Go down to ‘The Woods’ today
An exhibition by the video artist Candice Breitz is important in the Johannesburg context simply because of its unimportance in the Johannesburg context. Locals on the art circuit have become so accustomed to art as a prescribed act of relevance, even if just to the self, that we have forgotten about enjoyment. Breitz’s show provides a reminder, in the form of humour, that is unintentionally universal.
The Goodman Gallery is currently decked out in great black drapes making three dark viewing spaces where Breitz’s show, titled The Woods, can be seen. The ungainliness of the exhibition as a journey into three “movie houses” is a pity since it somewhat detracts from the sheer delight of the work. One is constantly fumbling with heavy fabric.
The first mystery to be solved concerns the title. Breitz’s The Woods employs a dark humour to look at the ways in which people enter three of the world’s most successful movie industries: Hollywood, Bollywood and Nollywood. The use of child actors, only, indicates that the show is toying with real subject matter: the future of these mammoth industries that control so much of Asian, African and North American (including European) world views.
On show are the stars of tomorrow, regurgitating the gumf of the present. But the work also plays with a now universal anxiety about the representation of children in popular culture and the issue of child labour, even when its representation is sugar-coated.
Plainly, the exhibition is divided into three interview-type situations. The first, titled The Rehearsal, presents a row of Indian child actors, sitting chatting, in Mumbai in 2011. What they’re doing is regurgitating quotations from the interviews of Bollywood megastar Shah Rukh Khan. Many of the quotations are about the skill of acting as a profession and how the trappings of fame are an intrusion into the life of the individual (“There’s a part of me I really don’t want people to know,” one remarks).
One gets the feeling that the ambitious and somewhat precocious child actors would just love to say the lines for real someday. But for now they’re forced to enact a charade in a situation of high expectation, in a world that is terribly uncertain and insecure for them.
The second installation, titled The Audition, was shot in Los Angeles in 2012. This series of monologues and songs performed without accompaniment includes the retelling of advice found in acting and auditioning manuals. Some even entail advice for parents about how to temper their ambition for their children (“Do I impose my dreams on my child?” an adult is urged to ask, yet the individual asking the question is one of the aspirant children).
Visible crew members, microphones, clapperboards and awkward silences break the illusion the children try to create. But is it really illusion? Hard as they may try, we are in on a cruel joke being played on these little hard workers — and yet, as a joke, it really isn’t that funny.
The third video, titled The Interview, is a simultaneous description by two adult actors in Lagos whose growth retardation has enabled them to play children, with great success, into adulthood. One is aware that, in another time and place, people with their condition may have suffered but, here, they thank God for their fame and fortune.
To paraphrase the philosopher Slavoj Zizek, it shows the universal means by which people perform their desires. In this instance, we have the discomfort of watching children performing with the hope of “working” adult viewers.
No wonder Zizek calls the cinema “the ultimate pervert art”.
Candice Breitz’s The Woods is on at the Goodman Gallery, Jan Smuts Avenue, Johannesburg, until