Can­dice Bre­itz: Video storyteller

Nadiah Abdulrahim
Art Guide Australia, 17 January 2018
Bob Mar­ley. Sarah Ezzat Mar­di­ni. Michael Jack­son. José Maria João. Madon­na. Mamy Mal­o­ba Lan­ga. Alec Bald­win. Shabeena Saveri. Julianne Moore. Luis Nava Molero. Leonard Cohen. Farah Abdi Mohamed. These recog­nis­able and not-so-recog­nis­able names are diverse and dis­parate, but one thing that brings them togeth­er is South African artist Can­dice Bre­itz. Born in Johan­nes­burg in 1972, Bre­itz, who now lives and works in Berlin, is renowned for her anthro­po­log­i­cal stud­ies of the cult of celebri­ty, pop cul­ture, the frame of iden­ti­ty, and rep­re­sen­ta­tion. Niger­ian author Chi­ma­man­da Ngozi Adichie, whose work also grap­ples with the issues of iden­ti­ty, cul­ture and rep­re­sen­ta­tion, dis­cussed the impor­tance of sto­ries in a 2009 speech. Sto­ries mat­ter. Many sto­ries mat­ter. Sto­ries have been used to dis­pos­sess and to malign, but sto­ries can also be used to empow­er and to human­ise,” she said. Sto­ries can break the dig­ni­ty of a peo­ple, but sto­ries can also repair that bro­ken dig­ni­ty.” Bre­itz is a sto­ry­teller who uses her skills, and priv­i­lege, to ampli­fy voic­es that often go unheard, and to help empow­er and repair dig­ni­ty. Bre­itz pri­mar­i­ly works in video and pho­tog­ra­phy, and she rose to promi­nence with her 2005 work, Leg­end (A Por­trait of Bob Mar­ley). This was the first of her por­trait’ works, an ongo­ing study on how iden­ti­ty devel­ops in tan­dem with celebri­ty. The oth­er works in this series include: King (A Por­trait of Michael Jack­son), 2005; Queen (A Por­trait of Madon­na), 2005; Work­ing Class Hero (A Por­trait of John Lennon), 2006; and most recent­ly, I’m Your Man (A Por­trait of Leonard Cohen), 2017, which will be shown at Anna Schwartz Gallery in Mel­bourne from 30 Jan­u­ary. In 2017 she rep­re­sent­ed South Africa at the 57th Venice Bien­nale, along­side Mohau Mod­is­ak­eng, exhibit­ing her work Love Sto­ry, a sev­en-chan­nel video instal­la­tion. This piece, with its title changed to Wil­son Must Go, is cur­rent­ly on show in the Tri­en­ni­al at the NGV.

Wil­son Must Go, a response to the refugee cri­sis, seems to sig­nal a shift towards a more polit­i­cal sphere.

But Simon Maid­ment, senior cura­tor of con­tem­po­rary art at the NGV, says that Bre­itz has always been polit­i­cal­ly moti­vat­ed. It runs through all her work, and her life,” he says. She refers often to an aware­ness of priv­i­lege that comes with being a white South African, while at the same time using the oppor­tu­ni­ties she has to make oth­er more mar­gin­al voic­es heard. It is present with­in not just her art, but also in the social activism she has undertaken.” 
This moti­va­tion is evi­dent in Breitz’s social media pres­ence. Her pub­lic Face­book, and more recent­ly Insta­gram, posts are full of polit­i­cal and cul­tur­al com­men­tary. On 12 Decem­ber 2017, Bre­itz pub­lished a post titled Why I’m Sab­o­tag­ing My Own Work” to explain her deci­sion to change the title of Love Sto­ry to Wil­son Must Go. While I am grate­ful for the immense sup­port I have received from the NGV, it would be moral­ly remiss, in light of the above knowl­edge [of Wil­son Security’s role in off­shore deten­tion cen­tres], for me to remain silent in the con­text of the cur­rent con­ver­sa­tion that is tak­ing place around the Aus­tralian government’s ongo­ing and sys­tem­at­ic abuse of refugees,” she wrote. Look­ing back on her career, Bre­itz has always broached com­plex and chal­leng­ing top­ics in her work. Gen­der, iden­ti­ty, fem­i­nism, race and class are just some of the things she address­es, some­times aid­ed by the use of star pow­er. Wil­son Must Go, for exam­ple, stars Alec Bald­win and Julianne Moore. Alec, peo­ple will lis­ten to you, you’re famous,” Bald­win reflex­ive­ly says to him­self at one point in Wil­son Must Go. The screen then cuts to the equal­ly famous Julianne Moore.

View­ers are held cap­tive by the pow­er of cin­e­ma and celebri­ty as Bald­win and Moore speak in turns before a green screen. The nar­ra­tive is dis­joint­ed, Bre­itz edit­ed the a dia­logue into a mon­tage to remove context.

