Can­dice Bre­itz: The Medi­um is the Message

Anna Dunnill
Vault Magazine, May/June 2018
For the acclaimed South African artist Can­dice Bre­itz, truth lives in the places where pol­i­tics and pop cul­ture inter­sect. — Feature Can­dice Bre­itz is send­ing rip­ples of dis­com­fort through the art world. Part­ly, this is the sub­ject mat­ter of her art­work in the Nation­al Gallery of Vic­to­ri­a’s inau­gur­al NGV Tri­en­ni­al, a major com­mis­sion that includes six inter­views with refugees. Most­ly, though, it’s her refusal to let her polit­i­cal con­vic­tions remain safe­ly hid­den in the gallery. Pre­vi­ous­ly exhib­it­ed at the 2017 Venice Bien­nale, the NGV work is titled Love Sto­ry but for the first six weeks of the exhi­bi­tion, it was reti­tled Wil­son Must Go. Days before the Tri­en­ni­al opened, Bre­itz was informed that the NGV’s secu­ri­ty provider, Wil­son Secu­ri­ty, is also con­tract­ed to enforce the impris­on­ment of refugees in Aus­trali­a’s off­shore deten­tion cen­tres. Bre­itz released a state­ment to the effect that the title of her work had been altered to Wil­son Must Go, and would remain so until the NGV sev­ered its tie with the glob­al con­trac­tor. News of Bre­itz’s protest was swift­ly picked up by Euro­pean and Amer­i­can press, and two oth­er inter­na­tion­al artists in the Tri­en­ni­al — Rafael Lozano-Hem­mer and Richard Mosse — imme­di­ate­ly fol­lowed with edits to their own work. In Aus­tralia, how­ev­er, both Tri­en­ni­al par­tic­i­pants and press were more reluc­tant to engage. Speak­ing out against a pow­er­ful insti­tu­tion like the NGV is extreme­ly uncom­fort­able and extreme­ly incon­ve­nient,” Bre­itz says to me the day after her title change goes pub­lic. I sus­pect, though, that being detained on Manus and Nau­ru is con­sid­er­ably less com­fort­able and con­sid­er­ably less con­ve­nient.” Indeed. Bre­itz is not one to priv­i­lege her career over her pol­i­tics — or to con­fuse them for the same thing. Tm a white South African,” she says, so I think a lot about how priv­i­lege extracts val­ue.” As an artist she is acute­ly aware of the pit­falls that can occur in mak­ing social­ly engaged work. She is clear that the work does­n’t end in the gallery. (In late Feb­ru­ary the NGV announced that it was end­ing the con­tract with Wil­son and Bre­itz released anoth­er state­ment that the title would revert to the orig­i­nal.) Love Sto­ry grew out of lengthy video inter­views with six indi­vid­u­als, all of whom have fled their coun­tries for rea­sons of per­se­cu­tion and oppres­sion: Sarah Ezzat Mar­di­ni, who escaped war­torn Syr­ia; José Maria João, a for­mer child sol­dier from Ango­la; Mamy Mal­o­ba Lan­ga, a sur­vivor from the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Repub­lic of the Con­go; Shabeena Fran­cis Saveri, a trans­gen­der activist from India; Luis Ernesto Nava Molero, a polit­i­cal dis­si­dent from Venezuela; and Farah Abdi Mohamed, an athe­ist from Soma­lia. Filmed in Berlin, New York and Cape Town, des­ti­na­tions that are home to rapid­ly increas­ing refugee pop­u­la­tions, these sto­ries paint a glob­al pic­ture of the cri­sis at this moment in his­to­ry. The work puts forth a num­ber of ques­tions: which sto­ries do we lis­ten to? In an age of dis­trac­tions, where do we place our atten­tion? Who deserves our empa­thy? For Bre­itz, there were two pri­or­i­ties in mak­ing Love Sto­ry. The first, clear­ly enough, was to cre­ate a vis­i­bil­i­ty, a space in which these first per­son nar­ra­tives could res­onate.” But the issue of atten­tion is a press­ing one. It’s one thing to spend time con­duct­ing inti­mate in-depth inter­views,” says Bre­itz, but archiv­ing sto­ries is mean­ing­less if peo­ple are not going to lis­ten to them and spend time with them. That’s where the sec­ond dimen­sion of the work kicks in.” Enter­ing the instal­la­tion, the first faces we see are not those of refugees, but the Hol­ly­wood actors Alec Bald­win and Julianne Moore. Pro­ject­ed on a cin­e­mat­ic screen, they re-per­form sec­tions of the inter­views, bring­ing their extreme­ly famous, extreme­ly white” faces and extreme­ly flow­ing Amer­i­can Eng­lish” to tran­scripts of gru­elling sto­ries relayed first hand. Edit­ed into a slick, engross­ing nar­ra­tive, these sto­ries over­lay and inter­sect: an arc built through jump-cuts, imbued with pathos by the actors’ skill. At 73 min­utes, this video is not exact­ly click­bait. Although it requires con­cen­tra­tion and time it’s acces­si­ble and imme­di­ate­ly com­pelling. The work is guar­an­teed, as Bre­itz says, to rouse your empa­thy, because we’ve been metic­u­lous­ly socialised to respond to the per­for­mance of emo­tion­al con­tent accord­ing to cer­tain con­ven­tions, often dic­tat­ed by main­stream enter­tain­ment and social media.” Beyond the first space, the orig­i­nal, full-length inter­views — most clock­ing in at three to four hours — are pre­sent­ed via an inti­mate semi­cir­cle of screens with head­phones. Watch­ing these inter­views is a test of com­mit­ment. But who can give up the dozens of hours required to sit in the space and hear them all, espe­cial­ly once you’ve seen the edit­ed, Hol­ly­wood ver­sion? For Bre­itz this is the crux of the work. As you move from the first space into the sec­ond space, you become almost imme­di­ate­ly aware that you now have access to the actu­al peo­ple whose embod­ied expe­ri­ence you’ve just received in trans­la­tion via Bald­win and Moore,” she says. In that moment, you become the sub­ject of the work. The choic­es that you make regard­ing how and whether to invest your inten­tion in one or both of the rooms, and how you move between the two rad­i­cal­ly dif­fer­ent ver­sions of these same nar­ra­tives, is very much what the work is about.” Through­out Bre­itz’s 25-year career, her work has often explored the same actor play­ing mul­ti­ple roles, or the same role played by mul­ti­ple actors. In Moth­er and Father (2005), the parental roles are explored through icon­ic movie char­ac­ters: the likes of Julia Roberts, Susan Saran­don, Dustin Hoff­man and Steve Mar­tin are extract­ed from their orig­i­nal Hol­ly­wood footage and pre­sent­ed in two mir­rored six-chan­nel sequences. The 2008 work Him + Her is almost an inver­sion of this; in two sev­en-chan­nel mon­tages of Jack Nichol­son and Meryl Streep, each actor’s var­i­ous char­ac­ters seem to be debat­ing among them­selves, per­form­ing a kind of schiz­o­phrenic inter­nal mono­logue. Often play­ing with notions of fan­dom, Bre­itz’s por­trait’ series turns to music to exam­ine the slip­page between indi­vid­ual and col­lec­tive iden­ti­ty. From Michael Jack­son to Madon­na, John Lennon to Bob Mar­ley, the por­traits’ are pro­duced through fans filmed indi­vid­u­al­ly singing the same song, then cut togeth­er to become a choir. In the age of the inter­net, it’s a pow­er­ful image — sep­a­rate but togeth­er. Bre­itz’s oth­er instal­la­tion in Mel­bourne, I’m Your Man (A Por­trait of Leonard Cohen) (2017) at Anna Schwartz Gallery con­tin­ues this thread. Three years in the mak­ing, the piece was orig­i­nal­ly com­mis­sioned by the Musée d’art con­tem­po­rain de Mon­tréal for an exhi­bi­tion focus­ing on Cohen’s life and work. I’m very inter­est­ed in late cre­ativ­i­ty,” Bre­itz says, and in how being a lit­tle fur­ther along in life might move one beyond the per­for­mance of nor­ma­tiv­i­ty. When the nor­ma­tive crutch­es of mas­culin­i­ty go, one must find oth­er ways of being in the world.” Work­ing with 18 men in Mon­tréal (Leonard Cohen’s home­town) who had been Cohen fans for 50 years or more, Bre­itz asked each to sing through all eight songs of the tit­u­lar album. The men are all in their sev­en­ties or eight­ies, a diverse array uni­fied by their sin­cer­i­ty and com­mit­ment to the music, and to Cohen’s mem­o­ry. Now, in videos installed on both sides of the long gallery, their voic­es min­gle: var­i­ous­ly husky, strong, fal­ter­ing. Sev­er­al mop their eyes or weep open­ly: the film­ing, by coin­ci­dence, took place short­ly after the singer’s death at age 82. Cohen, of course, was a con­stant nego­tia­tor of cre­ative age­ing: he record­ed and toured until near­ly the end, his last album released only weeks before his death. In his lyrics, Cohen loved to reflect on mor­tal­i­ty, on his own fragili­ty as an old­er man,” Bre­itz says with a smile, and on the slow demise of his mas­cu­line charms. This was one of his recur­ring themes.” The title song of I’m Your Man sees Cohen humor­ous­ly lay out his pos­si­ble iden­ti­ties: a lover, a box­er, a part­ner, a doc­tor. The art­work’s singers, too, so var­ied in their indi­vid­ual per­sonas, shared a desire not often ascribed to sto­ic men of their par­tic­u­lar gen­er­a­tion: Many spoke of how Cohen had offered them a chan­nel into com­plex emo­tion­al expe­ri­ence.” Both watch­ing the singers’ faces in I’m Your Man, and lis­ten­ing to the inter­views in Love Sto­ry, I’m struck by the breadth of the emo­tion­al range Bre­itz explores. Using both humour and depth, her work reveals the con­tra­dic­tions and com­plex­i­ties of her sub­jects; in blur­ring the lines between their sep­a­rate iden­ti­ties they are not flat­tened, but enhanced. There are mul­ti­tudes with­in all of us as long as we, the view­ers, can give them our time and atten­tion. V Can­dice Bre­itz is rep­re­sent­ed by Anna Schwartz Gallery, Mel­bourne, Good­man Gallery, Johan­nes­burg, Kauf­mann Repet­to, Milan and KOW, Berlin. Can­dice Bre­itz: Love Sto­ry shows at the Arken Muse­um of Mod­ern Art, Copen­hagen until Sep­tem­ber 9, 2018. Inter­view cour­tesy Anna Schwartz Gallery, Mel­bourne. Pho­tog­ra­phy: Zan Wimberley.
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