Candice Breitz, Him + Her (detail) , 14 channel digital video installation (ed. 1/6), Him: 28:50 minutes, Her: 23:56 minutes. Installation view: Temporäre Kunsthalle Berlin. NGC. Photo: Jens Ziehe
Q: What do Joanna Kramer, Sophie Zawistowska and Karen Blixen have in common?
A: They are all characters played by Meryl Streep over her distinguished 30-year film career. And they all appear, along with a large cast of Jack Nicholson characters, in Candice Breitz’s remarkable video installations Him + Her, showing at the NGC this fall.
Displayed in adjacent rooms, Him + Her (2008) consist of two deftly edited video montages of film clips featuring these legendary American actors. Breitz has recomposed the fragments, in some cases repeating them, to form two new narratives that explore the fragility of the human psyche. As Nicholson’s and Streep’s various characters express feelings of anxiety, discuss their inner struggles and contradictions, and pose questions about masculinity or femininity, they gradually begin to seem less like Hollywood icons and more like you and me.
The South African-born, Berlin-based artist Candice Breitz is internationally recognized for her incisive photographic series and video mash-ups that often borrow images from Hollywood, Bollywood and MTV. In Treatment (2013), showing this fall at the Toronto International Film Festival, she re-dubs scenes from David Cronenberg’s 1979 horror film The Brood to examine themes of relationship breakdown and parental anxiety.
Three years in the making, Him + Her are ambitious works. Breitz viewed and analyzed dozens of Nicholson’s and Streep’s films, noting behavioral patterns, tics and recurrent themes, then extracted individual clips and spliced them together to create unified dramas. A team of ten assistants inserted a neutral black background on each frame, using rotoscoping technology.
The resulting installations, each with seven plasma screens, show the actors in different roles, delivering a chorus of lines that resemble something between a group therapy session and an angst-ridden inner dialogue. Drawn from such classic films as Five Easy Pieces (1970), One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), The Shining (1980), As Good As It Gets (1997) and Anger Management (2003), Nicholson’s characters repeatedly question their identity, sanity and masculinity. “I used to be someone else, but I traded him in,” laments one character. “So I’m nuts?” another asks, to this retort, “You’re no crazier than the average asshole out walking around on the streets!” “I hope I’m half the man you were,” declares another.
As for Streep, her celebrated gift for accents is on full display in films that range from Kramer vs. Kramer (1979) to The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1982), Sophie’s Choice (1982), Out of Africa (1985), The Hours (2002) and The Devil Wears Prada (2006). Despite their cultural and historical differences, her characters merge as they discuss relationships with men, feelings about marriage and motherhood, and ultimately—in a kind of story arc—declare their need for self-affirmation. “He never wrote to me, he never called me,” one character laments. “You make concessions when you’re married a long time,” declares another. “Oh, I need to move on,” says a third. “Will you please stop telling me how to run my life . . . for a couple of minutes?” pleads another. And finally, “I’M TAKING BACK CONTROL OF MY LIFE!”
Form meets function in Him + Her, as Breitz has used symmetry and mirroring to make psychological references. For each installation, the seven frames are arranged in three columns of two, three and two images. The frames on the left and right appear as mirror images, reinforcing the sense of an inner dialogue. At the same time, the butterfly-like symmetry is reminiscent of a Rorschach inkblot, with all its connotations of psychoanalysis, the subconscious, and human impulse.
Visually and conceptually, the installations also resemble kaleidoscopes, with their tumbling, reflected forms. As the artist said in a 2008 interview, “The interaction of the character-fragments is fluid in the way that a kaleidoscope is fluid, and ultimately fails to deliver a stable representation of either Nicholson or Streep.” Nor are the two installations meant to be portraits of the famous actors. Rather, they present an Everyman and an Everywoman, or a collective unconscious.
Like The Clock by Christian Marclay, Him + Her appeal to the many dual art and film lovers among us. Works that appropriate from Hollywood are often highly compelling, says Jonathan Shaughnessy, the NGC’s Assistant Curator of Contemporary Art: “Part of it is that there’s an identification with what is there. Your engagement starts with something recognizable.”
A mesmerizing look at the human psyche, watching Him + Her is about as good as it gets.
Candice Breitz: Him + Her is on view at the NGC in galleries B203b and B203c as of 12 September 2013
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