“I haven’t seen swingers like this in a long time!” gushes a teacher in the documentary of Melanie Manchot’s live danceathon, Dance (All Night, London) (2017). The camera pans around enthusiastic professional and amateur dancers who are laughing freely on a temporary stage above London’s Liverpool Street station. Who said Londoners were arrogant and insular? Manchot throws a good party: Dance (All Night, Paris) (2011), a precursor to the London version, and Celebration (Cyprus Street) (2010), a nostalgia-tinged East London street party, are among this captivating selection of her event-based, collaborative works from the past two decades. Indeed, the London-based German artist intended the open-plan gallery space to resemble a nightclub: dark but for the illuminated video and spotlit photographic works dotted around, vying for the viewer’s attention. The club ambience invites visitors to lose their inhibitions; Manchot frequently offers the same invitation to the subjects of her work.
Manchot constructs situations that initiate a bond of intimacy with or between her subjects – mostly strangers. While the situations are artificial, reactions to them are not predetermined. There is a sense of urgency in the exhibition title, Open Ended Now – a plea, perhaps, to remain open to others at a time when Brexit and populism are exacerbating intolerance and discrimination towards immigrants and those of a different political opinion. In an early work, For a Moment Between Strangers (2001), a hidden camera captures Manchot’s seemingly innocent request for a kiss from passersby on the streets of cities including London, Los Angeles and New York, inciting reactions of outrage, embarrassment and polite acquiescence that make the viewer consider cultural, generational and gendered differences in definitions of personal space. With Security (2005), in which a succession of Ibizan nightclub bouncers stand in front of the closed doors of their places of employment before stripping awkwardly, but completely, to camera in broad daylight, Manchot ups the voyeuristic unease of the viewer – for whose benefit are these men stripping? Does a female gaze make the viewer more self-conscious about the politics of voyeurism?
Manchot makes unhurried work: recording encounters that unfold in real time, or across an extended time-period, such as 11/18 (2015), for which she filmed her daughter for one minute each month for seven years before adulthood. Casting (2018) uses the exhibition’s duration as a timeframe for writing a new film: weekly auditions allow visitors to cast themselves in a role of their choosing, with a scriptwriter poised to respond to their proposals. Manchot thus encourages us to appreciate process over grand finales in her films. In TheDream Collector (2008) she lies in wait – for up to two hours – for sleepers in a Mexico City park to awake, prompting them to recount their dreams, in vivid and often moving detail. The most surreal of her works here, Corned Star (2018), itself plays out like a dream, juxtaposing a thoroughbred horse against an apocalyptic setting of modernist ruins.
Dreams, night-time, childhood: Manchot is attracted to the liminal spaces and transitional moments in which people are less guarded. She supports those, like the parkour runners in Tracer (2013), who defy conventional codes for occupying public space, and she emboldens others to take risks. This is especially poignant in The Ladies (2017), in which Manchot photographed a group of Bangladeshi women in Cambridge in spaces around the university and city that they had previously avoided because they considered them the reserve of a white male elite.
Since Manchot began working 20 years ago, our social behaviour has shifted towards online encounters. Can we trust strangers in real life? Are we capable of making long-term commitments, of taking leaps of faith? Manchot’s work, right up to the latest danceathon, makes a persuasive case that we can. The question is whether we need a catalyst, like Manchot, to compel us to make the jump.
Melanie Manchot: Open Ended Now at MAC VAL, Vitry-sur-Seine, 20 October – 24 February
From the January & February 2019 issue of ArtReview