Video artist Can­dice Breitz

Romy Ash
The Saturday Paper, 16 December 2017
On the eve of the NGV Tri­en­ni­al, artist Can­dice Bre­itz turned a work about refugees into a work of protest direct­ed at the gallery’s secu­ri­ty con­tracts. While I am grate­ful for the immense sup­port I have received from the NGV,” she announced, it would be moral­ly remiss, in light of the above knowl­edge, 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.” By Romy Ash. When I talk to Can­dice Bre­itz, the Nation­al Gallery of Victoria’s Tri­en­ni­al is still being installed. The first room I walk through is a con­struc­tion site, lit like the inside of a refrig­er­a­tor. Pass­ing through this space I enter a room that’s more like a cave, with a green car­pet that licks out from a large screen. At the wall, fac­ing the screen, are three wide steps. There’s the sense here that the room is akin to a cin­e­ma, with its cocoon of dark­ness. I sit on a step and watch Alec Bald­win and Julianne Moore flick across the screen oppo­site. Their faces are huge, Alec with dark sun­glass­es, Julianne’s skin pale. In front of the screen is Bre­itz, the artist. I watch her as she works with tech­ni­cians to adjust the height of the pro­jec­tion. I’m just going to do it from an embod­ied…” she says, trail­ing off, before turn­ing to ask a ques­tion of a tech­ni­cian. What’s the height of this?” The tech­ni­cian ges­tures to the height of the steps. I’m just going to see what feels good – ” Alec Baldwin’s face shifts slight­ly up the wall. This feels good,” she says. You always end up with gold­en ratios, humans just do,” says the tech­ni­cian. This feels good, Ben­ny, what is it, 60? I like this, I don’t want them to go high­er, let’s do 60,” she says. Every­one looks at the screen: Julianne Moore’s mouth, her teeth, her red hair fram­ing her cin­e­mat­ic face. Bre­itz turns to me and we walk around the screen to the oth­er side of the wall where the rest of her work, Wil­son Must Go, sur­rounds us. When I see the work, it is still called Love Sto­ry. On each screen, Moore and Bald­win per­form the spo­ken his­to­ries of refugees. I ask about the title, but the con­ver­sa­tion tum­bles off in anoth­er direc­tion before Bre­itz can answer. Days before the open­ing, she changed the work’s title to protest the gallery’s rela­tion­ship with Wil­son Secu­ri­ty. The com­pa­ny pro­vides tem­po­rary ser­vices at the gallery and has been deeply involved in the intern­ment of refugees in Australia’s off­shore camps. Bre­itz stip­u­lat­ed that all text relat­ing to the work must change and remain changed in all future exhi­bi­tions until the rela­tion­ship is dis­solved. She encour­aged oth­er artists involved in the NGV Tri­en­ni­al to take sim­i­lar action. Under con­tract to the Aus­tralian gov­ern­ment … Wil­son Secu­ri­ty has vio­lent­ly enforced the impris­on­ment of refugees and peo­ple seek­ing asy­lum in Australia’s off­shore immi­gra­tion deten­tion cen­tres,” Bre­itz wrote in a state­ment after the deci­sion. The hor­rif­ic effects of indef­i­nite manda­to­ry deten­tion are well-doc­u­ment­ed. The alle­ga­tions against Wil­son Secu­ri­ty since the com­mence­ment of their con­tracts on Manus Island and Nau­ru in 2012 are exten­sive and dis­turb­ing. 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, 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.” There is sur­pris­ing­ly lit­tle per­son­al infor­ma­tion about Bre­itz online. The inter­net records that the pho­to­graph­ic and video artist was born in Johan­nes­burg in 1972 and cur­rent­ly lives in Berlin. There’s bare­ly a pho­to­graph of her. For some­one who has been mak­ing work for 25 years, and most of that with a high pro­file, rep­re­sent­ed by impor­tant gal­leries, and col­lect­ed by muse­ums all over the world, includ­ing the Muse­um of Mod­ern Art and Solomon R. Guggen­heim Muse­um in New York, it must require a pow­er­ful per­son­al­i­ty to defy this age of infor­ma­tion and retain such con­trol over her image. I ask her about it. She says, I’m very resis­tant to being fetishised, espe­cial­ly as a woman. There’s been an increas­ing ten­den­cy in the cov­er­age of art and artists to fetishise the fig­ure of the artist, the pri­vate life of the artist, per­son­al anec­dotes, por­traits of the artist, the artist’s child­hood years. I’d much rather see atten­tion direct­ed towards the work. I very sel­dom agree to being pho­tographed.” Today, she is wear­ing black. She is small, with a tight cap of blonde hair, sleep­ers in her ears. She speaks intense­ly about her work, hold­ing eye con­tact for long stretch­es of time. ASREFUGEE, YOURE COM­PELLED INTO AN END­LESS­LY REPET­I­TIVE TELLING