Art manifesto

Lebbeus Woods, Manifesto

Manifesto by Lebbeus Woods (image via noever design)

The artist manifesto. A document of ideology. It reveals intent. It aims to motivate and promote change. Historically manifestos have been crafted to publicly declare the philosophy, aims and ambitions of an artistic movement, and really came into their own in the 20th century. Think Realists, Symbolists, Futurists, Cubists, Dadaists, Surrealists…

Writer and cultural theorist, Lee Scrivner even wrote a manifesto on how to write an avant-garde manifesto in 2006 and then taped to the front door the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London, later presenting it in a British Library exhibition in 2008.

If you’re into overviews of such things, this one will show the range of scope of artist manifestos. It’s quite staggering really. Or you might prefer to read this book, 100 Artists’ Manifestos.

The artist manifesto, with Cate Blanchett as its central communicator, has recently resurfaced in an astounding newly commissioned work by the Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW) and Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI): Manifesto. It’s the work that so many of us accidentally stumbled into over the past couple of months after seeing the much hyped exhibition of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera’s work at AGNSW in Sydney. Manifesto is the work that surprised and became the highlight of the gallery visit. The work that so many friends and people I’ve met said made up for what they perceived as the limits of the Kahlo and Rivera show.

Manifesto is an enormous 13 channel video installation that takes place across several galleries. It was created in 2014-15 by German artist, Julian Rosefeldt. The scale of the work is phenomenal – Cate Blanchett plays 13 different personas, each bringing forth an art manifesto in often unexpected and ordinary contexts. As the promotional information claims, ‘among them a school teacher, a newsreader, a factory worker and a homeless man’ with the aim of exploring ‘the power and urgency of these historical words in our world today.’

The installation is a collage of manifestos that Rosefeldt reassembled in a captivating way (aided by the extraordinary chameleon talents of Cate Blanchett), so that they’ve been given another airing, a new voice, and an ability to connect with broader audiences unfamiliar with such things. In his words captured through this fascinating interview with ACMI and AGNSW curators, “Manifesto is an homage to the beauty of artists’ manifestos – a manifesto of manifestos.”

I have been to Manifesto three times and I’m still nowhere near done. Entering the first noticeably dark gallery on my initial visit I did not know what to expect. I hadn’t read about the work before, not even the label before entering (I often skip labels, I don’t know why but sometimes I like just encountering the unknown, having no script to guide or define what is to come). Soon I was aware that I was immersed in an immense work which some have dubbed, ‘the many faces of Cate’.

In one of the videos, Cate plays a prim 1950’s-esque housewife with her real life husband and three sons at a dinner table scenario where she recites part of the 1961 art manifesto by Claes Oldenburg. Yet in another she transforms (almost unbelievably) into a factory worker shifting large mounds of sticky disgusting garbage from the cabin of a fork lift. In another she performs as both a puppet maker and the puppet. Through the 13 characters she traverses accents and physical form, revealing the diverse ways an art manifesto can be brought into life through film.

There’s a particularly clever coordinated vocal element that occurs through sections of the installation. While standing in the middle gallery surrounded by several large screen playing different videos I noticed that the narrative and dialogue coalesces at a point where Cate, in her varied characters, begins a synchronised 20 second chant. I’ve since discovered that all 13 videos are synched to have the chant occur at this point. The effect is riveting. The first time I encountered this moment in the work my head swivelled back and forth trying to comprehend. I was both perplexed and engrossed. The musical octave of the chant drew me in to the beauty of the work as a whole, focusing me on the characters who voice the manifestos. The acting talent of Cate Blanchett in this work is simply astonishing. Her role both grounds and lifts the Julian Rosefeldt’s intention.

Now I want to read all the art manifestos! Go see for yourself – Manifesto is on until January 2017 in Sydney. Or if you’re quick, catch it at Staatliche Museen zu Berlin in Berlin until 6 November 2016.