South African artist Candice Breitz’s Love Story video installation piece opened at the Goodman Gallery in Johannesburg on Saturday, 3 February 2018. The exhibition will allow local viewers the opportunity to see the much-talked-about work that represented South Africa (along with Mohau Modisakeng’s video piece Passage) at last year’s Venice Biennale.
Review: Candice Breitz’s Love Story
The reason it was on the lips of attendees was that it features Hollywood actors Alec Baldwin and Julianne Moore telling the stories of refugees in the first person, along with the refugees themselves talking about their experiences. It is clearly a commentary on the cult of celebrity and the desensitisation of our responses to stories of suffering: we are apparently more likely to listen to – and empathise with – a story told by a famous person than by an anonymous asylum seeker.
‘Love Story (2016), a seven-channel installation by Candice Breitz, interrogates the mechanics of identification and the conditions under which empathy is produced. The work is based on the personal narratives of six individuals who have fled their countries in response to a range of oppressive conditions: 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. It evokes the global scale of the so-called “refugee crisis”, evolving out of lengthy interviews conducted with the six participants in the countries where they are seeking or have been granted asylum (two interviews took place in Berlin, two in New York and two in Cape Town).
The personal accounts shared by the interviewees are articulated twice by Love Story. In the first space of the installation, re-performed fragments from the six interviews are woven into a fast-paced montage featuring Hollywood actors Alec Baldwin and Julianne Moore (who are cast in the work as themselves: ‘an actor’ and ‘an actress’). Each was asked to channel excerpts from three of the first-person narratives on a green-screen set, without the support of fictional backdrops, costumes, props, accents or interlocutors. Breitz’s edit intertwines the six renditions, plotting the diverse socio-political circumstances and personal experiences that prompted the interviewees to leave their countries. Her polished restaging of the six stories strips the source interviews of their depth and nuance, of their imperfect grammar and accented English, provocatively mimicking and exposing the logic by means of which ‘true life stories’ migrate into popular entertainment. In a second space that is accessible only via the first, the original interviews unfold across six suspended screens in their full duration and complexity, now intimately voiced by the individuals whose lived experience they archive.’
Breitz reinforces this disparity in the way the work is set up. The footage of Baldwin and Moore is the first thing you see, presented on a large screen with audio. The interviews with the refugees are in a second room on smaller screens. You have to don earphones to hear them – which immediately distances you from them, while also making the listening experience a more intimate, private one.
The work was prompted by Berlin-based Breitz’s experience of the massive influx of refugees into that city in the summer of 2015. The stories told by the six displaced people – asylum-seekers who were interviewed by Breitz in Cape Town, Berlin and New York – are often harrowing accounts of victimisation. They are recounted without much prompting or direction from the artist, who also didn’t edit them. They are also completely decontextualised because the interviews were shot against a green screen (the backgrounds have literally been erased), which is quite unsettling.
There is a lot of power and dignity in that stark self-narration, which doesn’t translate effectively when the celebrities are telling those same stories, leaving me unconvinced by the piece as an artwork. I’m not sure that it makes the point that Breitz set out to make, and it is not aesthetically interesting enough to stand on its own. It is, however, a powerful piece of social commentary, and an important and relevant work for local audiences to see and engage with. You can view Candice Breitz’s Love Story at Goodman Gallery until 9 March.