Just following instructions: Do it 2013 at Manchester Art Gallery

Kate Feld
do it 2013, Manchester International Festival, Manchester Art Gallery

From beer vending machines to enforced humming, the Manchester International Festival exhibition sees artists and viewers respond to the commands of others.

The games artists invent for themselves can be strange – think of the Surrealists’ marathon Exquisite Corpse sessions, or Lord Byron and the Shelleys’ ghost story contests during the summer holiday of 1816 (where Frankenstein was born). But few are stranger than do it 2013, the art exhibition-cum-instruction manual invented in a café in 1995 by Hans Ulrich Obrist, Bertrand Lavier and Christian Boltanski, is a game that continues to take place everywhere. There have been more than 50 separate instalments all over the world, the latest being this 20th anniversary “greatest hits” exhibition at Manchester Art Gallery for the 2013 Manchester International Festival.

No matter how good the ideas in question are, exhibitions based solely on ideas are tricky things to present. Because, when you get right down to it, do it 2013 is a book and its original form is text. While it’s impossible not be charmed by some of the instructions – Tacita Dean’s recipe for finding a four-leaf clover on a Sunny Day, or Hans-Peter Feldman’s intriguing Homework – stacks of paper, even on a plinth specially constructed by Richard Wentworth, don’t make for a riveting spectacle.  So this exhibition is most engaging when at its most fully realised: When a live vulture is swooping through a Victorian art gallery. When two young men are turning wine into Pepsi in the atrium. When you read the sign instructing you to hum a tune as you approach the guard standing outside a mysterious door. Or when you’re sitting in a darkened room with a stranger, trying to draw them with a felt-tip while Beyonce’s “Put a Ring on It” plays tinnily on a transistor radio.

Stacks of paper aren’t a riveting spectacle, so do it 2013 is most engaging when fully realised

The curators have wisely chosen instructions suited for the setting, like Yoko Ono’s Wish Tree or the beer vending machine, an installation many of us were happy to play our part in. But at quiet times, it can all seem very remote. I found it a difficult exhibition to connect with on a personal level. Art in the form of instructions, or art made in response to someone else’s instructions, can be clever or provocative. But, for me, much of it lacked the sense of urgency, the substance or the thoroughness present in more conventional artworks, and some of the instructions seemed little more than showy gestures. Interesting, yes, but not gripping.

Although this manifestation of do it 2013 ends soon, the exhibition continues as long as people are reading and responding to these instructions. Want to play? Go to Manchester Art Gallery and you will receive your instructions (but hurry, as it closes on 22 July.) And remember: do try this at home.

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