independent curator. As an independent curator you do group shows, and you do biennales. At the time, I really wanted to do a solo show. Solo shows lead to more intense collaboration with an artist than group shows I felt, that are one form of commitment. With a solo show you also can treat the exhibition as a medium and this idea always interested me. One of the first exhibitions I had done as a curator of a solo show was actually with Philippe Parreno, when in the 2001. At this time I had decided to be more attached to an organisation and started to work as a full time curator at ARC in Paris (the contemporary space of Musée Arts Modernes de la ville de Paris): in 2006 I became Co-director of Exhibitions and Programmes and Director of International Projects of the Serpentine Gallery, and prior to this I was Curator of the Musée d’Art Moderne since 2000. The idea to do a show with Philippe in Paris was really urgent in early 2000.

After all the investigations on the exhibition as a medium and how it connects with time, how a timebase solo show could work, we met almost everyday for many months working on this exhibition called Alien Season and it’s during these daily meetings that we had at Café Flore that we started thinking what could happen after. That’s how this idea came about. We could actually think about a timebase group show, about things in museums that would be popping up, with different sorts of activations in different moments in time; in space. We also thought that these group shows should happen in a theatre or in an opera. We started looking for venues, meeting many opera directors. It was particularly interesting because this was not something that had been done before in opera. It’s only with the international Manchester festival and the discussions with Alex Poots, that it really became a reality.

One can also see, that it’s a chain of things, that one thing leads to another, morph into another thing.

Il_Tempo_del_Postino___Philippe_Parreno,_Postman_Time,_Photo__Peter_Schnetz_aaaaaaaaaaatsssIl Tempo del Postino Philippe Parreno, Postman Time, Photo: Peter Schnetz

How were the artists chosen?
Artists were chosen by Philippe and me. Philippe and I talked and obviously our choice was primarily made towards artists of our generation with whom we had conversations since the early 90’s.
We also thought about a younger generation of artists that we like such as Trisha Donnelly, Anri Sala, and Tino Segal etc. For Basel, as the list is evolutive compared with Manchester, we were really happy to include Fischli/Weiss. They always had been our heroes since I met them in 86 when I was 18.

Il Tempo del Postino Olafur Eliasson, Echo House (Generalprobe), Photo: Peter Schnetz

What was the response of the public? and of the artists?
Oh yeah, the response has been very positive. Artists were super motivated from the beginning, and it’s the only reason why it worked. If you come up with unusual rule for the game, and if it hasn’t happened before, then somehow it motivates the artists; if there is a resonance. If it’s only something that the curator decides, then artists don’t find it interesting. So yes there was a high motivation from the artists.

About the public, it’s a different approach. We had wonderful reactions much more direct than I could have with an exhibition. With exhibitions you sometimes get a letter, sometimes an email, but there’s generally not so much direct feedback. There’s generally no direct reaction from your public. With the opera it’s much more direct, you have it on the night, people come to see you and tell you what they think. You know, sometimes even the day after, people you see in restaurants or at the cinema come to you and tell you their opinion.

Il Tempo del Postino is not just for the art world, it’s also for the world of theatre, for the world of the opera. It was a transdisciplinary approach that linked music with sound, opera, theatre. Obviously so many artists had to work with composers, musicians, singers. The show is definitely building “passerelles”. It’s very much crossing out, throwing bridges to other disciplines, making contemporary art building dialogues, not only for art specialists but also for people from other fields. That’s what we really wanted.

Il_Tempo_del_Postino___Carsten_Höller,_Upside_Down_People,_Photo__Peter_Schnetz_aaaaaaaaaaatsxaIl Tempo del Postino Carsten Höller, Upside Down People, Photo: Peter Schnetz

A lot of people said they had never seen such a performance, how do you explain this comment and do you agree?
We hope so! Because the idea is that the exhibition hopefully creates extraordinary new experiences. We hope that it’s something that has never been done before.

There has been many artists who reached to theatre and opera and that’s not necessarily something new. If you think about the 20th century and the ballets Russes, Diaghilev collaborated with Picasso and Cocteau. If you think about more contemporary history, contemporary art has very much often made that bridge as well: Boltanski in the nineties and the 2000 worked a lot with theatre; Anselm Kiefer has just staged a big Opera project with Opera Bastille and has been doing it for a long time; Christophe Schlingensief, reinvented Wagner in Beyreuth.

A lot of projects where this bridge had been made existed already, but the rule of the game which to our knowledge had never been made before, was having a large group show which would come to you while sitting in a theatre, or an opera. The other thing was to regroup living contemporary artists, visual artists, who venture in this other field and turn upside down rules and conventions upside down.

