An Exhibition of Thirteen Cate Blanchetts Reciting Artists’ Manifestos Reveals the Importance — and Impotence — of Art

The Wade Thompson Drill Hall at the Park Avenue Armory is now a storage space for sundry Cate Blanchetts. At first, entering the goliath chamber in Manhattan’s Upper East Side, it looks like you just walked into an Oscar bait reverie — Blanchett as homeless man with Irish accent! Blanchett as repressed Christian mother with southern American accent! Blanchett as downtrodden factory worker with Mancunian accent (that means from Manchester)! Blanchett as a funeral speaker with an accent I can’t quite place! — each Blanchett hovering in the abyss of the 55,000-square-foot hall on disparate screens suspended from the ceiling, each looking so laudably like a fulfilling character. But step a little closer to any of the Blanchetts and you’ll hear that, though the cadences of their speech and their mannerisms are naturalistically aligned with their respective environments, the words they’re speaking are not. German video artist Julian Rosefeldt’s collaborative project with Blanchett — Manifesto — sees the actress reciting fragmentary texts from over fifty 20th century artists’ manifestos, including those pertaining to Futurism, Dadaism, Situationism, Fluxus, Pop Art and Conceptual Art.

Thankfully, though Blanchett actually ends up giving one thirteen of the most exciting film performances of the year, the project is neither as reverent nor as self-serious as you may expect from hearing a description — or even seeing photos — of Blanchett in beautifully filmed character portraits reciting a scattered 20th century art history lesson. It’s quite often laugh-out-loud funny, occasionally alienating, working in opposition to the poetic didacticism of its core texts. The humor is mostly derived from the juxtapositions of these sometimes-important, sometimes self-important manifestos and the dissonant, contemporary everyday scenarios Rosefeldt has linked to each.

Each portrait has its own logic of overlap and distance between text and context. The character, speech and setting cohere while the text is the absurdist outlier. On entering the Armory, the first Blanchett we encounter is a vagabond wandering through a world of grandiose, abandoned factory buildings (somewhere around Berlin), reciting the likes of Guy Debord and other Situationists. While the character’s status at the lowest rung of capitalist society may symbolize some of the fundamentals of the Situationists’ Marxism, the very fact that this contemporary homeless man is spouting the sweeping, emboldened words of a manifesto also underscores, in its dissonance, the class disparity between the writers of these manifestos — and those who study them — and the subjects of their ideologies. In societies where education and class are aligned in ways so often insurmountable, how can theory escape its academic confines and apply to the people who need it?

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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.”

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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.
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.