Robert Nelson in his comprehensive February 13 review of Candice Breitz’ exhibition The Character at ACMI, Federation Square, Melbourne (until March 11) is fairly well disposed to what might be quite cynical antics. The review is titled Putting filmic fibs in the frame. I’ll argue that some of his insightful comments about her processes of denouement might be turned on Breitz herself.
She has a history, and a precocious talent. Exhibiting in her early 20s Serial Corpses and thereby broaching the troubled white-black interfaces of South African art scene in 1994 at the psychological moment of the transition to democracy from apartheid. The works disturbingly interposed transgression and sexuality, and in-your-face racial stereotypes.
At the 1995 Johannesburg Biennale she installed tourist postcards featuring black South African women, her Ghost Series (1994-96), in which she used ‘Wite-Out’ correction fluid to blanch the skin of the appropriated pseudo-ethnic images. In fairness, she and her apologists have since rebutted criticism of this work by the likes of Okwui Enwezor, responding that it was a reference to the habits of the censors in South Africa who blacked-out what they deemed subversive in newspapers and magazines allowed into the public, but also to highlight the problematic National Geographic-style fetishisation of these bare-breasted ‘primitive’ subjects by turning them into absences.
Rainbow Series (1996), goes much, much further; I remember vividly my own visceral cringe at seeing these images at Cape Town in 1999 during Encounters With Photography: Photographing People In Southern Africa, 1860 to 1999 and the vexed debate that followed the presentation at the conference, exerting more systolic elevation even than the Q&A session which ensued from James C. Faris’ strident denunciation of Leni Reifenstahl’s fraudulent anthropology in her Nuba books (it was certainly the conference that ended my virginity in terms of academic passion).
In Rainbow Series Breitz appropriates tourist postcards of black tribeswomen and hybridises them with porn images of white women. Using a crude Hannah Hoch technique of scalpel and suture the montage violently marries black limbs and white pudenda. Counter to Desmond Tutu’s unificatory rhetoric of The Rainbow Nation, this perversion of ‘Rainbow’ is what Igbo Nigerian-born American curator and critic Okwui Enwezor, targeted in his article “Reframing the Black Subject: Ideology and Fantasy in Contemporary South African Representation,” Third Text 40 (1997), 21-40.
He suggested that Breitz’ visually disjunctive works rendered the black body abject and docile, recycling old racial complicity through representations of the black female body, rather than renegotiating identity and aspiring to unification. Indeed, this may well reflect the dazed kaleidoscopic perspective of a white South African born in Johannesburg in 1972 and one who was participating in the Whitney Museum of American Art’s Independent Studies Programme (1996-1997), during her making of Rainbow Series (1996) and Whiteface Series (1996). They present what may be her assessment, informed by experience, of the possibility of generating a hybrid of race, gender and class in the new South Africa (see Maureen de Jaeger). On the other hand, to an outsider from a country in which apartheid has been de facto much more successfully promulgated (Australia), these images furrow deep in one’s sense of ‘correct’ politics. Breitz migrated permanently from her homeland not long after these shows and has been a tenured Professor of Fine Art at the Braunschweig University of Art in Germany since 2007.
The Factum video doppelgänger diptychs, interviews with twins (2011), have travelled to ACMI from her show Candice Breitz: Extra! at the South African National Gallery from 26 April to 22 July 2012, which was her first solo show in Cape Town, following on from their showing at Standard Bank Gallery in Johannesburg, where they were accompanied by her Ghost Series (but, it is significant, not her Rainbow Series).
The ACMI show deserves being seen against this history, so that standing voyeuristically, face–to–face in the dark with life-size screens displaying an ID parade of Michael Jackson wannabes (King, 2005), or her several video auditions of child actors and audiences, is to
reflect on the suspicion that Breitz’ art comes at the cost of others’ (and perhaps one’s own) exposure. Deploying herself as ventriloquist in Becoming (2003) she appears in monochrome video on small podium-mounted monitors where she mimes in sync the voices of actors playing daytime TV romance shown on the reverse side. Yet it is the actors who she lampoons while her own persona remains unexposed. Cindy Sherman, with whose less techno Film Stills could be compared in this work, resisted direct imitation of any specific film and therefore any overt and deprecatory finger-pointing. The overall impression is that Breitz’ motivations are the opposite. Robert Nelson, in his review for The Age concludes,
“It seems a final irony that the comic value of the children basking in their histrionic prowess is the tragedy of their conceit.”
It’s an uneasy laugh, and ultimately the tragedy transfers from the artist’s own conceit.
- ‘The Character’ in Melbourne (inewsflash.wordpress.com)
- Candice Breitz The Character (tahile.wordpress.com)