It’s hard to stand out from the crowd in an exhibition such as the Venice Biennale, in which hundreds, possibly thousands of works are competing for the attentions of the cognoscenti. If you manage this feat, your career prospects as contemporary artist take a sharp turn to the north.
Candice Breitz was born in Johannesburg in 1972 and has been exhibiting since the mid-1990s, but she hit the mark at the 2005 Venice Biennale with a video installation called Mother + Father. Two banks of six screens showed famous Hollywood actors playing the role of parent. The snippets were extracted from mainstream movies and the background eliminated to give a cut-out effect.
On one set of screens, Meryl Streep, Shirley MacLaine, Susan Sarandon and others, gave voice to all the stereotypical sentiments of motherhood. On another, actors such as Dustin Hoffman, Harvey Keitel and Donald Sutherland, acted as archetypal fathers. Breitz described the works as “a pair of agitated fugues”, in which the play of voices, the interweaving of clichés with statements we recognise from our own lives, had a mesmeric effect.
Mother + Father is not included in Breitz’s survey show at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image in Melbourne, but there is an equally compelling work called Him + Her (2008) which consists of two seven-channel video installations featuring Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep respectively, in snippets drawn from the entire breadth of their film careers. As we flash from one talking head to the next, Nicholson and Streep seem to conduct complex conversations with themselves. They fret, worry, tease, accuse, analyse and self-justify, as if different aspects of their personalities were holding a seminar.
Although every statement is taken from a movie we begin to feel as though we are watching Nicholson and Streep on the psychoanalyst’s couch, revealing themselves through these assumed roles. This is, however, no less of an illusion than those on-screen impersonations with whom we might empathise for two hours in the dark, before the lights go on and the spell is broken.
Breitz raises the intriguing possibility that we are never quite free from the spell created by the movies and popular culture. We inhabit such a heavily mediatised landscape that we spend a disproportionate amount of time thinking about actors and pop stars – those distant, idealised figures from a more glamorous universe.
There is more than seven hours’ worth of video in this exhibition, but no trace that perennial problem of audio-visual art, namely deciding how long to endure the stupefying boredom. With Breitz’s work it’s difficult to tear oneself away.
In examining the boundaries that separate us from the stars, Breitz finds many points of identification. She suggests we are not simply consumers of popular culture but involved in complex psychological relationships that influence our own behavior and sense of identity.
It’s a familiar phenomenon that when people want to explain how shocking or terrifying a real event was, they say: “It was just like a movie.” The implication is that reality is so humdrum, by definition, that anything exceptional can only take place on a screen. In Him + Her, Breitz turns this around, making the on-screen personas of Nicholson and Streep into something very close to everyday life.
Despite the huge volume of media theory produced over the past century we are still not sure how it all works. It’s too glib to say the virtual world is gradually supplanting the physical one, because we still live in our bodies, not our heads. Nevertheless, we are spending more and more time in communion with a screen, from the TV to the laptop to the smart phone.
The phone has become such an addiction that even in film previews one finds so-called critics tweeting throughout a screening. To such people it is more important to tell their friends they are watching a movie than to follow the story. It’s as if the mania to communicate – to communicate anything – kills off the ability to concentrate for an hour and a half.
Breitz addresses this growing need for interaction in Becoming (2003), which features extracts from seven Hollywood ‘rom coms’ – from Pretty Woman (1990) to The Sweetest Thing (2002) – in which popular actresses make a big, meaningful speech. When we walk around to the other side of the terminals we find the artist herself lip-synching to the speeches.
Breitz is dramatising the appeal of these movies, which invite an imaginative identification on behalf on the viewer, the main target audience being young women still looking for Mr. Right. There is a certain comedy in her painstaking attempts to mimic the expression and delivery of each actress, but it should prompt us to laugh at our own willingness to identify with the characters in films. There will always be viewers who internalise these stories and seek similar scenarios in their own lives.
This loop between real life and fantasy is investigated in one of Breitz’s best-known works, King (A Portrait of Michael Jackson) (2005). From hundreds of applicants she chose sixteen devoted fans of Michael Jackson to sing the entire Thriller album in a recording studio. The singers were allowed to dress and perform any way they liked. The results are bizarre and occasionally hilarious. Some dress like Jackson, but one woman wears a belly dancer’s costume. A few gyrate wildly while others stand like statues.
What this exercise proves is that there are many different ways of being a fan. Breitz has repeated the formula with Italian fans of Madonna, Jamaicans singing Bob Marley songs, and John Lennon fans from Liverpool. What we see in each instance is a marked lack of conformity as everyone responds differently to the invitation to sing their idol’s songs on film, becoming star-for-a-day.
Regardless of the sad and crazy details of Jacko’s actual life, as a fantasy figure he touches a deep, personal chord within the hearts of his admirers. There are as many different versions of Michael Jackson as there are fans. The state of fandom is more than slavish devotion to a singer or actor; it can be a stimulus to creativity, or even a means of self-exploration.
In The Character (2011), a group of school children from Mumbai discuss the attributes of the lead character from a film they have watched. That character is never identified, and is different in many cases, but it is striking how each child describes this figure as if he or she were someone from their own lives. They project their own moral codes onto the hero, and frequently say they would like to know someone like this, or be just like them.
With the Factum series of 2010, Breitz conducts separate interviews with identical twins, screening the results side-by-side, so we see the similarities and differences. Like most of her works this series gets maximum impact from a simple idea, structured in a rudimentary fashion.
The most recent piece in the show is a long, three-part video installation called The Woods (2012), jointly commissioned by ACMI, and the Peabody Essex Museum of Salem, Massachusetts. The Audition was filmed in Hollywood, and features child actors going through their paces. The Rehearsal has Bollywood child actors repeating lines taken from an interview with Shah Rukh Khan, a big drawcard of the Indian cinema. The Interview is a conversation with Aki and Pawpaw, two stars of Nollywood – Nigeria’s contribution to the film industry – who have made names for themselves by playing children.
Each section has its own fascination, but The Audition is an almost painful reminder of the precocious children that appear so regularly in American movies and sit coms. The young actors in this sequence, who sing and dance and do everything they can to impress, are the wannabees desperate to be noticed by a studio or a director. One thinks inevitably of programs such as American Idol, where aspiring talents queue up for the ultimate high of performing on TV, as if were their life’s mission.
Although disappointment and humiliation will be the fate of most participants on American Idol, or Project Runway, or any number of Reality TV/talent quest programs, there is an endless stream of volunteers. Incidentally, after watching two episodes of Work of Art, which seeks to discover talented new artists, I’ve decided American art is doomed. None of these lacklustre narcissists would have made it through the door of a Chinese art school.
It would be a happier world if more of us were content to remain on the viewing side of the screen. Yet as Breitz demonstrates in these acutely intelligent installations, the line between life and performance is being crossed and re-crossed all the time, be it consciously or subliminally. The extreme cases are those people who always seem to be acting, or speak as if reading from an autocue. One soon realises that the danger in treating life as a performance is that everyone else may be following a different script.
Candice Breitz: The Character, Australian Centre of the Moving Image, Melbourne, December 6, 2012 – March 11, 2013
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, February 2, 2013