Candice Breitz speaks to ArtThrob about her recent Featured Artist presentation at the 2015 FNB Joburg Art Fair. The presentation included two seven channel video installations (‘Him + Her’) and selections from her ‘Portrait of an Artist’ project.
Tim Leibbrandt: Why did you decide to show Him + Her at the FNB Joburg Art Fair?
Candice Breitz: The curator of the fair – Lucy MacGarry – was interested in presenting works that were of an ambitious scale, which was of course a wonderful opportunity. She also liked the idea of showing works that had not been seen in the South African context before. It’s only relatively recently that I’ve been able to show my work in South Africa, so at this stage I do have a pretty expansive backlog of works—two decades worth—that has not been seen by a broader South African art public. A couple of years ago, I was able to show an earlier two-part work titled Mother + Father (2005) at the Standard Bank Gallery, so when Lucy approached me to invite me to be the fair’s featured artist, I proposed that we install Him + Her (2008), the conceptual offspring of Mother + Father. I liked the idea that some people might have already spent time with Mother + Father in Joburg, and would now be able to experience the work that came next in terms of that particular trajectory in my practice.
TL: Could you give a bit of background to the work? What went into making it?
CB: I first started thinking about Him + Her in 2005, at the time that we were wrapping up post-production on Mother + Father. The new works revisit the editing grammar of those earlier installations and pick up where they left off. I remember looking at Mother + Father the first couple of times that they were exhibited, and being struck by their relatively anthropomorphic structure. Although my cast of characters was, in the case of both Mother and Father, stretched across a minimal arc of six plasma screens (which function in my work a little like ethnographic vitrines), the left-to-right line-up of the characters nonetheless invited the projection of a certain naturalism. Given the suspension of disbelief that cinematic images tend to invite, it became possible to think of each of the installations as a conversation of sorts, a conversation between six individuals. The second element that structured the two installations was their strong thematic logic; the interaction between my characters was choreographed via a tangled discussion about parenthood. I programmatically called the works Mother + Father, and the selection of found footage fragments that I then beaded together was dictated to some extent by this decision.
As the concept for Him + Her started to take shape, I decided that it would be an interesting challenge to try and shift away from these defining aspects of Mother + Father – their anthropomorphism and their thematic core. Rather than using a cast of characters that could be imagined as distinct individuals, Him and Her each adopt a single actor to play all of the roles in a non-linear drama. Him places 23 Jack Nicholsons (from a range of films made over 40 years) into confrontation with one another, while Her is essentially a showdown between 28 Meryl Streeps (cut out of 28 films that were made over a period of 30 years). The actor is in each case thrown into a series of psychological encounters with him or herself as s/he is multiplied across a seven-screen structure. Given the somewhat schizophrenic casting principle, no single player in Him or Her ever achieves the status of a full character, but can instead be thought of as a strand of subjectivity, existing parallel to a myriad of other same-same-but-different strands of the same self. The interaction of the character-fragments is fluid in the way that a kaleidoscope is fluid, and ultimately fails to deliver a stable representation of either Nicholson or Streep; the strands intertwine, form knots, coalesce and unravel, sometimes in the space of seconds.
TL: What made you decide on Meryl Streep and Jack Nicholson as your central figures?
CB: Nicholson and Streep were both wonderful vehicles for the experience of being that I wanted to describe, for quite opposite reasons. Nicholson’s screen mastery is such that no matter how well he plays a role, he always manages to radiate a relatively consistent Jackness concurrent to the particular role that he is playing (this projected Jackness may or may not have anything to do with the actual off-screen Nicholson). Streep’s acting methodology is the opposite. She does everything possible to disappear into her roles, vanishing behind an astounding range of accents and mannerisms, and thoroughly erasing Merylness from her screen characters. In choosing these two actors, I was interested in how these different approaches to being on-screen might in turn suggest rather different approaches to the challenge of maintaining an identity off-screen. I don’t want to suggest that one acting style is more compelling than the other, or that the differences between these styles are simply the result of personal decisions made by the two actors; I think they also reflect the complex and significant differences in the kinds of roles that are available to women and men in mainstream cinema, in turn pointing to the gender codes that operate at an infrastructural level in the world of mass entertainment and of course, beyond.
Despite their extensive engagement with the two actors, these works are in the end unable to tell us anything about them. The extreme visibility of celebrities like Nicholson and Streep entices us into feeling that we know them, when in fact their iconicity relies precisely on the impossibility of our ever getting to know them. The aura of the Hollywood celebrity depends on the magical disappearance that occurs when the cinema lights are turned back on. In this sense, stars like Nicholson and Streep are quite literally smothered by their own images. The proliferation of their cinematic selves makes them all but vanish, which in turn makes it possible for them to become my Everyman and Everywoman in the context of these two installations. The installations are dated to refer not to the actual dates of birth of Streep and Nicholson (as would be the case in a classic portrait or biography), but to reflect the year in which the first Nicholson/Streep source-film was released, as well as the year in which I did my cut of the material (Him is dated 1968-2008; Her is dated 1978-2008). So while the two installations flirt with genres like portraiture and biography, they draw their material from the filmography of each actor, focusing not on who the actors actually are, but on what they have done. Ultimately the subject of analysis here, if there is one, is neither Streep nor Nicholson, but the unconscious of mainstream cinema, the values and layers of meaning that slowly start to make themselves legible when the big plots are stripped away.
TL: In Her there is a brief moment where a foreign hand touches one of the Meryl Streeps on the back seemingly to console her. This the only trace of a party external to the “Meryls”. What was significant about that particular gesture?
CB: That hand happens to be the hand of Jack Nicholson. It represents a momentary connection between Him and Her, which are in fact shown in two separate spaces. I’ve been showing this work since 2008, and you’re the first person who has actually noticed and asked about that hand. Thank you!
TL: Have you thought about doing future versions of the work with different actors/actresses who may be typecast with different Hollywood clichés?
CB: Not for a second. It took three full years to make Him + Her, and since (in my mind), the work is not ‘about’ Streep or Nicholson, I can’t imagine any compelling reason to remake the work with different actors. I was approached, a few years back, by one very visible and iconic Hollywood individual—who shall remain unnamed—who asked me to do to him what I had done to Jack. I explained to him that doing so would not shift the meaning of the work for me to the extent that I’d be willing to invest another three years of my life going through the whole process again….
TL: Can you tell us a little bit about your decision to partner the video installations with your Portrait of an Artist project?
CB: Well, again, the fair was keen on showing works that would be new to a South African audience. Portrait of an Artist is a project that I made in 2011. I have been hiding it in the studio ever since. It had only been shown once before (prior to Johannesburg) in a museum in Kyiv, Ukraine. I’ve been very interested, since I started thinking about portraiture, in the possibility of thinking of the portrait as a tool that might capture those who are portrayed in relation to their social others, as opposed to as isolated individuals. If you look across the range of my work, you’ll see that time and time again, I’ve been invested in thinking typologically about how portraiture as a genre can communicate subjectivity. I’m convinced that people can best be represented in their relationship to larger social entities. Him + Her and Portrait of an Artist are both attempts, seen very loosely, to move away from monographic or monolithic approaches to portraiture. In Him + Her, one individual is fragmented across a kaleidoscopic montage: the fetishized celebrity at the heart of each work is asked to play the generic role of a him or a her. Portrait of an Artist is, on the one hand, a very strange stab at self-portraiture, but on the other, also a group portrait that explores ideas that circulate around the figure of the artist—as understood and represented by the wide range of Kyiv artists who participated. Each artist who is featured in the work figures both as him or herself specifically, but also offers his or her own definition of the figure of ‘the artist’ more generally. And so, as in the case of Him + Her, you are invited to read across the work, rather than into the work.