Dir. Julian Rosefeldt
In general it is worth supporting the right of an artwork to exist, whether the individual(s) behind it are an out of touch once-great artist, a derivative guitar band, a young but retrograde east coast rapper, or a bored grandparent that never picked up an art book but now half a decade into retirement feels an affinity for Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse. When a major work is criticised for misjudging its time, we can assume it will find an audience somewhere (there is of course the recurring dissonance between critic/public (e.g. Richard Dawson playing in Auckland to a crowd of maybe thirty people, Ed Sheeran selling out arenas and having murals painted of him in Dunedin)), and if not then we can at least believe that the artist felt a sense of satisfaction on seeing their work completed. I believe this entirely- the worst art is not the worst for everyone, and this is why I was so confused yesterday leaving Manifesto‘s multi-screen installation and feeling for the first time that a work might as well not exist. Manifesto is not an ugly work, quite the opposite, it is not without content (the concept makes sure of that), it is no more glaringly useless than any of the aristocratic family portraits that line so many museum walls, and yet it seems to exist as itself and that is all.
Existing for the sake of existing is not uncommon in artist commissions where the artist is basically not feeling the brief or the person/institution behind the commission, but in these cases the means of the (useless) work’s production are not useless- the person or institution gets their artwork, the artist can pay rent and buy materials, and if we’re lucky then the work’s very uselessness will serve a subversive function- to make the work about the cynical transaction behind its own uselessness. But Manifesto is not a commission, it does not think itself useless, and it is blatantly expensive. It is just as stupid to deride blockbuster art as it is blockbuster cinema or pop music, because we should expect some sort of value in what is made regardless of its budget and expected audience. But when a thing looks or sounds expensive, is not about looking or sounding expensive, and expresses very little, it is easy to find oneself distracted by how expensive it must have been to make. Manifesto is too expensive to be ugly. The prologue, Burning Fuse, mistakes tech porn for imagery- it is about expensive cameras, not Marx or Dada, and not Manifesto igniting anything. I heard someone on their way out saying the work was inspiring, but what does it inspire? Does anyone come out of Manifesto a changed person? Anyone with a $30 smartphone has the tools they need to make videos, and anyone with access to a library can find these manifestos, but then comes the hard work: the art. Julian Rosefeldt had access to more than $30, in all likelihood has a library card in his wallet, and he made Manifesto, and that is the story of Manifesto.
As a work of research it is more exciting than volumes on art movements from the early to mid twentieth century. After all there is no Cate Blanchett in those old books, no thirteen screens screaming and fighting for your attention in a space hollowed out and dedicated just to Manifesto. Whole gallery spaces are cleared out to make room for Manifesto, which is a work about Manifesto being inspiring, or about Manifesto being about manifestos. With all of the manifestos at its disposal, all of these burning fuses, Manifesto is Manifesto, just the same as Burning Fuse is about the camera shooting a burning fuse. Rosefeldt’s eye is that of an artist who thinks he’s slumming it in cinema, or a pompous documentarian who wants to be praised for the cinematic qualities of his work. It is all so mannered, so knowingly gifable, so synthetically ‘cinematic’ without a hint of daring, that it feels like a television ad, and hearing the material read in this environment is every bit as queasy as that sounds. Which is not to say that the work is flawless to its detriment- the artist is unsure how to direct Blanchett other than just trusting her to act because she’s an actor, and as such there are passages and whole characters where she is visibly uncomfortable with the lack of clarity on his end. This is fine in Worker in a garbage incineration plant which is her most comfortable role, making small improvised details feel like character vulnerabilities and not film school amateurism.
To return to frivolous art, those portraits of aristocratic families hung in spaces near Manifesto served a function for the families that commissioned them, and the fact that they are now on display for people who never knew the families indicates that they have taken on a usefulness above and beyond that original intention. It could be the artist’s technique, the historical value of the costuming, the gestures and placements of the individuals and what this tells us about family structures there/then, the missing family members that have the family mourning, the typologies that crack the facade of the family unit and expose their hopes and dreams and insecurities. To greater and lesser degrees everything has something to tell us. But here is Manifesto a few spaces over. If we are to agree with Oscar Wilde’s “all art is quite useless,” we can forgive Manifesto for its uselessness, but then also question how mean an artwork must be to collect a hundred and fifty years’ worth of manifestos on art’s usefulness and render them all as television ads advertising Manifesto the expensive useless artwork. As a provocation about the failures of artistic utopias and the victory of vacuous artworks such as Manifesto it actually works, but in the loudest, most expensive, most End of History way possible. This will be the lesson it teaches its future audiences, when it matures to signify more than just itself. Rosefeldt had the budget and the library card, and the reputation to not only get this made, but to have it shown at art galleries and film festivals, so it is frustrating that he has so little to say with that kind of power. The work is broad to the point that it is ineffectual, but as a twentieth century art wikiquote page it is also unbearably elitist. Worker in a garbage incineration plant quotes Robert Venturi: “I am for richness of meaning rather than clarity of meaning,” and it is at this moment in the work that it is clear that Manifesto has in its expensive blasé nothingness neither of these things because it doesn’t mean anything.