Museums

The Chameleonic Cate Blanchett Brings 20th-Century Art Manifestos to Life

In the 13-screen video installation Manifesto, Cate Blanchett plays sharply different characters while reading polemical 20th-century manifestos. Her transformation is astonishing.

Installation of Julian Rosefeldt’s Manifesto at Park Avenue Armory (photo by James Ewing)

I’ve been following Julian Rosefeldt around the globe. To be more precise, I have been following Manifesto, his 13-screen video installation. I first saw it in Melbourne, Australia a year ago, then in the spring, in Berlin, and earlier this month I visited the North American debut at the Park Avenue Armory. It’s a rare treat to see a major artistic installation in more than one incarnation, let alone three. It has indeed been interesting to see how the 13 films, playing simultaneously on massive screens, have been configured in both their sound and visual delivery, in three radically different installations.

Rosefeldt, a German film, video, and photographic artist, is not as well known in the States as he is in Europe. Manifesto is his first major project in North America, though he’s been working since the mid-1990s throughout Europe and Australia. Manifesto will open at the Sundance Film Festival in January, which will likely place him squarely, and deservedly, in the cultural spotlight.

Julian Rosefeldt, Manifesto (2015) (© Julian Rosefeldt and VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn)

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.

Julian Rosefeldt, Manifesto (2015) (© Julian Rosefeldt and VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn)

Rosefeldt explores all sorts of stereotypes and nails them well. The black-clad, diverse crowd of young hipster musicians loll about backstage, wearing dreadlocks and tattoos, occasionally taking drugs while women make out. It is a perfect cinematic “type” casting of this age and situation. Much of this film is in slow motion, the camera lazily moving through smoke-filled rooms. It underscores the booze- and-dope infused vibe of the place. Blanchett angrily declares her manifesto in a tough, working class British accent and is the only fast-moving object in this film. The CEO’s private party is equally apt. The bourgeois guests are impeccably dressed, just as we expect people of this class and world to look. The set and furniture are picture-perfect, and this makes it all the more startling when the genteel hostess of the party (Blanchett) begins to spout the dogma of Barnett Newman and Wyndham Lewis. Each film pauses at the same minute, during which time Blanchett turns, looks directly into the camera, and in an artificially high robotic voice speaks part of each monologue. The moment passes and the films continue apace. But that moment of confluence — though she delivers different manifestos in each film — is a stunning visual and aural experience. Similarly, there are interludes of very quiet sound that are also coordinated between the various films. The sound in the Drill Hall rises and falls in continual rhythm.

Julian Rosefeldt, Manifesto (2015) (© Julian Rosefeldt and VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn)

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.

Installation of Julian Rosefeldt’s Manifesto at Park Avenue Armory (photo by James Ewing)

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. 

comments (0)