Elsewhere, Rosefeldt has assigned Dada-ist manifestos to a severe Blanchett, giving a eulogy made up of the rambunctious illogicality of the words of men like Tristan Tzara, Paul Eluard, and Louis Aragon. Regurgitating a bit of Tzara’s Manifesto of Monsieur Aa the Antiphilosopher, Blanchett-as-eulogist calls the other funeral-goers “idiots,” and speaks through tears as she articulates the nonsense word-title of the movement. Elsewhere, she’s a choreographer, instructing a group of dancers dressed as top-heavy aliens via the words of Fluxus Manifesto and other performance-oriented dogmas, with the weighty vehemence of Henry V shouting “once more unto the breach” to his army; she’s also that aforementioned mother, drenching a turkey carcass in gravy and praying with her children to Claes Oldenburg’s pop art manifesto, I am for an Art. “I am for art that is put on and taken off like pants,” she says, one eye closed in prayer, the other surveying the scene to ensure that her children are, as well. She is also for an Art “which develops holes like socks, which is eaten like a piece of pie, or abandoned with great contempt like a piece of shit… I am for the majestic art of dog turds, rising like cathedrals.”
Perhaps the best display of the exhibit’s surprising humor — and Blanchett’s own pairing of intensity and playfulness — is in the Conceptual/Minimalist Art film, where Blanchett plays a frighteningly blank news anchor named Cate speaking to her weather reporter, also named Cate (also Blanchett), who’s reporting through a storm. The two do a very familiar back-and-forth between flustered/blustered weather reporter and energized dead-inside anchor, but through the words of Sol Lewitt. Here, we see the faces, and hear the cadences, of two people who insipidly feed “facts” to a wider public on a day-to-day basis, reciting texts by artists rallying against representational art — against things being taken as they are.
Most any writing an artist dubs a manifesto will be steeped in self-importance, sometimes quite valid, sometimes not so much; it is written with the purpose of being disseminated, of pervading as a new dogma. But within the two reporter characters’ film, we see the limits of that self-importance, by virtue of the texts being flattened into the news-ready tone and manner that is often used to give information to the public, who are meant to consume it without deconstruction. The fact that it was a (hugely talented) celebrity film artist like Blanchett that got me — and likely others — interested in this piece speaks to the limited reach of visual arts self-importance.
Rosefeldt, in interviews, has spoken of his love of manifestos, and their relevance. But actually this installation works far better when seen less as an ode to the relevance of manifestos, and more as a display of the fight for relevance, remembrance, and significance against the abysses of time, futility, and monoliths of power. The massive space of the Armory indeed feels like its own abyss, a display of once-revolutionary words that are battling the expanses of time and time’s warping of logic, and those words’ amorphous legacies.
Rosefeldt having emphasized that it was important to the project that all of the texts be spoken by a woman. Surely this is because most all of these manifestos were written by men — and predominantly young men, which explains, despite the intelligence and legitimate weight of some of these texts, how their militant tone can also be so deeply rooted in the compensatory confidence and violent ambition of youth and masculinity, especially in their confrontation of things like time and futility.
Installation of Julian Rosefeldt’s ‘Manifesto’ at Park Avenue Armory. Photo by James Ewing.
And despite some of these movements, indeed, seeming major in their historical relevance (Pop Art, Dadaism), others — like suprematism and constructivism, or vorticism and Blue Rider, are far less widely known. So it’s potent when all twelve of the films align — which happens every 10-or-so minutes — and suddenly all of the movements begin shrilly intoning from their respective screens in unison, with Blanchett seen in close-up across every screen, staring straight ahead and reciting the text suddenly with a high-pitched robotism.
When this happens, the contemporary context of these characters, all in modern dress, reads as very important: what we’re looking at is a vast display of the words that built 20th century Western art history, set against portraits of the (Western) current day. With them all in unison and stripped of their individuality, they become equalized and decontextualized by time. They become merely funny, pretty, angry words. Given that each manifesto is meant to herald something of a New Era of art and perception — and may, indeed, have done it in its time — displaying them in these moments of impotent synchronicity feels both loving and trivializing, akin to a mother disavowing their child of the notion that their consciousness is the center of the world.
Each writer of a manifesto had the certainty required to create a dogma stating what art needs to be. Yet they all end up here, in the slightly louder-than-normal mass grave of bold ideas. The installation reminds us that their legacy is not each movement’s singularity, but how one responded to the next in the timeline of the 20th century, coalescing in vagueness and distortion in the back corner of people’s perceptions.
Manifesto is on display at the Park Avenue Armory through January 8; it will screen, in a 90-minute feature-film format, at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival.