The South African artist advocates for empathy and inclusion through Hollywood stars and video art.

Art Radar looks at the oeuvre of artist and self-proclaimed storyteller Candice Breitz, and its relevance in a time when fake news and real stories are arranged by algorithms rather than cruciality or authenticity.

Video and photographic artist Candice Breitz speaking from experience at Art Basel, 2017. Image courtesy Art Basel.

Video and photographic artist Candice Breitz speaking from experience at Art Basel, 2017. Image courtesy Art Basel.

This article was written by a participant in our art writing diploma programme. Do you want to write for Art Radar too? Click here to find out more about our Diploma in Art Journalism & Writing.

Tackling topics of identity, empathy and voice, Candice Breitz (b. 1972, Johannesburg) sees herself more as a storyteller than an artist, sharing stories that, as described in her biography, centre on the means through which “an individual becomes him- or herself in relation to a larger community”. These almost anthropological examinations look at both local and global communities and how they shape the voices we elevate, and how this affects the cultivation of empathy.

Breitz has most recently demonstrated these themes in the work Love Story (2016), first made available for public viewing at the 2017 Venice Biennale in the South Africa Pavilion, and most recently shown at the NGV Triennial in Australia between 15 December 2017 until 15 April 2018. Her work has also been exhibited at the Palais de Tokyo (Paris), the South African National Gallery (Cape Town), ACMI (Melbourne), the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art (Humblebaek), at biennales in Venice (2005, 2017), Dakar (2014), Istanbul (1999) and Singapore (2011), and at the Sundance Film Festival (2009) and the Toronto International Film Festival (2013). Breitz has been a tenured professor at the Hochschule für Bildende Künste in Braunschweig since 2007.

Multiple communities

Although her career began in South Africa, Candice Breitz is now primarily based in Berlin. This move from the native country to the cultural capitals of Europe and the U.S. is a common act by many artists. Breitz said in a conversation at Art Basel 2017 that she finds speaking about her exit “painful,” having left South Africa in 1994 – the year of Nelson Mandela’s election win, and a “crucial” time of South African transition. However, she added:

I don’t personally spend too much time worrying about how I will be perceived, or whether I am authentically performing my roots, because […] what is the community that I identify with? Is it a national community, a gendered community, a diasporic community?

This recognition of her own place within multiple communities is perhaps why her focus is so global. Although loyal to both the country she comes from and the one she resides in, there is no specific cultural tone to her work, other than one of empathy. Breitz carefully shares narratives that highlight the way in which people identify themselves and how they are identified by others.

Click here to watch the trailer of ‘Love Story’ (2016) [TRAILER] by Candice Breitz on Vimeo

Celebrities against clichés

Whether they be racial, cultural or social, stereotypes are everywhere, and they inform the behaviour of communities and individuals. Love Story (2016) breaks down the ‘otherness’ of refugees through a careful selection of six individuals. The artist explains:

I wanted the mixture of people to suggest that anyone could be a refugee. Those of us who have not been displaced have a tendency to think that this is something that happens to people far away. I wanted to select a range of people who collectively didn’t fit any stereotype.

In this work, actors Julianne Moore and Alec Baldwin re-enact interviews of immigrants, thus questioning why fiction, as seen in Hollywood productions, can garner more emotional responses than the stories of real people that are taking place within our own backyard.

The installation took on a new life when displayed in Australia as part of the National Gallery of Victoria’s Triennial, where the work was re-named Wilson Must Go in response to the discovery that the institution’s hired security belonged to a company guilty of the mistreatment of refugees. Breitz said of this decision:

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.

Click here to watch ‘MOTHER’ (2005) by Candice Breitz on Vimeo

Stereotypes are also examined in many of the artist’s previous works, including Mother (2005) and Father (2005), wherein she presents extracts from Hollywood films and the parental figures that occupy the screen.

Using images from films featuring Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Dustin Hoffman and Steve Martin, among others, Breitz creates a montage of interrupting dialogues and pictures that demonstrate the narrow representation of these parental roles. For instance, parents in films are often represented as anxious characters, having parenthood thrust upon them. The work suggests that these portrayals fall short of the reality they profess to depict, and encourages questions of our standards of being.

The ‘somebodies’ and the ‘nobodies’

Celebrity culture makes a regular appearance in Breitz’s work, becoming almost a motif rather than a mere cameo of stars. These recognisable scenes and faces are often used to represent the ‘ordinary’ people, whether it be Alec Baldwin telling the story of an immigrant or Julia Roberts representing mothers. In a reversal of roles, works such as Queen (A Portrait of Madonna) and King (A Portrait of Michael Jackson), both created in 2005, operate in the opposite way: using the fans – regular people – to represent the celebrity.

Candice Breitz, 'King (a portrait of Michael Jackson)', 2005, 16-channel video installation: 42:20 minutes, colour, sound ed. 3/6, 500 x 1200cm (installed, variable) Acc. 2008.239a-b Purchased 2008 with funds from Tim Fairfax, AM, through the Queensland Art Gallery Foundation. Collection: Queensland Art Gallery. © The artist.

Candice Breitz, ‘King (a portrait of Michael Jackson)’, 2005, 16-channel video installation: 42:20 minutes, colour, sound ed. 3/6, 500 x 1200cm (installed, variable). Acc. 2008.239a-b, purchased 2008 with funds from Tim Fairfax, AM, through the Queensland Art Gallery Foundation. Collection: Queensland Art Gallery. © The artist.

King is constructed with a multi-video installation of 16 solitary figures. A passionate, albeit out of tune, choir is formed when each individual begins to sing the hits of Michael Jackson’s career. Not only does this demonstrate that bonds and communities can be formed through the smallest of interest, but that, ultimately, the fame and identity of celebrities are formed only by the public creating the star’s platform.

In 2005, both Mother and Father were displayed alongside Queen for an exhibition at White Cube in London, demonstrating the recurring themes of Breitz’s career. According to the exhibition website,

The juxtaposition of Mother + Father and Queen signals what Breitz has come to describe as the central dichotomy in her work, between the ‘somebodies’ (global idols) – whose images she pushes to breaking point – and the ‘nobodies’ (fans and consumers) – whose unabridged idolatry she allows to take over the screen.

Rearranging human and story value

Candice Breitz, when working on Love Story, learnt that not all voices are equal, and therefore neither are the individuals to whom those voices belong. In an interview with SABC Digital News, she said:

As I started to put together the pieces, what also started to become painfully obvious to me was that we live in an economy attention in which some stories matter and some stories don’t. So a certain people’s stories are afforded a lot of space and a lot of visibility and are automatically interesting.

In a time when social media feeds demand attention at all hours of the day, filtering information not by urgency or importance but by algorithms, often the voices that are already loud are the ones that continue to be amplified. Breitz takes these voices and uses them to highlight the stories that require and deserve our attention, pointing out the discrepancy between the stereotypes being portrayed to the world and the reality of the individuals that such images profess to depict.

Kathleen Page

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This article was written by a participant in our art writing diploma programme. Do you want to write for Art Radar too? Click here to find out more about our Diploma in Art Journalism & Writing.

 

Related topics: South African artists, video, profiles, Art Radar Institute, Certificate in Art Journalism & Writing 101

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Brittney

By Brittney

Brittney is a writer, curator and contemporary art gallerist. Born in Singapore and based in New York City, Brittney maintains a deep interest in the contemporary art landscape of Southeast Asia. This is combined with an equally strong interest in contemporary art from the Asian diasporas, alongside the issues of identity, transmigration and global relations.

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