This fall, the Montreal Museum of Contemporary Art (MAC) premieres Manifesto in Canada. The highly vaunted piece is a 2015 Australian-German multi-screen film installation written, produced and directed by Julian Rosefeldt. A professor of Digital and Time-based Media at Berlin’s Academy of Fine Arts, Rosefeldt has created a hauntingly beautiful and complex work. His sumptuous images have an undercurrent of the peculiar. They also have a subtle sense of humour; a gentle core parody lies in each caricature.

Using wording from various manifestos – that of Karl Marx, Tristan Tzara, Guillaume Apollinaire, André Breton, Claes Oldenburg and others – Rosefeldt wrote a script that is performed by Academy Award-wining actress Cate Blanchett. And therein lies the tale. She is the pivot of the film; a chameleon that drives the film’s “narrative.” She acts out 13 roles. Each transformation is utterly believable as she pronounces her monologues, the words culled by Rosefeldt from famous manifestos. Her acting prowess is a joy to watch, as the disguises range from a ranting homeless man, a simple primary school teacher, a “classic” anchorwoman with perfect hair, and a construction worker to a stumbling drunk punk rocker, complete with messy blurred black mascara. Peering out from the artful makeover/make-up, her eyes stare at the viewer, luring them into the work – a manifesto in and of itself. Blanchett’s interpretations are that of archetypes, perhaps a subtle reflection of the viewers’ own opinions and judgements. Rosefeldt may have composed his script from thought-provoking texts, but it is the way these texts are said that is important. The shape-shifting Blanchett delivers them with a pronunciation relevant to her role. Supporting the roles covering different social milieu, her accents reinforce the persona.

Manifesto, 2015 © Julian Rosefeldt and VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2017

On the one hand, the monologues are a multi-levelled intellectual exercise. On the other – linked with the physical roles the actress plays out – they are a social commentary. There is a dissonance throughout. Blanchett’s soliloquies have nothing to do with the visuals. The concept behind the film/installation is the idea of manifestos. This objective is couched in elaborate visual vignettes filmed in and around Berlin. There is no real linear narrative. The shape-shifting Blanchett simply states her monologues in the appropriate settings which provide detailed background information for her character. At the MAC, her arresting performances will be shown simultaneously on thirteen large-screen projections. The immersive installation is utterly hypnotic – and stunning. It is cinema, a cultural commentary, performance/installation/conceptual art, and a thoughtful inquiry into identity and cultural tropes.

One of the manifestos considered by Julian Rosefeldt was that of American dancer, choreographer and film maker Yvonne Rainer. Her 1965 No Manifesto stated: ‘‘No to spectacle. No to virtuosity. No to transformations and magic and make-believe. No to the glamour and transcendence of the star image. No to the heroic. No to the anti-heroic. No to involvement of performer or spectator. No to style… No to moving or being moved.’’ However, the Manifesto by Julian Rosefeldt does all that – and more. And it is magnificent.

At the MAC, Manifesto will be shown simultaneously on thirteen large-screen projections. Having seen only the film and not as an installation, because the words are key to the production, I wondered how the cacophony of overlapping phrases will “read” for the viewer. Then I realized that this disquieting feeling will actually accurately reflect the very essence of artists’ manifestos: to disturb. Using serious screeds of Futurists and Dadaists, the multi-channel video becomes a metaphor for their disconcerting questioning. The richly complex scenes are only used to provide an order, an alluring backdrop for the caustic commentaries. “Conceptual art is good only when the concept is good.’’ And the concept behind Manifesto is more than good. It is riveting. And as the title implies – it, too, is a manifesto.

Manifesto. Montreal Museum of Contemporary Art, October 18, 2018 – January 20, 2019