Artist Manifestos Are Funnier Than You Think

Julian Rosenfeldt's new film deconstructs serious documents from the past in a surprising new light.
June 1, 2017, 6:12pm

"All current art is fake," Cate Blanchett says at one point in experimental filmmaker Julian Rosefeldt's latest work, Manifesto. "Nothing is original." That statement might seem a little less true, however, when you actually watch the film. Manifesto is a unique art instillation turned feature where Blanchett plays 13 different archetypical characters reading manifestos written by myriad artists involved in specific movements—including Futurists, Dadaists, and Suprematists.


The ambitious project was originally played simultaneously on 13 different screens, but it's
been condensed to one long piece. While Manifesto is a love letter of sorts to the artists themselves, the film doesn't explicitly romanticize them. Instead, Rosenfeldt reveals their true nature by having their statements read by characters who often represent the artists' polar opposites. The juxtaposition takes the focus off of the art itself, challenging the artists' thoughts and comments on society and politics.

VICE: What was the original concept behind this project?
Julian Rosefeldt: While we were doing research for another project, I came across two manifestos from a French futurist artist. When I studied architecture, I read artist manifestos, and I started reading them again not as a contention of the artist's visual work, but as pure poetry. I met Cate two years before, and we had the most spontaneous idea of doing something together. I didn't know what that could be, but I knew that I wanted it to involve many different characters.

I thought it could be fascinating to create a contemporary mosaic of different characters to find out if these texts still have meaning besides their artistic context. These texts were often written before the visual work existed. Nowadays, they're read as monuments of art history, but they're not necessarily monuments—just thoughts of very young people in their early 20s. There's this beautiful insecurity and fragility in them, which I find very touching.


How does this film differ from the art installation?
I like to say that the audience completes the work. You have a different audience in art than you do in a theater, where you face an audience that expects a story to be told. That doesn't happen here, but it has a hypnotic visual narration in it that pulls you in. You don't have much time to reflect—you just follow the different characters, the images, the texts.

Is it intended to be a commentary on women in art?
It definitely has a feminist twist. Twentieth-century culture was very male-driven. There are feminist manifestos that often directly address the feminist issue. I thought it's better to focus on the feminist issue by giving all these male voices to a woman. The film shows how we need to address feminism in contemporary society. A male artist would just write about art—a woman artist has to address feminist issues to actually get that out of the way first. It's interesting to listen to all this testosterone-driven anger through the words of a woman.

The scene where Cate Blanchett portrays a newscaster resonated with me.
I like it a lot, too. This piece is very funny, because on one side it's super actual—it talks about fake news [Laughs]—but it's also a piece of conceptual art in itself, as she talks about conceptual art. It's a good example of freeing the text from its original content and making it really accessible again.

But it's still a very serious text of conceptual art.
Maybe it's so serious that it needed the humor—but many of the texts in Manifesto are funny. Art historians don't like to see that because they admire the artist so much for their visual work that they believe whatever they wrote must be treated like an un-attackable piece of art. When you're young, you write a lot of nonsense. It's not nonsense because it's beautiful, but you yourself are probably writing the way you write because you're insecure and screaming to yourself, "Who am I? Who do I want to be?"

Have your views on artist manifestos changed since finishing this project?
When we shot this two years ago, the world was different. Now, we're in a world where these manifestos show the necessity of artists as collectives in society with visionary and seismic capacities. The actuality of this text that formed over the past two years made it a call for action against populism. Even if these texts are loud and angry in Manifesto, they're very thoughtful and inspiring and beautiful. It teaches us that you can actually be loud if you have something to say.

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