Manifesto

February 25, 2016
Cate Blanchett delivers 13 'convincing, almost effortless' performances in Julian Rosefeldt's Manifesto. Photograph: Julian Rosefeldt/ACMI
Cate Blanchett delivers 13 'convincing, almost effortless' performances in Julian Rosefeldt's Manifesto. Photograph: Julian Rosefeldt/ACMI

If we accept its Latin origins, the word “manifesto” denotes something that is obvious or clearly seen. It is, therefore, an irony that most manifestos are poetic, elliptical, idealistic, and often downright absurd.

The great age of the manifesto was the first half of the twentieth century, as Modernism overturned the stale conventions of western art and literature. During these years Australia staunchly resisted the trend, which may explain why this country had barely a single manifesto until the art historian, Bernard Smith, penned one for the Antipodeans in 1959.

That short-lived movement was founded in defence of “the image”, which Smith saw as being assailed on all sides by the growing popularity of abstract art. At the time it seemed important to stand up for the great traditions of western figurative art that were being undermined by an emerging lexicon of swirls, drips and blotches.

With hindsight we can see that figurative art was no more threatened by abstraction than painting is imperilled by video art, or the cinema by TV. These apocalyptic face-offs are largely rhetorical, adding a touch of drama to debates that are of little relevance to the bulk of the population. Like everybody else – only more so – artists like to believe they are engaged in activities of earth-shattering importance, even if most people don’t seem to notice.

This may help explain the strident tone of the usual artist manifesto, which sounds like a call to arms. It’s a literary form that belongs to a time when it was possible to dream that art might change the world. Among the Russian avant-gardists of the Bolshevik era it seemed self-evident that a new society required a new art.

Today we have grown cynical about progress in art, just as we scoff at the idea of society being transformed by a revolutionary politics. Contemporary art is fuelled not by revolutionary ideals but by the power of the art market, with celebrity artists taking on the status of high-powered brands and leading dealers becoming multinational corporations.

The brilliance of Julian Rosefeldt’s 13-channel video installation, Manifesto, lies in its ability to reconcile the contradictory forces of past and present. It is a classic example of what Marxists would call a “dialectic”, which is why it is appropriate that the show begins with a famous quotation from The Communist Manifesto (1848) by Marx and Engels: “All that is solid melts into air.”

That line described the rapacious, self-devouring nature of a capitalism that thinks only of greater feats of production and wealth creation. New technologies produce new forms of labour and render existing ones obsolete. Old industries are being constantly supplanted in a never-ending cycle of creation and destruction. Until recently. Ever since the last Global Financial Crisis it has become apparent that government has taken on the role of providing welfare support for big corporations with money taken from the masses. The maverick philosopher, Slavoj Zizek, has said that capitalism is in so much trouble we’ll soon be turning back to socialism.

Rosefeldt’s exhibition can currently be seen at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image in Melbourne, and will open at the Art Gallery of NSW at the end of May. Although the Berlin-based artist is barely known in Australia he has engineered a publicity coup by using Cate Blanchett to play different characters in twelve separate video presentations. In each scenario Blanchett recites lines from manifestos written by artists, architects, fillmmakers and philosophers, from The Communist Manifesto to The Golden Rules of Filmmaking (2002) by American director, Jim Jarmusch. It’s an impressive demonstration of the actor’s craft.

Cate Blanchett stars in Julian Rosefeldt's Manifesto

Cate Blanchett stars in Julian Rosefeldt’s Manifesto

The exhibition also includes three earlier videos by Rosefeldt: Soundmaker, Stunned Man (both 2004), and Deep Gold (2013-14). One recognises a preoccupation with illusion and artifice, along with an absurdist sense of humour. Deep Gold is the most ambitious of the three, being a filmic continuation of Bunuel and Dali’s L’Age d’Or (1930).

L’Age d’Or was intended to shock and offend, and succeeded so well there were riots and brawls at its first screenings. Rosefeldt seems mildly envious of the reactions generated by the Futurists, the Dadaists and the Surrealists, but he knows that today people go to art galleries eager to be challenged and titillated. Consequently they are virtually shock-proof, as David Walsh found when he warned audiences about the edgy content of his Museum of Old and New Art in Hobart.