OF THE SELF. YOURE EXPECT­ED TO CON­STANT­LY RENAR­RATE YOUR­SELF INTO BEING.”She says, When I start­ed to receive press atten­tion as a young fem­i­nist, I could feel imme­di­ate­ly that there was too much inter­est in my appear­ance and who I was, rather than on what I was doing. I enjoy talk­ing about my work, but almost nev­er do video inter­views, because I pre­fer the focus to be on my con­tent and my voice, rather than on what I look like. I chose a life as an artist, not as an actress or a mod­el. It can dri­ve muse­ums crazy … these days every­body wants video footage of the artist.” She views her work as a con­tin­u­um, refus­ing the idea of a break­through work, but she came to inter­na­tion­al promi­nence through her suite of video por­traits: of Madon­na, Michael Jack­son, Bob Mar­ley and John Lennon. Anoth­er of these, I’m Your Man (A Por­trait of Leonard Cohen), is exhibit­ing at Melbourne’s Anna Schwartz Gallery con­cur­rent to the Tri­en­ni­al. The por­traits depict fans singing the music of these icons and are installed in a series of screens. In these pieces, the icon is both present and absent, and there’s an unset­tling strange­ness to the fans’ depic­tion of the songs: the famil­iar­i­ty of the songs, the vary­ing lev­els of awk­ward­ness in the per­for­mance of these ordi­nary peo­ple. Much of Breitz’s work is like this, a series of screens dis­played in an instal­la­tion space. What is the screen to you?” I ask. It’s a vit­rine,” she says and, in answer to the blank look on my face, expands: A vit­rine is a glass case, the kind you find in a muse­um of nat­ur­al his­to­ry, where arte­facts or peo­ple are exhib­it­ed in glass box­es or dio­ra­mas in order to tell the sto­ry of a cul­ture. Mon­i­tors are glass cas­es, too: trans­par­ent sur­faces which have sus­pend­ed with­in them the pos­si­bil­i­ty of under­stand­ing who we are, whether the sto­ry thus told has been con­scious­ly nar­rat­ed by the peo­ple who did the curat­ing of the vit­rine or not. The con­tents of a vit­rine are always symp­to­matic of what’s going on in a cul­ture at large, they tell sto­ries about who we are, our val­ues, our pri­or­i­ties. The con­tent that we sus­pend in vit­rines – as main­stream or com­mer­cial mak­ers of mov­ing images, on the one hand; or as artists, on the oth­er – always give us away.” Breitz’s 2008 work Him + Her takes up this theme, appro­pri­at­ing found footage of Jack Nichol­son and Meryl Streep across two sev­en-chan­nel instal­la­tions. Bre­itz says she’s inter­est­ed in the per­for­mance of gen­der – in Wil­son Must Go, as well as Him + Her. Him + Herthinks about the expec­ta­tions and con­ven­tions that deter­mine the per­for­mance of gen­der, and in par­tic­u­lar about the nor­ma­tive ideas that have gov­erned gen­der rela­tion­ships,” she says. The cumu­la­tive roles that Meryl Streep has played over her decades on the screen col­lec­tive­ly paint an image of women’ as accom­mo­dat­ing, adap­tive to the needs of oth­ers, mal­leable to their inter­locu­tors. Meryl con­stant­ly trans­forms her­self, she’ll mas­ter any accent, trans­form her­self beyond recog­ni­tion, dis­ap­pear her­self over and over again. The great actress­es of our times – Meryl Streep, Julianne Moore – are famous for dis­ap­pear­ing them­selves, for becom­ing some­thing absolute­ly oth­er than they are. Where­as when you think of a Jack Nichol­son or an Alec Bald­win, it is often quite the oppo­site. Jack’s Jack­ness nev­er goes away when you watch a Nichol­son movie. Jack is always Jack. These two ways of being on the screen speak to two dif­fer­ent expe­ri­ences of being in the world, and are quite telling, I think, about how gen­der norms forge us.” We are sit­ting on the floor, the wall at our backs, and in front of us are six screens, six sto­ries, six peo­ple – the six peo­ple whose sto­ries Bald­win and Moore were telling. At this moment silent and paused, they sit around us in a semi­cir­cle. Their scale is human, and bench­es are set up oppo­site each per­son, for the view­er to sit as you might sit across from some­one at a desk or table. In this room it’s more con­ver­sa­tion­al; there’s not the cin­e­mat­ic scale of the pre­vi­ous room. Bre­itz and I talk for a long time. Our con­ver­sa­tion is rangy, mean­der­ing, some­thing she says she’s allowed for in the inter­views oppo­site, some of which are up to five hours long. Every now and then, Bre­itz shifts her legs, stretch­es. She says the work now called Wil­son Must Go grew out of the expe­ri­ence of liv­ing in Berlin over the sum­mer of 2015, a moment of huge refugee flows into Ger­many. She says, The refugee cri­sis was not some­thing new in 2015, but