What to See at the Manchester International Festival

We select seven highlights from the biannual programme of events

BY Laura Robertson in Critic's Guides | 04 JUL 19

The Rambert, 2019. Courtesy: Ben Hopper

‘Invisible Cities’
2 – 14 July

In Italo Calvino’s 1972 masterpiece Invisible Cities, the explorer Marco Polo describes Olivia, one of the book’s 55 imagined cities, to the emperor Kublai Khan. ‘The city must never be confused with the words that describe it,’ Polo counsels. Yet, ‘shrouded in a cloud of soot’ with ‘hanging canals whose cascades move the paddles of the mills’, the Olivia of his description could easily be Manchester. Adapting Calvino’s book for the stage is a behemoth task, considering its astonishing breadth, but it’s a challenge that Leo Warner – Bradford-born co-founder of 59 Productions – has embraced for the opening fortnight of Manchester International Festival (MIF). Warner, who has made a career out of incorporating video design into theatre, here collaborates with Belgian choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, who has worked with some of the world’s greatest dance companies, including – for this production – Britain’s oldest, the Rambert. Presented on the site of a former railway station, this production signals much about Manchester’s ceaseless metamorphosis, notably in anticipation of its new cultural hub, The Factory, which is due to open next year at a cost of GB£130 million.

Tania Bruguera
Manchester Art Gallery
5 – 20 July

For MIF, artist and activist Tania Bruguera has opened a DIY school with long-term and recent migrants as tutors. Students can choose from more than 80 classes in languages, cooking, ethics, politics and economics – all of which are free. Co-Director of The Asociación de Arte Útil (together with Alistair Hudson, Manchester Art Gallery Director), which platforms art and artistic practices that are useful or effective, Bruguera is a champion of what she described in a frieze talk last year as ‘art down, people up’: collaborating with marginalized people as a way to highlight inequality, injustice and the power of civic protest.

Ibrahim Mahama, ‘Parliament of Ghosts’, 2019, installation view, Whitworth Gallery, Manchester. Courtesy: the artist; photograph: Michael Pollard

Ibrahim Mahama
Whitworth Gallery
5 – 21 July

Scuffed wooden cabinets; faded photographs; threadbare train seats; a flurry of administration documents: this is the miscellany of a country in transition – specifically, Ghana; also the birthplace of artist Ibrahim Mahama. Following his recent triumph at this year’s Venice Biennale – presenting the first ever Pavilion of Ghana, titled ‘Ghana Freedom’, with an intergenerational cluster of the country’s leading artists, including John Akomfrah and Lynette Yiadom-Boakye – Mahama’s haunting installation of film and paintings provides a poignant, personal and critical insight into the wreckage of colonial legacy.

David Lynch, Blue Velvet, 1986, film still. Courtesy: Park Circus MGM Studios

David Lynch
6 July – 21 July (film programme continues until 29 September)

David Lynch has an uncanny gift: the capacity to portray the mundane and the grotesque with equal dexterity. Both prominently feature in MIF’s screening programme of the legendary director’s shorts, films and TV episodes, accompanied by a selection of his ‘true favourites’ from cinematic history. Alongside his moving-image work, Lynch presents deranged depictions of maltreated children and burning homes, in an exhibition of his paintings, as well as his phantasmagorical music, such as soundtrack collaborations with Chrysta Bell (Inland Empire,2006) and Angelo Badalamenti (Blue Velvet, 1986). This is a rich, weird purgatory, capitalizing on the director’s persistent international popularity – witnessed recently at Bonnefantenmuseum’s 2018–19 retrospective ‘Someone Is in my House’ in Maastricht – and one which foregrounds Lynch as an artist gripped by terrible dreams.

‘The Nico Project’
The Stoller Hall
10 – 21 July

Seemingly reminding her of the semi-dereliction of Berlin, Manchester was home to the iconic German singer and actress Nico throughout the 1980s, its squats providing a cheap base from which to tour with her band. Nico was a complicated yet brilliant artist, who had an extraordinary Teutonic voice and, infamously, a fierce heroin addiction throughout her adult life. ‘The Nico Project’ is an attempt to offer an alternative narrative, in direct homage to her self-styled and arguably most interesting album, The Marble Index (1968), which was made almost immediately after, but with greater creative control than, The Velvet Underground & Nico and her first solo album Chelsea Girl (both 1967). This all-female ensemble – actress Maxine Peake, director Sarah Frankcom, playwright EV Crowe and composer Anna Clyne – has created a contemporary response to Nico’s harmonium-led sound and visionary lyrics.

‘Studio Créole’
Manchester Academy 1
12 – 14 July

‘Studio Créole’ sees Hans Ulrich Obrist co-curate two evenings of performances with British author Adam Thirwell. The set-up is ambitious: seven renowned international authors read new stories in their own languages, translated simultaneously into English, on a stage designed by Dutch architect and theorist Rem Koolhaas. Participants include: Martinican novelist and essayist Patrick Chamoiseau, who founded the créolité literary movement in the 1980s and won the Prix Goncourt for Texaco (1992), his narrative history of a Caribbean shantytown; Icelandic writer and poet Sjón, whose Moonstone – The Boy Who Never Was (2013) is a tender and mournful meditation on sex, belonging and inheritance; and Japan’s Sayaka Murata, author of hit, oddball love story Konbini Ningen (Convenience Store Woman, 2016), who took inspiration from her 18 years of customer service at – to use her own brilliant term – a ‘Smile Mart’.

Secret Location
17 – 19 July

Anyone who watched Skepta’s 2014 video ‘That’s Not Me’ – which, shot for a mere GB£80 on VHS, won Best Video award at the MOBOs that year – will recognize his statement of intent: you don’t need to be rich to tell your story. Skepta knows who he is. Part of the vanguard of the early-2000s, north-London grime scene – paving the way for the likes of Stormzy and Novelist – Skepta’s Mercury Award-winning 2016 album, Konnichiwa (released on his own label and produced by Pharrell), catapulted his politics to a wider audience: a feverish campaign against feeling unsafe on the streets, police harassment, online bullying and government failures. Expect his MIF premiere to spin Manchester’s iconic rave history and the sorry political state of the UK into a tech-enhanced live show with special guest performers.

Main image: Ibrahim Mahama, ‘Parliament of Ghosts’, 2019, installation view, Whitworth Gallery, Manchester. Courtesy: the artist; photograph: Michael Pollard

Manchester International Festival runs until 21 July across various locations in Manchester, UK

Laura Robertson is an arts editor and writer based in Liverpool. She is co-founder of thedoublenegative.co.uk.