Julian Rosefeldt’s Manifesto one of highlights of National Gallery’s autumn season

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

The National Gallery is getting ready to launch its autumn season with a slew of new exhibitions as well as the publication of Law of the Journey, an accompanying book for the installation of one of the more famous works by artist and dissident Ai Weiwei at the Trade Fair Palace.

Julian Rosefeldt,  Manifesto,  2015 © Julian Rosefeldt and VG Bild-Kunst,  Bonn 2017
I spoke to the head of the National Gallery, Jiří Fajt, about some of the shows coming up.

“We are opening our autumn season next Wednesday and the major project we are going to introduce is the project called Manifesto which was created by the Berlin-based artist called Julian Rosefeldt who invited the actress Cate Blanchett to take part and together they created thirteen video films, each twelve to fifteen minutes long.

“Cate Blanchett is interpreting artistic manifestos from 20th century Europe, which is very attractive, playing in different role. One can see her as a homeless person, an artistic director of a private gallery, a high school teacher, and so on. It has a really amazing richness of expressions she framed to us.”

Where and when did you first encounter this project and what was your immediate response when you saw the different clips or episodes?

“I actually saw the project for the very first time in Berlin at the Hamburger Banhoff. It was amazing because you were entering one space with thirteen large screens. It creates an extraordinary atmosphere with the mixture of visual and audio impressions, and I know that the project was not only shown in Berlin, but also New York afterwards. In both places, there were between one hundred and eighty to two hundred thousand visitors, so I wonder what will be the number of visitors in our cultural region.

Just one final question to deal with this particular show: I’m curious about the different manifestos which are represented… which is one that is more prominent?

Julian Rosefeldt,  Manifesto,  2015 © Julian Rosefeldt and VG Bild-Kunst,  Bonn 2017
“Well, there are manifestos like the Futurists, there is a Fluxus one, and there are many more so I think that the manifesto of the Futurist movement is very strong actually, from my point of view.”

The opening is just around the corner. You were asked about Cate Blanchett attending, that it’s not going to happen, or it’s not going to happen yet.

“No, we are now negotiating when. We know that Julian Rosefeldt unfortunately cannot come for the opening next week, but promise he will come over to Prague within the upcoming weeks or months.

“We hope to have Cate Blanchett as well and hope that she finds time to visit Prague together with Julian Rosefeldt because it would be fantastic to have them here and hear their dialogue which is very famous and have shown it in Berlin and New York. We count on the attendance of both of them later on.”

We were talking about big shows and the work that the gallery has done together with Ai Weiwei. Obviously there is an instillation on right now that opened earlier this year, which is “Law of the Journey” that is a 70 meter long inflatable boat with the refugee figures. That made a lot of headlines when it first went up. I understand that there is a publication, which is also out now, that you worked on.

Could you tell me a little bit about how that completes the show with that whole process?

Ai Weiwei - 'Law of the Journey',  photo: National Gallery
“This is actually an accompanying publication to this project that we decided to publish later because we wanted to document the whole preparatory phases of this project in the publication. So, there is a very nice photographic documentation of the creating of this monumental project.”

“There are a couple of very interesting texts and essays that are either written or prepared for this occasion, the publication, or, we decided to publish the older texts, which have already been published somewhere else. One of them is the very famous and iconic texts of a Hannah Arendt We Refugees, and we decided to translate it into Czech for the very first time.

“So, I am very pleased to introduce the main project which, as you said, is focused on the refugee crisis, but aside from this, we decided to also feature a number of other works by Ai Weiwei which are linked to other topics that have social importance like earthquake in southern china in 2008, which we are remember with a project called Snake. All of these projects by Ai Weiwei were implemented into this publication, so the publication deals not only with the project of the journey, but other ones as well.”

The raft is really something to be seen and the space of the Trade Fair Palace as well…

“It is really shocking and surprising to every visitor who enters the space. Furthermore, it is the situation. The boat is not lying on the floor, it is rather, flying in the space and I think that this is a very strong gesture made by Ai Weiwei. We spent a long time discussing the issue of whether or not to have it on the floor or somehow with a fundament or a base.

Ai Weiwei - 'Snake Ceiling',  photo: National Gallery
“We decided to keep it like this and I think that the conflict between the heaviness of the topic and the heaviness of the object itself, and the space and the freedom of the space, because for this occasion we decided to open the ceiling of this big hall that we call the Trade Fair Palace so that the visitor can see heaven. This offers us a totally new dimension that fits very well to the topic that we are trying to speak about.

As you have said in other interviews, the last several years with the migrant crisis, as a reflection of a broader human problem or condition, has really become Ai Weiwei’s focus as an artist.

“He is obsessed.”

Certainly, it is a topic that continues to generate much discussion as well as his role it because in some ways, as a well know dissident, his role there has eclipsed his role as an artist, and there were some moments where he came under criticism. There was the recreation of the photo of the drowned Syrian boy Alan Kurdi which was met with many different reactions, many of them fiercely critical.

“Of course, you can follow these discussions, and I, of course, know about it, but the question is, whether people who are criticizing him in creating that he is too theatrical, but if you know him in person, he is not theatrical at all. He is very empathetic and he is just focusing on human beings.

Ai Weiwei,  Jiří Fajt,  photo: Miroslav Krupička
“He is as human as one can be and what he is proving is actually the ability to approach the people who need our help; those are now migrants or refugees, and in the future, it can be someone else, and he actually pointed out that his presence in the refugee camps, simply his presence helped those people to survive.

“They recognized that there is someone who interested in their fate and that the whole world isn’t just neglecting the refuges and trying to avoid the topic. He is just very human and I think that this is what he does. He opens up our eyes and he opens up our hearts towards these topics and he helps us understand what we were, what we are, and what we should do.”

It sounds like, for him, it’s not a choice in a way.

“No. He doesn’t have any other choice, he is simply persuaded he has to act.”