A true manifesto is like poetry – a form that demands to be spoken aloud. More precisely, a manifesto is declamatory in nature. It has to be read out in loud, strident tones, preferably to a mass audience. As Gustav Le Bon the influential 19th century theorist of crowd behaviour argued: “A crowd is only impressed by excessive sentiments. Exaggerate, affirm, resort to repetition, and never attempt to prove anything by reasoning.”

Hitler and Mussolini (and Donald Trump) followed Le Bon’s advice, but so did most writers of manifestos. There is very little sense in any of the manifestos Rosefeldt samples, but extraordinary lyricism and passion.

Rosefeldt tacitly admits the emptiness of most manifestos by taking compatible lines from different texts and creating collages or mash-ups to be recited by one of Blanchett’s characters. The only exception is Claes Oldenburg’s Pop Art manifesto of 1961, I Am For an Art… which is allowed to stand alone, albeit in a parodic mise-en-scène in which Blanchett plays a prim, bourgeois southern American housewife sitting her family down to a formal meal.

Julian Rosefeldt's Manifesto: One crazy outpouring spills into the other. Photo: Steffen Pedersen

Julian Rosefeldt’s Manifesto: One crazy outpouring spills into the other. Photo: Steffen Pedersen

In each piece there is a nucleus of social satire that arises from the disjunction between image and text. The most overt instance is a segment in which Blanchett plays a factory worker who leaves her humble dwelling in the early morning to go work in an incinerator plant. Over this backdrop of industrial squalor she recites the words of visionary architects Bruno Taut, Antonio Sant’ Elia, Coop Himmelb(l)au and Robert Venturi.

Taut, in particular, wrote like a religious ecstatic: “A first gleam of jubilant dawn. Decades, generations – and the great sun of art will begin its victorious course.” Think of this and look upon the broken-down relics of the modern factory.

Of all these films the factory sequence is perhaps the most obvious. It’s more difficult to choose the sharpest, although Blanchett’s double turn as a news anchor reading out snippets of Sol Lewitt and Sturtevant, and discussing conceptual art with her roving reporter doppelganger, is a show-stopper. When she announces, in her best CNN tones “All current art is fake”, we inevitably think of the fakery that surrounds the typical TV news presentation, stylised and pre-selected for a particular audience as infotainment.

Cate Blanchett stars in Julian Rosefeldt's Manifesto

Cate Blanchett stars in Julian Rosefeldt’s Manifesto

In other films a homeless man shouts slogans glorifying revolution, in a shabby industrial complex; a CEO addresses a gathering of employees, telling them that “the epoch of great spirituality” has begun; a school teacher gives her class inspirational advice taken from the manifestos of pioneering filmmakers; a puppeteer creates her own double in a workshop filled with effigies of famous people, while intoning the ideas of the Surrealists.

Rosefeldt has extracted an idea from every movement that translates into a contemporary setting, but the relationship between words and images remains ambiguous, if not contradictory. His scenarios are packed with references to other artworks or films but it’s not necessary to pick up on these layers.

In a catalogue interview Rosefeldt speaks of the “beauty” of the manifesto and says the project is an act of homage. Yet his admiration is shot through with irony in recognition of the exaggerated, theatrical nature of these texts, with their mystical incantations and revolutionary ambitions. The revolutions that have greatest relevance to our age are those of information technology and globalisation. They have fulfilled the avant-garde dream by changing the fabric of everyday life, but not in the dramatic way envisaged by the writers of manifestos.

The preferred formats for artistic communication today include the interview, the press release, the blog. Nobody stands at a pulpit aiming to inspire an audience with revolutionary fervour – it is more an exercise in creating consumer confidence. Rosefeldt is conscious of the way contemporary art has swooned into the arms of capitalism, but invites us to share his nostalgia for an age ruled not by corporatisation, but inspiration.

Julian Rosefeldt: Manifesto
Australian Centre for the Moving Image, Melbourne, until 13 March
Art Gallery of NSW, 28 May – 13 November

Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, Saturday 27th February, 2016