Monday, March 4, 2013

Identity Politics: Breitz, Kurgan, Gratrix & Pokroy

The Interview, Breitz (2012)

A black cloth hangs over the entrance to the Goodman Gallery, subtly announcing that Candice Breitz’s new exhibition will entail an immersive filmic experience. The blacked-out-white-cube engenders a different kind of detachment; of the type that occurs in cinemas where you temporarily forget where you are and who you are.  What transpires on the screen, or screens in this case, overwrites the present, suspending you in a state of limbo, between the real and unreal, being there, and not being there.

Breitz’s filmic trilogy The Woods, the centrepiece of this show, explores this territory, though the Berlin-based South African artist is interested in how it manifests from the perspective of the actor. It’s not the actor’s on-stage performance she is concerned with, as she has done before, but his/her off-stage performances – contexts where they present their “real” selves to the camera, such as at an audition, press junket or interview. Further complicating this project Breitz doesn’t observe actual instances where these conversations might occur, but reconstructs them with child actors and two adult actors who have been typecast as child actors.

Before she became an internationally recognised artist, locally she gained notoriety for making work dealing with issues of race, gender and identity. In her controversial 1996 Rainbow series she spliced pornographic images of white women with ethnographic images of black women in traditional garb.
The series caused a stir. She was criticised for conflating or equating white female identity with that of black. It was a new democracy and Breitz was one of many artists questioning, imploding and challenging racial barriers inculcated via apartheid ideology - work dubbed as identity-themed art.

This exhibition very subtly links up with her old, supposedly politically-incorrect work. In The Woods film trilogy she appears still to be coming to grips with identity, how it’s constructed and influenced, and she also evinces an interest in the conditions in which two separate identities are able to flow into one another. In a way she is still splicing identities together. She is simply more sophisticated at doing it. Her subjects are no longer contrived, hybrid beings as her porno-traditional women were - they are real people.

In this study – her methodical and invasive approach has the feel of a 'study'  – she attempts to isolate the moments of transformation – the point at which the child actor attempts to become other than himself/herself in an effort to mirror the adult actor. The line between the two is unclear. It’s this murkiness that Breitz aims to dig into, in an effort not only to understand the nature of performance itself, but the destruction of selfhood in the presence of a camera.

Destruction of the self is a theme that binds the trilogy of filmic works – The Audition, The Rehearsal and The Interview. As one of the young child stars in the footage shot in Mumbai observes: “I am depleting myself, there will be nothing left.” In this way Breitz directs attention to not only what has been appropriated, absorbed into the child’s persona as they “become adult”, but what has been erased to accommodate it. By using child actors in The Audition and The Rehearsal, Breitz is better able to show the transition, as the child self is so distinguishable from the adult self. Due to this the children can never fully become “the adult” role, so they are fixed between appearing like children and acting like adults. Their inability to fully inhabit the adult role, unwittingly serves to deride it.

In The Audition a group of child actors regurgitate advice about acting from a variety of sources, though they become so convincing you believe the dialogue is their own. There is something quite unsettling about observing children manipulating their identity. Aside from the notion that they have been coerced into it by their parents or other adults, there is a sense that their naivety, their innocence is lost in the process. Their authentic selves have been discarded. Although children are incredibly malleable, this makes them vulnerable. Children are as yet “unformed” too; they have not established who they are. This is what makes them ideal for this project.

Breitz reverses the model in the work dubbed The Interview, by presenting two adult stars, Chinedu Ikedieze and Osita Ikheme, whose physical stature has ensured they have been typecast as children in Nollywood blockbusters. Once again attention is drawn to the moment of transition; when they flip into child roles. As the two appear like children, their transformation isn’t visual; it’s intangible. Both actors battle to explain how this occurs or even why they are able to do it. It becomes clear that children are not experts in playing children because they cannot perform themselves – they don’t have enough awareness and struggle to deliver on a set to the degree that these two actors can. It demands a degree of skill to play “yourself”.

Since starring in the hit movie Aki na Ukwa, in which the two played brothers, they have become inseparable, choosing to live together and becoming alike – they say people can’t tell them apart. In this way their identities have “collapsed” into each other. This idea is further expressed through the dual-channel installation. Breitz extensively uses multiple channels throughout this trilogy, creating scenes where subjects complete each other’s sentences, engendering the sense that they are interchangeable.

The “character” is portrayed by a number of individuals, who each portray parts of him or her. In The Rehearsal for example, the Bollywood star Shah Rukh Khan’s interview persona is refracted via six child actors. Ironically, while the actors deconstruct acting, how they do it, they become further enmeshed in the web of their own desire to project themselves beyond who they are.

An image from Kurgan's Joubert Park Series (2001)
The ordinary subjects depicted in Terry Kurgan’s photographs in the exhibition Public Art/Private Lives are also seeking to transcend their identity in the moment the camera clicks. Transcendence is an overriding theme in this mini-retrospective, which juxtaposes works revealing her intimate life and those projects engaging with public life that she has pioneered over the years.

Many SA artists’ practice is divided in this way – their own artistic concerns and their socially driven initiatives – though both streams eventually overlap. Kurgan’s isn’t immediately associated with identity-based art, though she is known for her photographic portraits. Certainly, the clear division in her practice has ramifications for notions of identity. Can works from these two domains be reconciled?

