Anyone who has visited Julian Rosefeldt’s 13 screen installation Manifesto at ACMI in Melbourne or the Art Gallery of New South Wales in Sydney will have experienced an immersive journey into some of the most famous and provocative writings of 20th century artists. The manifestos, from Futurists to Pop Art, Fluxus and surrealism among others, are voiced by Cate Blanchett who takes on a dazzling array of characters, including schoolteacher, puppet maker, newsreader, homeless man, rock chick and gallery curator.
Blanchett’s is a virtuoso performance, even more striking in the film version of the artwork. Rosefeldt, a Berlin-based artist who floods his moving image artworks with inspirations from art, architecture and popular culture, edited the 13 screens into a 90-minute film that had its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival last month.
Speaking to the audience after the screening, Rosefeldt gave profuse thanks to his crew, especially editor Bobby Good, to Sundance for “taking a risk to show something that’s not a narrative” and to Cate Blanchett.
“Every word you hear is written by artists from the 20th century, artists you might know from their visual works. I was struck by the tone, which was juvenile, euphoric and with an almost prophetic energy. I was inspired and felt it was worthy material to create a film from.
“The movie is different than the installation where all the screens are playing together, coordinated. There, it happens in ten and a half minutes, each scene is built at the same time and repeated. In the film there’s more focus on the text, while at the installation you have to decide what you want to listen to.”
Last year, Rosefeldt told Dazed magazine, “the beautiful discovery I made while working on these manifestos was that these artists had been seismographers and visionaries of their time, making prophetic readings on their societies. So much in their texts remains absolutely relevant; it’s really shocking. For instance, in the short featuring Cate as the homeless man, I included quotes from the John Reed Club of New York, whose ‘Draft Manifesto’ reads as though it had been written yesterday, even though it’s from 1932! It’s a perfect critique of the crisis of capitalism. It even anticipates globalisation and talks about rising insecurities and wars in the Middle East… You read the text and think, ‘this can’t be, it’s from 1932’!”
Back at Sundance, the artist describes how the project first came about.
“I met Cate six years ago at an opening of my work in Berlin and we started to talk, and she said ‘why don’t we do something together?’ You can imagine my reaction! It took another two and half years before Manifesto came up. The idea was that Cate would do many characters, she had limited time, she said ‘can I do 6 or 7?’ I said ‘can we do 20?’ and we ended up doing 13. We had two weeks to shoot this including prep time, it was a fantastic trip and I now believe she could perform as Mike Tyson.
“To decide on these characters, it was intuitive really. For example, Futurism was easy, I was looking for something that would reflect the idea of speed and technology, something that is fascinating but also frightening and threatening and I came up with this idea of the stock exchange, the invisible speed of online trading.”
For the Pop Art manifesto, there’s a scene where the family – who are Cate’s real family – are dressed in conventional 1950s clothes, being served a traditional roast dinner while they sit around the dining table and pray.
Rosefeldt explains, “it was shot against what pop art stands for. You put two elements together that are not necessarily friends and you see what the chemistry does.”
Often this juxtaposition creates irony and humour, like Blanchett performing as the cliche of a newsreader speaking cross-feeds to herself on camera as an anchor in the field.
While powerful in its energy and message, some of the texts are outrageous, profane, shocking to the point of provoking laughter.
“You have to keep in mind that these texts were written when the artists have just left their parents’ house,” Rosefeldt says. “They are maybe 21, 22 years old. At that time of your life you are very insecure, you are trying to tell yourself what you are and what you are standing for, so you want to shock and shout ‘Down with this’ or ‘that’. You have all this anger and you pretend to have a lot of security but you don’t at that specific point in life.
“There seems to be an urge to focus on content and wisdom and I guess this project teaches us that you can actually speak out loudly if you have something to say. But it always says to me that education is important. We should read, not be brainwashed by media or be a populist who’s just following something for the sake of it. In the film for example the puppeteer has a belief in poetry and says, ‘only take the risk to practice poetry.’ I think that’s very beautiful.