May 24: Empathy

Date #24May 24: To represent itself at the 2017 Venice Biennale, South Africa has chosen an odd couple.

Mohau Modisakeng (*1986, Soweto) presents Passage (2017), a three-channel video installation that shows three characters, each in a small, stark white boat shot in aerial view; each struggles as their vessel fills with water until they sink completely, the boats becoming coffins.

Venice Biennale 2017
Mohau Modisakeng, Passage (2017) Installation view, South African Pavilion at the 57th Venice Biennale, 2017. Photo by Casey Kelbaugh

The video extends, in both its pared-back style and assertive staging that addresses the audience directly, on photographic work that Modisakeng has complete recently.

Screen Shot 2017-05-25 at 8.52.09 pm He is vehement in his conviction that history matters, that the ‘new and shiny’ South Africa is (as he said in interview with CCQ magazine on Aug 15, 2016):

a fictitious construct that…picks and chooses from conveniently constructed national identities that negate the legacy of past regimes. It emphasises diversity, non-racialism and multiculturalism for the sake of maintaining social cohesion in, what is actually, a society that is built primarily on inequality. I grew up with my family in Soweto and we are still there now, so I feel a need to take a careful look at these uncomfortable truths.

Screen Shot 2017-05-25 at 8.51.20 pm

His perspective on apartheid is that it set up and engineered ethnic conflict amongst the diverse peoples of South Africa, using the Zulu men to police other black men for example, and that this is perpetuated in the current capitalist structure in which the white minority still hold on to wealth and access better education that the black majority.
Screen Shot 2017-05-25 at 8.53.41 pm

Screen Shot 2017-05-25 at 8.53.23 pmIn his stark photographs he employs himself as the actor, transforming himself with minimal, sculptural props; torn overalls as a reminder of the hard labour to which black South Africans were subject under apartheid, a top hat to represent the white colonialists, the machete of the farm labourer that was also used as a weapon in conflict amongst the ethnic groups, and blinkers like those worn by a draught horse, only white.

There is a teaching in most South African communities, that you won’t know where you’re heading if you don’t know where you’ve been. So. as an artist. I feel I need to look into the past.

Candice Breitz (*1972, Johannesburg) also presents a video work in the South African pavilion for the Biennale, consistent with her recent practice which is mostly moving image based; Love Story (2016), a seven-channel installation.

However, though being chosen to represent South Africa she is slated as ‘international’ because she has not lived in the country for more that a decade. She is at pains in interview to distance her art from being identified as ‘South African’.

Breitz proclaims an interest in identification and empathy and how they arise. She uses personal narratives from interviews with refugees carried out in Berlin, New York and Cape Town, of six individuals who have fled oppression: Sarah Ezzat Mardini, who escaped war-torn Syria; José Maria João, a former child soldier from Angola; Mamy Maloba Langa, a survivor from the Democratic Republic of the Congo; Shabeena Francis Saveri, a transgender activist from India; Luis Ernesto Nava Molero, a political dissident from Venezuela; and Farah Abdi Mohamed, an idealistic young atheist from Somalia.

These interviews are put into the mouths of Hollywood actors Alec Baldwin and Julianne Moore, cast clearly as actors. Working against green screens they deliver a fast-paced abbreviated and dramatised version in the style of the ‘true-life stories’ of popular entertainment. That may seem nothing more than what Hollywood does all the time, and gosh, who are we to question the motives of that industry? Breitz does, but this is not about Hollywood.

Breitz’ strategy in interweaving the two versions is purportedly to provoke a response from the audience who might then reflect on which version elicited most empathy. While it is not unethical, this is an odd approach to the emotion of empathy, a detached, almost autistic dissection and reconstruction of emotional functioning. For what reason? Yes, it may aspire to expose how xenophobia and prejudice react to accents and broken English, to the skin colour or other difference in the interviewee, but to question empathy itself signals a profound cynicism in the artist herself. Is that to be oversensitive to the genuine plight of the subjects?

I cannot extract anything more to say about this work from it or from myself, so a little history, drawn from a post on my other blog site written in reaction to seeing Breitz’ show here in Melbourne in 2013, will have to serve either to tease out those questions or to put suspicion to rest. Allow me to quote myself:

“Critic Robert Nelson’s February 13 review of Candice Breitz’ exhibition The Character at ACMI, Federation Square, Melbourne (until March 11) titled Putting filmic fibs in the frame contains insightful comments about her processes of denouement that might be turned on Breitz herself.

Ghost Series #1, 1994-6 Chromogenic Print 101,5cm x 68,5cm
Candice Breitz (1994-6 ) Ghost Series #1, Chromogenic Print, 101,5cm x 68,5cm

“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.

Candace Breitz Rainbow Series #10, 1996 Cibachrome Photograph 152,5cm x 101,5cm
Candace Breitz
Rainbow Series #10, 1996
Cibachrome Photograph
1525mm x 1015mm

“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 ‘just’ politics.  Breitz migrated permanently from her homeland in 2002, not long after these shows and has been a tenured Professor of Fine Art at the Braunschweig University of Art in Germany since 2007.

Candace Breitz Factum Tremblay (2011)
Candice Breitz Factum Tremblay (2011)

“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.

Candice Breitz The Woods 2012, video diptych
Candice Breitz The Woods 2012, video diptych

“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 whom 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 South African offering at Venice is thus both challenging and perplexing.

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