Con­fu­sion lifts in the sec­ond, small­er room of Breitz’s instal­la­tion at the NGV where inter­views with six refugees are pre­sent­ed in their entire­ty. It’s a more inti­mate set­ting. In place of the cin­e­ma screen are six small­er screens and head­phones. The sto­ries told by refugees Sarah Ezzat Mar­di­ni from Syr­ia, José Maria João from Ango­la, Mamy Mal­o­ba Lan­ga from the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Repub­lic of Con­go, Shabeena Fran­cis Saveri from India, Luis Ernesto Nava Molero from Venezuela, and Farah Abdi Mohamed from Soma­lia are what Bald­win and Moore are recit­ing ver­ba­tim, but heav­i­ly edit­ed, on the big screen. Bre­itz asks on her web­site, What kind of sto­ries are we will­ing to hear? What kind of sto­ries move us? Why is it that the same audi­ences who are dri­ven to tears by fic­tion­al block­busters remain affect­less in the face of actu­al human suf­fer­ing?” The six inter­views with refuges go on for hours, no detail of each har­row­ing and per­ilous jour­ney of seek­ing asy­lum spared. A few view­ers who were trans­fixed by Bald­win and Moore cir­cle quick­ly through the sec­ond room. Wil­son Must Go, in its entire­ty, is over­whelm­ing and begs empa­thy from view­ers. But do we have the atten­tion span (or stom­ach) for it? This is the crux of the work. In the cat­a­logue which accom­pa­nied this work at the 2017 Venice Bien­nale Bre­itz is quot­ed as say­ing, The unwieldy dura­tion of the footage that is archived in Love Sto­ry is intend­ed to point to the mag­ni­tude of the lived expe­ri­ence that is encap­su­lat­ed in the six nar­ra­tives, to infer the impos­si­bil­i­ty of ever being able to grasp and digest these sto­ries in the full range of their nuance and com­plex­i­ty.” As a sto­ry­teller, Bre­itz is able to eke out nuances of per­son­al­i­ty and iden­ti­ty in her sub­jects. This is true even in works that appear to be light heart­ed on the sur­face, such as I’m Your Man (A Por­trait of Leonard Cohen), because Bre­itz sees the val­ue in all sto­ries and all characters. 
Com­mis­sioned by the Musee d’Art Con­tem­po­rain in Mon­tréal (Cohen’s home­town) for the 2017 exhi­bi­tion Leonard Cohen – Une brèche en toute chose (A Crack in Every­thing), the work is real­ly a close to life-sized por­trait of 18 diehard Leonard Cohen fans. It tells the sto­ry of a par­tic­u­lar sec­tion of Cohen fan­dom through per­for­mance. All the men fea­tured in the instal­la­tion are of Cohen’s gen­er­a­tion, and live in Cohen’s beloved city. I was a Leonard Cohen fan since I was 17,” one man says.

As these men sing their way through Cohen’s 1988 album, their earnest­ness, indi­vid­ual style and man­ner­isms meld togeth­er, reveal­ing a sense of com­mu­ni­ty and belonging.

It’s a spe­cial shared bond, sim­i­lar to the process by which refugees are bond­ed by very dif­fer­ent, but ulti­mate­ly shared, expe­ri­ences. In 1992 Leonard Cohen released an album titled The Future, which fea­tures a song titled Anthem. In it Cohen sings, There is a crack, a crack in every­thing. That’s how the light gets in.” It’s a mes­sage of hope for the future. We need sto­ry­tellers like Bre­itz, now more so than ever, to help reveal the cracks, to shine a light where it is need­ed, to give voice to those who can’t speak so we can lis­ten. The world will be rich­er for it. I’m Your Man (A Por­trait of Leonard Cohen) Can­dice Bre­itz Anna Schwartz Gallery 30 Jan­u­ary – 3 March 2018 Can­dice Bre­itz: Wil­son Must Go (Love Sto­ry) NGV Tri­en­ni­al Nation­al Gallery of Vic­to­ria (Inter­na­tion­al) Until 15 April 2018 Image cred­its: Can­dice Bre­itz, Wil­son Must Go, 2016, 7‑channel high def­i­n­i­tion video, sound. (a) Alec Bald­win and Julianne Moore, 73 min 42 sec; (b) Shabeena Fran­cis Saveri, 218 min 49 sec; © Mamy Mal­o­ba Lan­ga, 255 min 35 sec; (d) Sarah Ezzat Mar­di­ni, 167 min 52 sec; (e) Farah Abdi Mohamed, 212 min 19 sec; (f) José Maria João, 207 min 57 sec; (g) Luis Ernesto Nava Molero, 229 min 58 sec. Com­mis­sioned by the Nation­al Gallery of Vic­to­ria, Mel­bourne, Out­set Ger­many, Berlin and Medi­en­board Berlin-Bran­den­burg. Pur­chased with funds donat­ed by Grace and Bren­dan O’Brien. Can­dice Bre­itz, I’m Your Man (A Por­trait of Leonard Cohen), 2017. Instal­la­tion view Anna Schwartz Gallery (upstairs), 30 Jan­u­ary – 3 March 2018. Pho­tog­ra­phy: Zan Wimberley.Courtesy the artist and Anna Schwartz Gallery. Arti­cle link: here
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