Il_Tempo_del_Postino___Anri_Sala,_Flutterbyes,_Photo__Peter_Schnetz_aaaaaaaaaaatswsIl Tempo del Postino Anri Sala, Flutterbyes, Photo: Peter Schnetz

Was it really hard to reach coherence among the different performances?

It’s a long process. It’s hard work, and not something that happened in a week. Philippe Pareno and I invited Anri Sala and Rirkrit Tiravanija to join us as co-directors in Basel. A lot of artists actually created large pieces in Manchester and Basel, and we had to produce them.

The other thing was the sequencing, the way how something comes to the next which took a lot of time. I mean to quote Karl Valentin: “Opera is beautiful but it’s a lot of work”.

Are you close to contemporary dance or contemporary theatre? Who do go and see?
Oh yes! It was really inspiring to see Xavier Leroy in the mid-late 90s whom we invited then for Laboratium, Meg Stuart whom we invited to Laboratorium too, and Jerome Bel whom we invited two years ago to the Lyon biennale with Stephanie Moisdon. He had a whole floor at the Musee d’art Contemporain of Lyon. So very often I brought contemporary choreography and theatre in the context of the exhibition. These are three examples which illustrate this.

So yes it has played a big role for me. I also met Tino Segal in the late 90s when he made his transition from the “monde du spectacle” to the contemporary art scene. Theatre has always played a role since my childhood in Switzerland growing up seeing Friedrich Dürrenmatt, who was a national hero, now a bit forgotten. I still have a lot of childhood memories to see his plays.

I also met Eugene Ionesco which had a huge influence on me. I met Eugene Ionesco in 84. We talked about his play La Cantatrice Chauve, one of his key plays, and he told me that since 1957, it was being played potentially every single night in Paris in the theatre de la Huchette. So to me Il Tempo del Postino is something that can become permanent. I think a lot of my projects like Do it for example or Cities on the Move or now Il Tempo del Postino have to do with this idea of permanence and how these fragile and also in some kind of way non-permanent pieces can become permanent; in other words how a very transient medium like the exhibition, can suddenly develop sustainability and permanence. I always think about this “Ionesco moment”, la Cantatrice Chauve becoming a permanent a piece. An exhibition doesn’t usually come back and when you’re a curator you don’t generally have a repertoire like a theatre director, an opera impresario, a filmmaker, a play righter, or a performer could have, something that draws back in your life. When you’re a curator you always have to come back to the point zero. So with Il Tempo del Postino we started thinking how, as curators, we could develop a repertoire. For example, as we speak tonight, there’s a version of Do It which is being prepared in China and one in Melbourne. Do It has become my Cantatrice Chauve, which is currently a planetary Cantatrice Chauve. That may be a utopia but the idea is that Il Tempo del Postino might be played in one theatre every night, that it could come back regularly and then when we’ll be in 100 years it can be reinterpreted by a new generation, interests me a lot.

Il_Tempo_del_Postino___Rikrit_Tiravaqnija_&_Arto_Lindsay,_What_Are_We_Doing_Here!,_Photo__Peter_Schnetz_aaaaaaaaaaatsugIl Tempo del Postino Rikrit Tiravaqnija & Arto Lindsay, What Are We Doing Here!, Photo: Peter Schnetz

To finish with, what would you wish to this blog?
Blogs are an exciting medium of the 21st century. What could I wish to your blog? A daily “etonnez-moi” as Cocteau asked Diaghilev when they met. To come back to the reference I was making earlier, if you look at the the Ballets Russes, Picasso spent time in Monaco for Les Ballets Russes. It’s not such like a theatre decor that he would have made and that would have been shipped; there was a real involvement by the artist. Picasso temporarily moved to Monaco, and spent a lot of time there, painting. That’s a strong commitment! So the idea that an artist doesn’t do this casually but that there’s a real commitment is really important to me. This commitment is really something we tried with Il Tempo del Postino and in a way blogs represent a commitment too.

To answer your question about your blog, I wish that this adventure that once Cocteau was describing as an “etonnez-moi” could become a daily spark. Not only do I wish a daily “etonnez moi” but I also wish to the blog that there would also be many butterfly effects that could change the world.

f_Stillness_(in_thress_movements)_to_John_Cage's_composition_4'33_with_Trevor_Carlson,_New_York_City,_28_April_2007,_Photo__Peter_Schnetz_aaaaaaaaaaatsuoIl Tempo del Postino Tacita Dean, Merce Cunningham. First Performance of Stillness (in thress movements) to John Cage’s composition 4’33 with Trevor Carlson, New York City, 28 April 2007, Photo: Peter Schnetz


Thanks Hans Ulrich and Marlen.

Image: Copyright Hans Ulrich Obrist for Brioni