The West Coast premiere of Julian Rosefeldt’s “Manifesto” (2015): Historic artist manifestos are remixed into brilliant and contradictory personas played by Cate Blanchett

“Does anyone think he has found a psychic base common to all mankind? how can one expect to put order into the chaos that constitutes that infinite and shapeless variation: man?”

Actor Cate Blanchett recites these words, taken from Tristan Tzara’s Dada Manifesto 1918 in a declaration mash-up that intersperses material from Karl Marx’s The Communist Manifesto (1848) and Philippe Soupault’s, Literature and the Rest (1920). This is the prologue to Julian Rosefeldt’s 13 channel cinematic installation, “Manifesto,” featuring Blanchett enacting thirteen dramatically diverse personas, each remixing excerpts from artist manifestos throughout the canon of modern Western art history. The contradictions of Tzara’s speech encapsulate the arrogance and inconsistent nature that is part and parcel of the manifesto format: attempting to be the voice of a generation while simultaneously questioning the validity of one man’s capacity to speak universal truths. Tzara’s prose owns up to its flaws through a cheeky form of self reflexivity, “I’m against action; I’m for continuous contradiction. I am neither for nor against and I do not explain because I hate common sense.”

Throughout history, public figures have used the manifesto as a way to further their agenda, to assert their voice and leave their mark on a historical moment. Manifestos are revolutionary and polemical in tone, signifying a call to action; a progressive shift in a new direction. Thus, it was a fitting format for artists at the turn of the 20th century seeking to push forward the various agendas of the proliferating avant-garde. Rosefeldt mined the canon of modern artist manifestos to create thirteen mash-ups revolving around artistic movements from the last century, including the Situationists, Futurists, Dadaists, and Fluxus artists.

In a Western history governed by patriarchal, colonial tenets, it is unsurprising that the vast majority of known and archived manifestos are written by white men. How plausible is it that such a narrow representation of humanity can speak to a universal human experience, let alone one that can withstand the test of time? By remixing and re-contextualizing the words and sentiments of these late (mostly) male thinkers, Rosefeldt’s meditation on manifestos poses the question of their value. It is through Cate Blanchett’s brilliant performance that their value is transformed into something altogether different. Blanchett’s characters breathe new and provocative life into these historical proclamations. In the vignette, Vorticism/ Blue Rider/ Abstract Expressionism, Blanchett plays a CEO speaking at a private party. In this mash-up, Rosefeldt has merged the various stages of Abstract Expressionism beginning with Wassily Kandinsky and moving into Barnett Newman’s bold treatment of aesthetic philosophy. At one point, Blanchett interjects her own performance with another one; her voice stiffens into a monotonous, drone-like tone as she reads an excerpt from the writings of Vorticist artist, Wyndham Lewis (1914), “There is one Truth, ourselves, and everything is permitted. We are proud, handsome and predatory. We hunt machines, they are our favourite game. We invent them and then hunt them down.”

Each vignette is staged within a highly stylized dramatic backdrop such as the post apocalyptic wasteland surrounding the Teufelsberg spy tower in West Berlin. In this scene, Blanchett plays a homeless man stammering through a denouncement of the capitalist condition, invoking the words of Guy Debord, Alexander Rodtschenko, and other Situationists.

To a certain extent, “Manifesto” calls for a comparison of the now and then; how have the dynamics between politics, art and life shifted? These works perhaps reveal a shared belief in the revolutionary capacity of art, and the role of the artist as an active citizen. To this end, it is powerful to reinterpret these historical sentiments through Cate Blanchett’s bold performance. As Rosefeldt aptly surmises, “She’s not re-enacting them or reading them; she is the manifesto.” Through her various personas, something is provoked in the ominous stronghold that the male voice has maintained over historical narratives, in art and elsewhere.

“Manifesto” (2015) will make its West Coast premiere at Hauser and Wirth Los Angeles this month. Opening on October 27th, 2018, “Manifesto” will be on view until January 6th, 2019.

– Erika Barbosa

Julian Rosefeldt. Manifesto, Hamburger Bahnhof – Museum für Gegenwart, Berlin, February–November 2016 © David von Becker