Her so-called private works are very intimate portraits, of the artist herself, posing nude with her child, and of her family history, such as the Dear Mom (1999) works, which presents letters between Kurgan and her mother paired with family photographs of the latter as a child. Kurgan raises significant questions in this communication, which exposes the fact that family photographs tend to conceal more than they reveal. Given this actuality, what function does the photographic image or portrait have vis-à-vis identity? It’s not just the subjects that project a fantasy, an ideal of the “happy family”, but the invisible “subject” behind the camera who collaborates with them to create a historical document.

Kurgan discredits the authenticity of the family photograph, though like Breitz she too uses children (her own) as subjects in an effort to perhaps extract and record the self-conscious actions of reconstituting the self for the pervasive gaze of a camera lens. Surely, the intimacy she shares with her subjects should erase some of the boundaries (between observer and subject)? Can this exercise be a measure of their intimacy? Perhaps it is one that fosters a kind of intimacy – or recognition.

Kurgan’s willingness to put her personal life, herself and her body, on display in some way counters or even justifies her intrusive gaze when she photographs individuals in the public sphere. It works at negating the power-play between viewer and subject, though in the images from a photo booth that was set up in the library in Yeoville for the Hotel Yeoville project, there is no one behind the camera. Not that this lessens this dynamic; Kurgan still has control over the end product. Yet, who is the invisible observer that shapes how they constitute their public image?

 Kurgan is drawn to subjects she immediately identifies with: the mother who adjusts her child’s outfit as she prepares to pose for a photograph; the photographers who work in Joubert Park whom she snaps with cameras around their necks. It’s a form of self-interrogation, mirroring and identification, of the kind that perhaps Breitz sought out. Because her subjects are black and she is white, you immediately feel uncomfortable with the ethnographic slant to this project. And there is a sense that they cannot constitute a part of herself - is this informed by our own prejudice?  Her unseen, unquantifiable identity constantly destabilises the images, or prompts questions. Perhaps this identity theme is inescapable for as long as the identity of the artist frames how we read his or her work.

Gratrix's Inner Boyfriend (2013)
Georgina Gratrix is part of a generation of artists who could be loosely described as hailing from the post-identity-art, post-apartheid era. The work they produce is post-political art. It's all post-post-post with this lot. They embrace whimsy and humour, qualities that found little traction when art had a serious social function. These elements are characteristics of Gratrix’s practice, but as it has largely been dominated by portraits, it remains tied to a discourse on identity. She works within the realm of the personal, though her characteristic dry titles and humour undercuts the intimacy and the perceived seriousness of the painted medium.

Her impasto oil-portraits are a product of her awareness of the complexity of her subjects – sometimes up to 30 different attempts are concealed beneath the surface. She is unable to settle on a single rendering of her subjects, which to some degree explains their grotesque appearance - she seems intent on showing what exists beneath the surface.

Inner boyfriend, a portrait on display at her Open Studio exhibition at Nirox, presents a woman with three sets of eyes. They hint at multiple selves, and the multiple windows into the soul, as the cliche goes.

Painting affords Gratrix what is denied to Breitz and Kurgan – the ability to extract the unseen features of her subjects, though through her witty titles and naive painting style she attempts to deny the appearance of “depth”. Perhaps it is an acknowledgement that she cannot penetrate the surface. The multiple eyes look out, rather than offering a view inside.  As a painter or artist she is immured to the exterior (the visual) – hence the elaborate, almost sculptural surfaces of her paintings that emphasise the artifice of her renderings, such as the imitation diamond embedded in her subject’s earring.

From Pokroy's I collect Gingers
Anthea Pokroy’s I collect Gingers presents a flashback to the identity-era art of the late ’90s-early noughties in that it is a parody of the apartheid paradigm’s reliance on difference as a means of shoring up a collective identity. Here, identity is defined in relationship to a collective – or not belonging to one. As the title of the show suggests, the artist has accumulated a series of portraits of people with red hair. The title is at odds with the concept that Pokroy is advancing; that these subjects are part of a burgeoning ginger-dominated world, where people with this hair colour are prized, privileged. Instead it suggests that this “world” is only an obsession of Pokroy’s to affirm her own status as a redhead. Pokroy would have done well to have presented an enlarge portrait of herself. Is she not the invisible 'ginger' queen driving this imaginary community?

The clean unfettered presentation of her subjects recalls Roelof Van Wyk’s Young Afrikaner series, which in turn recalls some of Pieter Hugo’s early portraits. Dare one call it a trend in identity-photography – maybe all photography is preoccupied with the identity of the subject. Certainly, like Van Wyk, Pokroy is concerned with only one characteristic of her subjects, in this case the colour of their hair.

It’s a fairly flimsy characteristic to unite a population, which seeks to overturn its minority or persecuted status by adopting the dominant position. Pokroy relies on this superficiality to emphasise the absurdity of such gestures. This is hardly a new or interesting conclusion, which is lessened by the fact that the photographs and the show itself is not large enough to have any visual impact. Simply this exhibition does not live up to all the media hype Pokroy generated while “collecting” her ginger subjects. Her display of the classification scheme needed to be more thorough and obsessive - hair samples for example should have been included.

As the work by Breitz, Kurgan and Gratrix attests, art dealing with the nature of identity has matured and has developed beyond easy politically defined notions. Artists have finally moved beyond challenging simple physical indexes of race or gender, the superficial trappings of identity politics. - published in The Sunday Independent, March 03, 2013.

  • Breitz’s The Woods will show at the Goodman Gallery in Joburg until March 30. Kurgan’s Public Art/Private Lives will show at Gallery AOP until the end of March. Gratix’s Open Studio at Nirox Projects will close today.

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