Monday, February 20, 2012

Candice Breitz: I think I remade the Ghost Series

‘Our guests don’t watch SABC1,” said the hotel receptionist when Candice Breitz phoned to enquire why she couldn’t find the channel on the television set in her room. Breitz wanted to watch Generations, one of the country’s most watched soaps. She had become hooked on the series since returning to South Africa to create a new "South African" work based on the soapie and to prepare for the first major exhibition of her work since she left her country of birth in 1994 for the US, and later, Germany, where she is settled.

The hotel staffer sent to Breitz’s room to locate the terrestrial channel giggled when Breitz confessed to her fixation for Generations. Their laughter disguised their uneasiness or disbelief that a white person would be interested in watching a series centred on black people, or so Breitz presumed. She might not admit it but part|of her attraction to Generations is because of this presumption; this racialised view of who consumes certain kinds of popular culture. She doesn’t just want to challenge prescriptive ideas about white people – she wants to be able to identify with black people.

The last works she made that dealt with South African issues, the Ghost series (1994-1996) and Rainbow series (1996) caused a bit of a ruckus because she was perceived to have over-identified with black women – this was particularly the case with the latter where pornographic imagery of white women were spliced with ethnographic images of black women in traditional outfits. Her detractors suggested this form of identification “conveniently” allowed Breitz  - and white women - to negate complicity with the apartheid system.

“I think I ended up remaking the Ghost series,” she admits though in Extra! she has chosen to enact her statement in a space designed to project an empowered existence – Generations is all about expressing black middle class lifestyles. In this way she does not present her subjects at the “liminal point of defeat”, which the ethnographic images of women in traditional gear in the Ghost series insinuated - as one of her critics claimed.

But she has a point; similar strategies are at work in Extra!. Once again the image of a white woman – Breitz in this instance – is inserted into an environment associated with black people – Generations. This was achieved by doing double takes during the filming of some episodes. A scene would be filmed twice – the first time as per the script, and in the second take the actors would run through their normal lines but this time Breitz would be present, positioned in the middle or the sidelines of the action. The footage of the latter was edited into a video artwork. Her presence in it, depending on the kind of visibility she assumes, has varied impacts.

In one scene where Breitz is lying on a table surrounded by the soapie’s characters, she begs for attention and it seems impossible that she could be ignored. Yet the characters continue as if she is not there - it is as if she is invisible. In another scene, she is part of the background setting, embodying the role of the titular Extra!. Breitz wears a meditative stare that evokes the mood of the character in another scene, engendering the notion that they are in sync with each other. However, the fact that Breitz’s presence remains constant and without acknowledgment by the characters implies that she is omnipotent – an overseer, the silent orchestrator of events. The different physical placements evoke the vicissitudes of whiteness.
“The classic position that whiteness has taken is to claim invisibility; when you speak about race you talk about blackness and not the constructedness of whiteness,” she observes.

Breitz is sitting in a small room adjacent to the Standard Bank Gallery where the exhibition is being staged. She is taking a break from overlooking the installation of her works. Breitz, a celebrated international artist, is articulate, accustomed to speaking about her work. She is excited about Extra!. Every time I try to steer the conversation towards her practice, she steers the conversation back to Extra! Her yellow-nail-varnished fingers constantly dart around in the air as she speaks. Her South African accent is hard to trace among the German and American inflections.
“Whatever I do here has to be built in to it a careful acknowledgment of my externality and distance. On one hand I feel very South African – I never felt I became German. On the other hand I have been away for a significant amount of time.”

When the Standard Bank Gallery (with the aid of the Goethe Institut) first conceived of a South African exhibition, it was suggested that Breitz should make a “South African work”. She was free to interpret the nature of that request, yet it remained daunting.Almost two years ago when I interviewed Breitz she was quite adamant that she could no longer make work that speaks to a South African context – not only had she been settled abroad for so long but she had also been burned by the controversy that had surrounded her last “South African” works. For this reason the videowork and photographic series of the performance – created on the Generations set – was unexpected.
“I tortured myself about it a lot. I was intimidated. To start trying to imagine how I could interpolate|myself back into South Africanness and what it would mean to make work here. It is not any 18 years that I have been away but the years from 1994, which effectively means that I have never lived in the new South Africa.”

Generations launched in 1994. This fact isn’t incidental to Extra!, she is attracted to this series because of the way it began to document a fictional black middle class and how it inculcated notions of how this stratum of society should behave. Since leaving the country, her practice has come to revolve on the ways in which icons and figures in popular culture are de facto parents to the masses of consumers caught up in the pervasive culture of celebrity. This theme is best illustrated via the work Mother + Father, a 2005 work that was a highlight at the 51st Venice Biennale.
“We are being quasi parented by the media; this is where we learn morals, values and conventions. If that is the case then what do these media parents look like? What are the values that are being communicated to us? You are learning from your parents, J-Lo and Queen Moroka (a character from Generations) and somehow that cocktail comes together and produces a difficult fragmented human being. All of the pieces (at the exhibition) circle around that question: how do you create this notion of individuality and imagine yourself as a unique individual?”