cer­tain­ly at that moment in time, over that sum­mer, the arrival of all of those new peo­ple and new sto­ries, became very tan­gi­ble, very urgent –” I’m get­ting dis­tract­ed by my peo­ple,” she says, and wrig­gles around so she’s not fac­ing them: Farah Abdi Mohamed, inter­viewed in Berlin after flee­ing Soma­lia; Sarah Ezzat Mar­di­ni, inter­viewed in Berlin after flee­ing Dam­as­cus, Syr­ia; José Maria João, inter­viewed in Cape Town after flee­ing Ango­la; Mamy Mal­o­ba Lan­ga, inter­viewed in Cape Town after flee­ing Kin­shasa, Demo­c­ra­t­ic Repub­lic of Con­go; Luis Ernesto Nava Molero, inter­viewed in New York City after flee­ing Cara­cas, Venezuela; and Shabeena Fran­cis Saveri, inter­viewed in New York City after flee­ing Mum­bai, India. Their sto­ries are told over hours, unedit­ed. In the oth­er room, their sto­ries are retold by Alec Bald­win and Julianne Moore, the six sto­ries becom­ing a frag­ment­ed mon­tage, cut­ting in and out of one anoth­er, just as the view­er set­tles into one sto­ry they’re dis­ori­ent­ed, thrown into the next. In terms of refer­ring to refugees, an inter­est­ing dis­tinc­tion has been made in the Ger­man lan­guage over the last cou­ple of years, between the con­ven­tion­al term Flüchtlinge, a diminu­tive noun, which basi­cal­ly means some­one who flees’, and the word Geflüchtete, a noun which implies that you’re run­ning from some­thing. The impli­ca­tion is that you’ve had no choice but to leave. You are not fixed in lan­guage pure­ly as a refugee, but rather as some­one who has need­ed to seek refuge. It’s a dis­tinc­tion that is hard to make in Eng­lish.” She says, There was a vast gap between what I was hear­ing from peo­ple, as they relat­ed their sto­ries to me, on the one hand, and what one could read about the new­com­ers via the main­stream press. The Ger­man press went into sta­tis­ti­cal mode, obsess­ing over how many refugees, from which coun­tries, of what gen­ders, attached to what reli­gions. The accom­pa­ny­ing imagery depict­ed swaths of bod­ies mov­ing across land­mass­es, crowds of bod­ies drown­ing in the Mediter­ranean. That kind of reportage makes it very hard to think of peo­ple as indi­vid­u­als. Which in turn makes it very hard to think empa­thet­i­cal­ly about what peo­ple are actu­al­ly going through.” Bre­itz takes me through her think­ing, the process that result­ed in these two rooms and the gap that sep­a­rates those who have every­thing” and those who are strug­gling to be recog­nised at the most basic lev­el”. The form of the rooms echoes the con­tent. The inter­views oppo­site us speak to the asy­lum inter­view, she says. As a refugee, you’re com­pelled into an end­less­ly repet­i­tive telling of the self. You’re expect­ed to con­stant­ly renar­rate your­self into being, con­stant­ly jus­ti­fy your pres­ence.” The work rais­es ques­tions about an atten­tion econ­o­my”, using Alec and Julianne, their hyper-vis­i­bil­i­ty, their white­ness, their celebri­ty and entrench­ment in the con­ven­tions of Hol­ly­wood, to ampli­fy the sto­ry of the refugee and reflect on a con­ven­tion­al world that iden­ti­fies with fic­tion­al char­ac­ters and fails to empathise with peo­ple under­go­ing real hard­ship. Bre­itz has been a tenured pro­fes­sor at the Braun­schweig Uni­ver­si­ty of Art since 2007. She says of her art and teach­ing, I’m not inter­est­ed in being the kind of artist who makes her­met­ic work. It’s very impor­tant for me that what I do res­onates for oth­er peo­ple in the world. That sort of dia­logue, that hap­pens, is very essen­tial to my rea­sons for want­i­ng to make art in the first place and teach­ing art is real­ly about being in an ongo­ing, pro­longed con­ver­sa­tion about ideas. I did my under­grad­u­ate degree at the Uni­ver­si­ty of the Wit­wa­ter­srand in Johan­nes­burg – it was a fine arts degree that allowed me to take class­es both in prac­tice and in art his­to­ry and the­o­ry. I thought I was going to be an art his­to­ri­an … In terms of inter­na­tion­al oppor­tu­ni­ties for South African artists, these were the days before William Ken­tridge became a glob­al name. There were vir­tu­al­ly no full-time artists in South Africa when I was grow­ing up. For obvi­ous rea­sons, both polit­i­cal and geo­graph­i­cal, but also because the inter­net had not yet arrived, we were very iso­lat­ed cul­tur­al­ly. It was com­plete­ly delu­sion­al, back then, to imag­ine that you could be an artist’.” But here she stands, and she is. 
This arti­cle was first pub­lished in the print edi­tion of The Sat­ur­day Paper on Dec 16, 2017 as Wil­son must go”. Image cred­it: Till Cremer 
Arti­cle link: here
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