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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.

Video artist Candice Breitz

South African artist Candice Breitz.
Credit: TILL CREMER

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.

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 + Her thinks 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". Subscribe here.

Romy Ash
is a novelist. Her first book, Floundering, was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin award.

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