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DCist: With 13 Cate Blanchetts, The Hirshhorn Explores The Artist Manifesto

June 14, 2019

DCist: With 13 Cate Blanchetts, The Hirshhorn Explores The Artist Manifesto

Manifesto: Art x Agency is the opposite of your college art history class—it investigates art history through art. The exhibit explores the idea of the manifesto, or statement of political or social purpose, that artists and artist groups used to define their work. Early 20th century pieces by Alexander Calder, Salvador Dalí, and Jean Arp are presented alongside contemporary works by Nam June Paik, Frances Stark, Jackson Pollock, and Hurvin Anderson. It’s all connected by Julian Rosefeldt’s Manifesto, an immersive film installation in which Cate Blanchett plays 13 different roles.

The exhibit’s three sections explore in more than 100 two- and three-dimensional pieces how artists engage with political issues and social concerns, making history along the way. Project leader Stéphane Aquin, chief curator at the Hirshhorn, discusses how the exhibit came together, and how modern viewers can experience these manifestos today. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What inspired the development of this exhibit?

“Julian’s film was the key element. I saw it years ago in Berlin and said that it would be great to show on the National Mall. I wanted to show it with works in the Hirshhorn’s collection and bring the idea of the manifesto into the present. What is the modern equivalent of the 20th century attempt to change the world?

The first section of the exhibit is artworks from the early movements like Futurism and Dadaism, up through the 1950s. The second section is the film. The third section is artworks from the 1960s through today—but mostly work from the past 20 years. These contemporary artworks act as manifestos.”

What—if anything—distinguishes the use of manifestos by artists versus writers or philosophers?

“What always comes across in visual art manifestos is the advancement of forms in modern life, even when the movement’s artists may be very literary in their thinking. Piet Mondrian is a great example; his famous paintings derive from essential elements of nature.”

A cliché repeated since the 2016 election is that a difficult historical moment inspires good art. But this exhibit shows that socially critical art was created during every decade in the past 120 years, including eras not considered fraught today. Is there always a social or political phenomenon to which thoughtful creators respond?

“I think so. Another school of thought says that art thrives in great prosperity, like 16th century Venice. In modernity we get this philosophy that hard times inspire artists to awaken from a dogmatic sleep. This doesn’t necessarily make good art—just critical work. We try to be a step above the current political climate.”

Why is now the right time to debut the 2015 film Manifesto in D.C.?

“There is no right or wrong time to show such a work. It would have been the right time seven years ago, had the work existed then.”

Tell me about the decision to display the film as a multi-channel installation.

“I’ve seen it both ways, and as a multi-channel piece it reads well. It was conceived of as an installation. We will also present it as a feature in the auditorium.”

The manifestos exhibited in the film and explored in the first section of the exhibit are largely authored by white men. But the exhibit’s contemporary works are far more reflective of art as an activity not exclusive to any race, nationality, or gender. Does this shift indicate that more diverse perspectives being sought and paid attention to by the art world today?

“We constantly struggle with most art history being written by males, and we are working with our own collection. Unfortunately in the first section there are no women artists represented in some movements because of the limits of our collection. On the other hand, our Abstract Expressionist section is not exclusively Western – we wanted to deprovincialize the understanding of this movement.

In the third section there is an almost 50/50 gender split. We also realized it is both quite international generally and populated by many artists from the African and African American diasporas. This was not a programmatic choice; many artists commenting on political movements and social change are African and African American. They were engaging with these ideas when others were just making forms.”

Manifesto: Art x Agency opens at the Hirshhorn Museum on Saturday, and runs through January 5, 2020. FREE

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