It’s a common complaint among the South African art crowd that they’re really missing people to properly critique their work. If only there were a proper culture of art criticism, instead of your close personal friend blowing smoke up your creative arse, goes the argument, then we could all move beyond our self-righteous tiny cliques and engage in robust and open debate on proper Big Questions. All in inverse proportion to the commodity and commercial value of the enterprise of course. Anyway, in the 1990s, only one debate in South African art got near the status of proper critique. So much so, in fact, that it’s hung around ever since. This was the notorious ‘who has the right to represent?’ debate. AKA do whities have the right to represent darkies in any artistic way, shape or form? At the heart of the debate at the time, through her work and a later book she co-edited on the issue, was artist Candice Breitz. South African-born and raised, but peripatetic and resident in Germany for many years, she has established a significant international reputation. She has moved on from uniquely South African issues of race and representation, and often now takes the detritus of popular culture as a main theme, repurposing and recontextualising her material as a lens-based bricoleur, collagist and commentator on mainstream film, fan culture and the idea of celebrity, among others.
Despite her heavyweight profile and critical high regard internationally, she has never enjoyed a major survey show in the land of her birth. This omission has now been corrected through the combined good offices of the Standard Bank Gallery, the Goethe Institute and the artist’s newly appointed local representative, the Goodman Gallery. The body of work will go from the Standard Bank Gallery in the artist’s native Johannesburg, to the National Gallery in Cape Town.
The show is built around the titular new commissioned piece, which comprises an hour long single channel video work and a series of chromogenic prints, essentially production stills from the video. The video comprises a montage of actual scenes from the South-African produced über-soapie Generations, the most successful soap opera on South African, and indeed African, television. These scenes are copies – extra takes – of scripted scenes, into which the artist has arbitrarily inserted herself in a range of awkward and compromised positions. She is expressionless and mute throughout, and the all-black cast of the show resolutely ignore her as they perform their scenes.
Breitz has previously assayed the issue of what it is to be white and represent race in post-apartheid SA in her ‘Ghost Series’ of ethnographic tourist postcards of 1994-1996. Those were intended to ironically invert a racist tourist trope – the representation of black women in a context of cultural commodification, turned into ‘whited-out’ figures with tippex. Unfortunately there’s a singular lack of appreciation of irony around the terrain of who represents the Other – especially when it’s whities representing the black body. It’s this very cultural terrain that political correctness was invented for.
Perhaps partly in response to the vitriolic reception of the work at the time, the new video work inserts the white figure of the artist as a superfluity, a redundancy – as an extra.
But not quite. Something extra is also a supplement, an addition, an excess. Breitz’s awkward and unexplained presence in these frames has resonance outside of – in excess of – the immediate framing gesture it has of whiteness in a black cultural context. The aspirational nature of the Generations storyline, its tales of fucking, fighting, intrigue, scandal and material wealth in a closed loop of black representation and black popular culture, are of course radically disturbed by her presence, invoking as it does an unwanted (in this context) racial and political subtext, the reiterated and persistent insertion of whiteness into black affairs.
But Generations is also a labyrinthine tale centred on a successful black media empire, and Breitz is well known for making the popular media both subject and object of her work. The original concept of the piece involved the inclusion of some of the individual scenes with Breitz in them as McGuffin scenes during actually broadcast episodes. The network vetoed the idea, fearing viewer alienation. But this would have pushed the work into a very different place – where its motive force, that of questioning the logic and ideology of racially exclusive narratives, could have been fully revealed. It would have been no accident in such a staging outside of the gallery that the audience may have made a range of interpretations of the presence of Breitz’s ‘extra’, not necessarily pointing to race at all. From being extra, an inexplicable and uncanny supplement, she may have even become a character. But we will never know – the showing of the video in the context of the gallery ensures that the question of uncomfortable whiteness in this playing with black broadcast TV remains uppermost.
Two other video works round out the show. The first, ‘Factum’ (2010), a series of videotaped interviews conducted by the artist with a series of identical twins, forms an outer ring of altar-like split video screens which encircles both ‘Extra!’ and the other work on show, the widely-exhibited video installations ‘Father’ and ‘Mother’ (2005).
‘Factum’, inspired by a work of the same name by Rauschenberg, comprises an individual interview with each one of a pair of twins, in which they are encouraged to talk about themselves and their absent twin. These are then edited together in a split screen display to form a dialogue which, considering it is electronically mediated, is surprisingly free-flowing. With a static camera filming the subjects and their chosen, usually domestic backgrounds, the interviews could quickly pall along with the novelty of getting inside the heads of identical twins. But subtle editing turns the work into an oedipal drama par excellence, with the assertion of difference between the two subjects, expressed both in their words and in electronic tics, quickly countered by the re-assertion of sameness – and always with the revealing absent presence of a parental figure.
This oedipal component links ‘Factum’ to the best-known of Breitz’s works on show in SA, ‘Mother’ and ‘Father’, both from 2005. The work comprises two banks of video screens featuring well-known Hollywood actors, all originally playing various roles as mothers and fathers. They are excised digitally from the context of the film frames in which they act out, leaving only the actors running through a complex set of emotions, in close-up or mid-shot, expressed through dialogue snatches, cries, roars, snuffles and other stripped down utterances. The skilful editing work brings each piece to an eerie and unsettling climax, before subsiding into inarticulacy and beginning the actors’ addresses to their absent children all over again. The complex set of identifications spectators have with stars in character is here brilliantly deconstructed, not only to question stardom, but how the act of seeing exerts a visceral and profound psychological force on us.