Thursday, 12 July 2007

Thoughts: Manchester International Festival

Heston Blumenthal, Street Performers

Whilst in Manchester I enjoyed as much as I could of the inaugural biennial Manchester International Festival.
Firstly there was a splendid festival pavilion, which was like a big white plastic tepee. Inside you could freely watch a host of musical performances; I caught some rather nice jazz and relaxed for a while. Next door to the pavilion was Heston Blumenthal’s ‘Chilled Summer Treats’ stalls. For £5 you could try a mini portion of strange ice cream, mushy pea sorbet or strawberry and vanilla sundae with olive and leather included. I decided that I didn’t have a fiver to spare on two bites of possibly horrible muck, but not wanting to miss out on the ‘chilled summer treats’ fun I went to the newsagents and got myself a lolly for 80p, and very nice it was too (how unadventurous!).

After the excitement of the festival pavilion I moved onto a rather more traditional British pastime, the drinking of beer. Well actually I didn’t drink any myself, but in Albert Square (home to the imposing Victorian Town Hall) there was a huge crowd all enjoying beer emanating from a temporary hut, there was also another hut serving all thing German (= comically suggestive sausages). This was augmented by some very jolly street performers (no, they were genuinely funny, sometimes), we has cone headed aliens taking pictures of us strange earthlings, a pack of gorillas picking fleas from peoples’ heads and generally acting drunk, and a couple of brightly coloured big bird type things who generally pecked at people or chased them. It was really nice to see people of all ages having fun, and that rarest of things, laughing out loud with total strangers in daylight hours. Not very British.

Queen and Country, Manchester Central Library

Then to a more serious subject, and back to the International Festival. They commissioned Steve McQueen to make a new work, which has resulted in Queen and Country, on display at the beautiful Central Library Grand Hall (a copy of the British Museum Reading rooms really). The piece consists of storage and display cabinet, with vertical draws which pull out to reveal a sheet of postage stamps depicting British soldiers who have died in Iraq, along with their names and date of death (and of course the Queens head in the corner, as with all stamps). Each sheet depicts another face, and the only sound you hear in the huge reading room is the opening and closing of the drawers. It is almost too painful to open another drawer, to see that smiling and proud young face stare back at you. The noise of the drawer shutting almost hurts your ears. I could say much about the courage and bravery of those who have died in Iraq, I could also mention the bereaved families, so proud of their dead children, and so devastated and often angry. But this work needs to be seen, it speaks for itself, the horrible inevitability of death following in the footsteps of war, the quiet dignity in the portraits of the dead. I can’t understand what serving your country in the armed forces means, I find the notion somewhat alien. But few of us can ever properly comprehend the deaths of these young men and women serving our country, and what they mean to their families. This is a very powerful piece of art, which at least makes us shockingly aware of the sacrifices being made.

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