Love Story: Interview with Candice Breitzby Danielle Gorodenzik | 28.03.17
Internationally acclaimed South African artist Candice Breitz brings Love Story to the Center for Contemporary Art in Tel Aviv—a seven-channel video installation which tells the stories of six individuals who fled their countries due to the international refugee crisis. Most known for appropriating found footage from popular culture, Breitz focuses on empathy and awareness through identification with Hollywood actors Alec Baldwin and Julianne Moore.
Telavivian’s Art Editor Danielle Gorodenzik had the chance to sit and chat with Breitz, the selected co-representer for South Africa at the 57th Venice Biennale in 2017, who gave us a profound look into the making of Love Story which opens Thursday, March 30, 2017.
When first encountering the work Love Story the viewer can get confused by the narrative because of the roughly cut footage; why do you choose to present the Hollywood montage versions first?
Candice: Love Story offers you the same set of stories told in two different ways. The experience of the work lies, perhaps, in measuring the distance between these two different forms of narrative address. I’m interested in how empathy can be triggered (or not) by various modes of storytelling.
On one hand, Love Story archives the personal stories of six people whose lives have been displaced by a variety of fraught circumstances: Sarah 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 Saveri, a transgender activist from India; Luis Nava, a political dissident from Venezuela; and Farah Mohamed, a young atheist from Somalia. I wanted to capture these stories with dignity and to have them related as directly as possible within the work. At the same time, Love Story reflects on what form a story has to take before we are willing to sit down and spend time with it, invest our attention in it, extend our empathy to it. In that sense, I would say that Love Story is as much about how we receive stories, as it is about the stories themselves.
The work is installed across two spaces. In the first, you encounter a large projection that weaves the six stories into a montage and channels them through Julianne Moore and Alec Baldwin, who feature as themselves in Love Story (they are cast as ‘an actor’ and ‘an actress’). Although they speak in the first person, it is obvious immediately that the stories that they are streaming do not belong to them. For one thing, their celebrity precedes them. For another, their delivery is interrupted and fragmented by the edit. One minute you are with Julianne in a hijra community in Mumbai; the next she is fleeing Lubumbashi in the back of a truck; a moment later you are with her under her bed listening to bombs falling on the city of Damascus. That narrative confusion is most likely accompanied by some discomfort. It is awkward—and somewhat violent—to hear stories of this nature delivered by actors who represent a level of privilege, visibility, celebrity, ‘whiteness’, that is far removed from the lived reality of the six interviewees.
Inevitably, the texture and specificity of each story is diluted as it is performed by the Hollywood actors, as is generally the case when ‘true life stories’ are migrated into popular entertainment. The stories are condensed, simplified and delivered in smooth American English—devoid of the natural repetitions and meanderings that are typical of first-person narratives. Later on, in a second space, one has access to the original interviews that are the substance of the work, now in their full duration and complexity.
I leave it for you to consider why the installation is structured as it is: Why can the lived experience that Love Story seeks to document only be accessed via the dramatic fiction that is your first experience of the work? Why is it that the same audiences that are easily driven to tears by fictional blockbusters, remain affectless when they encounter stories of human suffering in the news or in everyday life?
There is no hierarchy between the interviews, each set looks identical with a green screen in the background detaching itself from a connotation of a specific location or space. However, we can identify which story Moore or Baldwin are telling through a personal object they are wearing, which is a link between them and the six refugees. Where did you get this idea?
Candice: Love Story evokes and reflects on the machinery of whitewashing within entertainment culture and within our culture at large. It is of course completely absurd to ask Alec Baldwin to play a former child soldier from Angola or to ask Julianne Moore to embody a transgender woman from Mumbai. For that reason, I denied Alec and Julianne the use of signifiers of difference for their performances. We agreed that they would not use accents, costumes, backdrops or props, none of the usual tricks of the trade that might offer a suspension of disbelief. So, while the actors endeavor to make each story as present as possible, the green screen backdrop against which they perform, as well as the jagged character of the edit, work against them settling comfortably into or occupying a particular ‘character.’ The mechanics of appropriation are very bluntly on view.
Alec and Julianne wore their own clothes for the shoot. Their appearances are consistent throughout the montage. As such, it is only possible to visually connect them with the interviewees via several personal accessories that they wear, objects which one encounters again when one spends time with the interviews that are screened in the second space. When people flee their homes, they are generally able to take very little with them, so objects carried from home acquire a special significance. Each interviewee let me borrow one such object; these were then worn by Alec and Julianne during their shoot in New York. It was relatively easy for me to borrow these objects from the refugees and to carry them across the world for the shoot, before returning them to their respective owners. In her interview, the young Syrian, Sarah Mardini, comments on this irony, the fact that it is so much easier for objects and commodities to travel effortlessly over borders, or to be preserved in the face of historical disaster, than it is for human bodies.
These personal objects, which already have an almost talismanic presence in Love Story, acquired another layer of meaning as we were shooting the work in late 2015. In their attempts to placate the growing right-wing backlash against the many refugees who had arrived in European cities during the summer of that year, several European countries started confiscating valuables and cash from refugees before admitting them as asylum seekers, the idea being that people should be made to ‘pay for their stay’. In the midst of fleeing traumatic conditions to seek safe haven, refugees were stripped of belongings such as family jewelry—items that were, in most cases, of greater sentimental than economic value. This is one of the many indignities that the interviewees describe as they share their narratives in Love Story.
“Love Story” is on display through June 3rd, 2017 at the Center for Contemporary Art, Tsadok ha-Cohen Street 2, Tel Aviv. T: 03.510.6111. Opening hours: Mon-Thurs, 14:00-19:00, Fri, Sat 10:00-14:00.
“Love Story” features: Alec Baldwin, Julianne Moore, Shabeena Francis Saveri, Mamy Maloba Langa, Sarah Ezzat Mardini, Farah Abdi Mohamed, José Maria João , and Luis Ernesto Nava Molero. It is a 7-Channel Installation: 7 Hard Drives commissioned by the National Gallery of Victoria (Melbourne), Outset Germany (Berlin) + Medienboard Berlin-Brandenburg.