Recently, I’ve been out and about, hoovering up the biennales. In Venice, video-installation artist Candice Breitz’s work Love Story, in the South African pavilion, was a standout. (You might remember her City Gallery show, back in 2015.) Breitz is known for her works exploring the performance of identity, our relation to celebrities, and the interview format. In Venice, however, her work, initially, seemed more ostensibly political, addressing a hot topic—the refugee experience.
Breitz shared the pavilion with another video artist, Mohau Modisakeng. In the first room, he presented Passage (2017), a poetic video triptych—a heartrending meditation on displacement, slavery, and violence. It showed three characters lying in small white boats, shot from above. Each performed gestures that alluded to their struggles against unseen forces as the vessels slowly filled up with water. Eventually, the subjects submerged and sunk, along with their boats, which now resembled coffins. No escape, bar death.
It set things up beautifully for Breitz’s installation, Love Story (2016), which occupied the next two rooms. The first of these rooms featured a large single-channel projection. It showed iconic American movie stars, Alec Baldwin and Julianne Moore, in the studio. They were acting—playing refugees being interviewed. They read from scripts based on interviews with actual refugees. These two famous, privileged people (who have everything) became stand-ins for anonymous, poor unfortunates (who have lost everything). Breitz filmed them in front of a green screen, with studio paraphernalia visible—lights, microphone—emphasising the artifice. The video—which shuffled back and forth between Baldwin and Moore—also included out-takes, where the actors went off script and spoke as themselves about the process.
Like others, I spent a lot of time in this room, genuinely relating to tales of refugee woe—I thought. The twist came when I finally made it into the second room. There I was confronted with six domestic-scale flat screens with interviews with six actual refugees, one subject per screen. These were the interviews on which Moore’s and Baldwin’s script had been based. The presentation was basic—no intercutting. I started with good intentions, but my commitment wavered—it was too much. In the previous room, I had enjoyed the single projection with the rest of the audience, together, as if we were in a cinema. But here, the sound was on headphones. I had to sit on a bench alone or maybe with one other person to listen to each interview—homework style. It was too personal; it was embarrassing. I looked at my watch, concerned at the time it would take to give each story its due, when I had, essentially, got it all from Baldwin and Moore already. But, with other audience members around, I didn’t want to look like I was only there for the stars. Shame.
Actually, I wanted to go back and spend more time in the Moore-Baldwin room—my comfort zone. It was amazing how much more compelling and engaging they seemed—despite the Brechtian alienation techniques—and how comparatively dull it was listening to real people’s real problems, presented straight and at length. Of course, this was Breitz’s point. Her refugees-being-themselves were exactly what refugees are—an unwanted excess. Her project exposed the bad faith of celebrity endorsements for such worthy issues, where beautiful people front for causes and parade their social concern, presumably enabling us to access a bitter reality but actually distancing us from it. Breitz’s work turned out to be as much about our relation to celebrities as about our relation to refugees. Pulling the rug, she exposed the limits of our compassion—our empathy. Mediation is her big subject.
Interestingly, with her piece, Breitz also hobbled her running mate, Modisakeng. Looking back from her second room, his arty aestheticisation of the refugee dilemma, with its consummate cinematography and lighting, felt like another brand of entertainment escapism—a bit too Life of Pi, a bit too Bill Viola—similarly spectacularising the issue, insulating us from the reality. It had to go first.