Manifesto is comprised of twelve 10-minute films on a continuous loop, plus a four-minute “Prologue.” The films play concurrently on enormous screens in the otherwise dead-empty Drill Hall of the Park Avenue Armory. Each film examines a specific set of 20th-century art manifestos. They cover most of the major art movements of the 20th century, as well as the truly arcane, such as Stridentism, which I had never heard of. Rosefeldt has taken the proclamations of Karl Marx, Mierle Laderman Ukeles, John Reed, Claes Oldenburg, and Tristan Tzara (to name a very few) and created mash-ups of their most notable writings in cinematic form. For example, the film identified as “Film/Epilogue” is a recitation of the words of Stan Brakhage, Jim Jarmusch, Lars von Trier, Werner Herzog, and Lebbeus Woods.
The extraordinary Cate Blanchett stars in each film, playing sharply different characters in each. Blanchett not so much acts as she inhabits them. Her transformation is astonishing, from an undernourished sexy goth rocker in “Stridentism/Creationism,” to a bearded, badly disheveled homeless man ranting the words of Lucio Fontana, wondering the debris of old Berlin. Her words are meant to be neither conversational nor dramatic; they are polemical proclamations.
Her performances are enhanced by very high production values: prosthetic makeup, detailed set dressing, numerous extras, fabulous locations and absolutely stunning cinematography. Rosefeldt has a very strong vision that the chameleon-like Blanchett is able to translate. It cannot have been easy to imbue these didactic tirades (particularly the ones from the 1910s and ‘20s) with life.
There are times during each film when small sounds are purposely over-amplified, so we distinctly hear the clatter of cutlery on the luncheon plates of “Pop Art,” the scratching of children’s pencils on paper in “Film/Epilogue,” or the crackle of a fuse burning in “Prologue.” During long stretches in each film there is very little action: the scene is being set, the pace is slow, the sound almost incidental and random. And here is where my experience of seeing this exhibition in three venues comes to bear.
In Melbourne, Manifesto was shown in a huge, carpeted room. The architecture had some turns in it, so that you couldn’t see every film at once. Very large, bell-shaped speakers hovered over the seating area in front of each film. Many people sat on the floor. Though you could hear the sounds of the other films, it was easy to focus on the image in front of you and the sound above you. People stayed, attention held rapt for the duration of each film.
In Berlin, the exhibition was in a conventional museum space. The screens were much smaller and there were small speakers, again hung over the viewing benches. The feeling was very intimate. Walls broke up the flow of the film’s visual impact, but the sound was clear and again, the public was entranced.
What is great about the Armory space is also what is problematic. It is a gigantic space and the films, now shown on massive screens, look fabulous. The moments when Blanchett is speaking into the camera are really powerful. Her huge face is all around you and the manifestos she spits out are staccato and powerful. But the wood floor and the soaring arched ceiling make the sound bounce around in a way that is distracting and unintended. It is much harder to focus on the quiet moments within each film and the sonic overlap between the 13 films is aural overload. On each of my two visits to the Armory I was keenly aware of how much less time people were spending with each film. The glare of phones being checked, e-mails being sent. Maybe New Yorkers are just that much less patient. I don’t know. But the sound, which seemed so important the first two times I saw this installation, is now secondary to the visual impact of the room.
There are some absolutely visually stunning films in this installation, like the one about conceptual art, as discussed by two TV anchorwomen (each of whom are Blanchett). Notice the seemingly generic TV graphics surrounding the women as they talk about “speed.” Then there is my favorite film, Claes Oldenburg’s manifesto on Pop Art, delivered as a prayer before one of the most bizarre luncheons in town. Discover it for yourself.
I truly hope that the New York audience is able to slow down and really savor this experience. It’s a commitment. To see each film in its entirety you need to commit roughly two hours to the exhibition. And I’m afraid that the setting may be a hindrance. Though it may have taken away from the “purity” of the space, a little carpeting might help with the noise. Any New York apartment dweller could tell you that.
Julian Rosefeldt’s Manifesto continues at the Park Avenue Armory (643 Park Ave, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through January 8, 2017.