The backlash against Generations in recent years, particularly from a young set of township dwellers frustrated with the pressures of living up to the unachievable materialistic ideals that the series promotes, substantiates Breitz’s observation that as much as we|emulate the behaviours of media constructed parental role models, we also rebel against them.
“It’s a complex relationship; we want to kill ‘the father’ as much as we want to be like the father.”
It’s hard to resist applying this quasi Freudian view of popular culture to Breitz herself and her own fascination with Generations. Though she remains addicted to the show – she admits she will suffer withdrawal symptoms when she returns to Germany – she has also carved out a place for herself in the action, “infecting” it with her own agenda.

She places emphasis on the word “infect” when she discusses the making of Extra!. It is a slight departure from her more “surgical” approach to found footage – mostly Hollywood products – where she removes narrative elements, the supporting structure, distilling certain features. Scenes from Generations have remained intact – “I have essentially treated it like a Duchampian readymade”.
She is, of course, inhabiting the “readymade” product and appears as an “extra” in the footage, though she doesn’t disturb any of its|properties – albeit that the narrative and action has a different kind of gravitas in the gallery setting, evoking the sense of “infection” to which she refers. Nevertheless, there is a sense with this work that she is living out an audience member’s ultimate viewing experience: she has penetrated the screen. She is living in the narrative, while observing it.

In this regard two of the main thematic streams in her work – cultural production and consumption – converge, collapse, in a single moment; she is both the consumer and producer. Of course, she is always both, given she works with found footage from popular culture but in this work she inhabits both positions simultaneously. She is fully cognisant of the fact that the lines between production and consumption are blurred – “they may be two different sides of the same coin”. Her interest in the dynamics of consumption have been realised through works such as Working Class Hero (2006), King (2005) and Queen (2005), where she presents footage of the fans of John Lennon, Michael Jackson and Madonna, respectively.

In this way the screen celebrity culture that dominates is no longer defined by a one-way dialogue: the fans are given a voice and while they are seen imitating pop icons, their individualised renditions evince the idiosyncratic ways in which they have each embodied, appropriated the content. Appearing as subjects of a video work, they are also now part of the screen culture. Is this an empowering shift or have they simply just been subsumed by the system – does this signal their complete acquiescence to celebrity culture?

Breitz’s keen awareness of consumers seems to have extended to her fixation about the consumers of her own work, particularly the Extra! work. She is delighted by the fact that the low level black employees at Standard Bank and ordinary people she has encountered during her stay have shown interest in the Generations artworks – she has obviously been showing them around to gauge opinions.

Undoubtedly Extra! is highly accessible. The execution of the theme of whiteness is quite literal – maybe too literal, some would argue. Breitz intended it to be so; she chose a popular cultural product that would be recognisable to the majority of the population. She desperately wants her work to reach an audience beyond contemporary art cliques; from what she observed, debates around whiteness had only occurred in predominately white publications and the upper echelons of academia.
“It was a challenge to myself; to create a debate about what it means to be white in SA today that could be framed in such a way that it could resonate with a wider audience. I started to think it would be nice if they (the audience) didn’t have to worry if it was contemporary art or not. I didn’t want it to be framed by academic jargon or through someone like Julius Malema. Those debates are present but nevertheless I wanted a way to handle it (the debate) so it could be an intuitive (experience).”

It is for this reason that she admires the cult cartoon show, The Simpsons, which appeals to children and adults and is entertaining while delivering pertinent sociopolitical commentary. In this way viewers can simply choose which level of engagement to adopt.

Breitz’s drive for Extra! to be understood by a wide audience will be curtailed by the fact that it is shown in an art gallery – perhaps she should have secured a walk-on part for a Generations episode that would be seen on telly by hundreds of thousands of viewers. The gallery setting may prove an unsurmountable barrier. As Breitz observes: South Africans don’t think of “contemporary art as culture; sport, TV, the movies are deemed culture”.
Her desire to connect with an audience outside the narrow confines of the art world seems driven by a much deeper, less art-defined impulse, it appears as if she wants to be able to erase the constructed barriers between black and white people – her emphasis is on black audiences connecting with her work. Ultimately, this same drive underpinned the Ghost and Rainbow series – she was seeking a common ground between white and black women. It was a clumsy attempt – a gut response.

“I couldn’t have done it in a subtle way, the moment was far too charged,” she says, reflecting on that period.
Ironically those artworks caused more offence and served to alienate Breitz from her homeland. It’s debatable whether Extra! is any less of a crude instrument to connect and probe relations between races but, nevertheless, it’s message is ambigious.
“There is a possibility to be a little more lighthearted and build in more ambivalence now.” - published in The Sunday Independent, 12 February, 2012

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