I first encountered Julian Rosefeldt’s work in 2010 when he won the Vattenfall Contemporary Prize, resulting in the exhibition ‘Living in Oblivion’ at Berlinische Gallery. His video and photographic work demonstrated what could best be described as a cinematic eye; his film installation revealing a keen sense of narrative and the blurring of fiction and reality. The speculative element of his work, particularly evident in The Shift (2008) suggested how Rosefeldt’s sense of place could be used to frame broadly introspective expressions of the human condition.
For his new exhibition Manifesto, currently showing at Hamburger Bahnhof in Berlin, Rosefeldt turned to the manifesto as source material from which to create a series of striking and beautifully orchestrated vignettes. Taken from a collection of roughly 60 different texts, Rosefeldt has constructed 13 different scripts that oscillate between vibrant and explosive declarations, nuanced directives and sometimes wildly philosophical and abstracted outbursts. These collaged scripts are performed by a variety of different characters, a teacher, a factory worker, a puppeteer, all performed by actress Cate Blanchet. The effect is compelling, and it becomes possible to momentarily lose sight of the huge scale of the installation as you become distracted by specific figures.
Blanchet’s acting prowess here probably shouldn’t be understated. Her performances are incredibly captivating. Of the thirteen, there were two in particular which I found especially difficult to step away from. The first of these featured the Australian actress seemingly in her element as a school teacher, reciting lines in part taken from the Dogma 95 Vow of Chastity to a room of young school children, no older than 8 or 9 at most. Hearing these small children dutifully recite lines about authentic light and the death of the author is simultaneously both amusing and mildly disturbing:
Blanchet: “The Director Must Not Be….?”
It feels like the perfect demonstration of the way that doctrine and ideology are readily swallowed up by those either willing or susceptible to them, something which really functions as a wider metaphor for the exhibition as a whole.
In a different scene, Blanchet plays an industrial worker who quietly muses to herself in a notebook, devotedly dolling out beans on toast for her child before heading to work in what looks like a metal scrap yard. The effect is somehow reversed in this narrative, the audience of children replaced by a sense of bleak isolation; an empty space with words reverberating around it. The shots are all masterfully executed, and the quiet, brooding feeling of this segment sustains the viewer’s eye even during the moment when all of the films simultaneously link up in a monotone monologue that breaks the otherwise steadily maintained disconnect between each scene. This video (the interview is only available in German) gives some indication of how large the installation feels, and how the scenes come together in their cacophonous and polemical totality.
Late last year I recall seeing Ragnar Kjartansson’s similarly mammoth audio visual installation The Visitors at Brewer Street Car Park in Soho, London. Spread across nine screens, that work saw the artist and a host of collaborators performing what he described as a “feminine nihilistic gospel song”. What made that piece so incredible to experience was the way each performer came in and out of the piece, creating space for each other within the recital as a whole. An unspoken synergy ran through that work, even as each individual was filmed in a separate room of an old house in New York State.
In comparison, what makes Rosefeldt’s work here feel so engaging is the conscious and sustained disconnect he conjures up by juxtaposing these different scenes together inside a single darkened space. It’s a beautiful and deliberate presentation of multiplicity, exacerbated somewhat by the fact that the texts are themselves collaged from a variety of sources before being performed by what feels like an equally broad spectrum of characters. The source material and its development both place the work in a specific cultural framework that antagonises the role of the manifesto as a means to condense and define, as well as framing creative and cultural pursuits as political actions, posing questions about intention, motivation and the relationship between theory and praxis.
Manifesto will be shown at Hamburger Bahnhof until July 10th, and a 90 minute version of the work will screen at selected film festivals later this year.
By Will Gresson