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  • Writer's pictureSTEVE COOKE AATA



At this year’s Manchester International Festival Juan Mata, the former Manchester United midfielder, has teamed up with stars of the creative arts, Hans Ulrich Obrist and Tino Sehgal, for a new work that is inspired by the similarities between sport and performance art.

Spanish footballer Juan Mata has throughout his career been described in the football media as an ‘artist’, describing how his skill, imagination, intelligence, and creativity have lit up grounds all over the world and seen him gathering honours including a World Cup winner’s medal.

It is now literally true, off the pitch at least, as Juan Mata prepares to take his place alongside the likes of Yayoi Kusama’s hallucinatory immersive environments and Ryan Gander’s conceptual interventions at this year’s Manchester International Festival (MIF23).

Jaun Mata is collaborating with the curator Hans Ulrich Obrist on a multi-part project called The Trequartista: Art and Football United.

Their journey began when Obrist, director of the Serpentine Gallery in London and a networker, learned that Mata was following him on Instagram. “I’ve always been interested in bringing different fields into contact with art,” he explains. “Music, architecture, literature, science. So why not football?” At the time, Mata was with Manchester United, and the two men met up in the city. Obrist had some football background having worked in Milan in the early 1990s and as a long-time friend and colleague of the Turner prize-winning artist Douglas Gordon, who had produced the video work Zidane: A 21st-Century Portrait, focusing on the movements made by French midfielder Zinedine Zidane during a match.

Zidane was one of the great trequartistas – a position originating in Italian football between the midfield and the attack occupied by only the most technically able and imaginative of players. “These are the playmakers, the artists,” says Obrist. “They link everything together. These were the players that made me fall in love with the game as a child. We liked the idea of its creativity, so we decided to bring together players with artists to make different sorts of connections. I’ve always been interested in bringing different fields into art – so why not football?”

They agreed to find 11 players and 11 artists who would collaborate on a series of works, and the Trequartista project was born.

Obrist introduced Mata to German-Indian artist Sehgal and together they have created the first work in the series, titled This Entry.

Sehgal is best known for his “constructed situations” in which he peoples large spaces with performers who transform the environment through improvised speech, movement and interaction.

The first instalment, This Entry, is a new piece of performance art at the National Football Museum in Manchester, and subsequently at the Whitworth Gallery.

In addition to delighting football fans with his skills Juan Mata has always had an eclectic hinterland. He set up the Common Goal movement that encourages footballers to donate 1% of their earnings to charities and his photographs from the Manchester United tour to India have been exhibited.

“I have always been inspired by and interested in creative people,” he says. “Of course that includes creative footballers, but it also means writers and actors and artists. Most of my energies are invested in my professional career, but when I have some time to myself, I like to disconnect from football. Curiosity is important to me, so it is not that surprising that I sometimes end up in art galleries.”

Known for artworks composed using exclusively the human body, voice, and social interaction, Tino Sehgal has exhibited his work at the world’s biggest art galleries from New York’s Guggenheim to London’s Tate Modern, Paris’ Palais de Tokyo and Hong Kong’s TaiKwun. His background is in dance, and he said he became increasingly aware of the link between the endless tiny micro adjustments of weight, shape, balance and direction made by footballers when playing and related movements in choreography and dance. “I love the idea that these movements have meaning and purpose, literally moving towards a goal,” he says. “The players are in constant communication via language, but also via the ball, via their positioning and via their training and planning. It is about both cerebral decisions and physical decisions. It’s also skill-based and requires extensive training and preparation. Even if you can make the right decision, if you don’t have the ability, it doesn’t really help. Football is a combination of cognitive, physical and psychological skill sets. And all of that is very close to the things I have always aspired to in my work.”

Sehgal has assembled three sets of four multi-skilled, and also multinational, performers who rotate to give three-and-a-half-hour performances of the finished version of This Entry in Manchester.

The piece is a departure for Sehgal who is known as “the artist without objects”.

“I have always been primarily interested in interactions purely between humans, but we are the mammal who is best at dealing with external objects, and so I now wanted to integrate that into my work.”

‘This Entry’ is a choreographed exchange between a footballer, violinist, cyclist and singing dancer. At the press view I was mesmerised by the slowly developing interaction between these highly talented performers, including an appearance of Juan Mata exhibiting his skills with a football and some nifty dance steps.

During the q&a launch event Mata compared creative footballers to performance artists whilst bemoaning the emphasis in the modern game on what he called the workers rather than the creatives. He engaged in a lively and very informative discussion with Sehgal about how in his view footballers are energised on the pitch by their supporters whereas performance artists are more likely to be the source of inspiration for their audience. The outcome of an hour’s worth of such interchanges was the agreement that sport and the creative arts have a lot of synergy.

In The Trequartista 11 teams of footballers and artists will work together over two years, culminating in a group show at the 2025 edition of Manchester International Festival. The project has kicked off at MIF23 with a world premiere - at the National Football Museum and the Whitworth (7–16 July).

Jaun Mata has the last word ‘It is fantastic to be returning to Manchester, the city I called home for more than eight years, and to be part of Manchester International Festival for the first time. I am thrilled to be co-curating The Trequartista with Hans Ulrich Obrist over the next two years, bringing together two of my passions: the worlds of football and art.’

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