Everybody remembers his or her Beatles indoctrination. Mine was at summer camp, when our counselors popped their 20 Greatest Hits cassette into the boom box and taught us the lyrics to Love Me Do so we could serenade the boys' cabin. I came home from camp begging for that tape and proceeded to memorize it, singing the entire album aloud, over and over, while simultaneously spending the rest of my summer trying to beat Super Mario 3 on Nintendo. Candice Breitz preys on such collective memories of popular culture, using familiar characters to create her video mash-ups, two of which are now on view at SFMOMA.
For her installation titled Working Class Hero (A Portrait of John Lennon) Breitz enlisted a "diverse" group of 25 diehard Lennon fans to sing his first post-Beatles album from beginning to end. Wearing flesh-toned headphones, it appears each participant sang alone. As most are not exactly professional singers, and Plastic Ono Band was not exactly a melodic sing-a-long record, you can imagine their tributes sound less than perfect. But when the videos are rolled in unison, the hodge-podge chorus becomes quite endearing.
At first inspired to count heads and analyze the fans' demographics, I wasn't sold right away. The group of mostly Caucasian men who you wouldn't jump at the chance to date made up the choir, and I spent the first ten minutes of the nearly 40-minute-long piece wondering why this homogeneous selection of people was labeled "diverse" in the museum's wall text, and what exactly Breitz's criteria for performers was. A February 2009 ArtNews article about Breitz's similar installation, Legend (A Portrait of Bob Marley), vaguely states that "people who best described how their lives had been affected by" the musicians were chosen.
Candice Breitz, Working Class Hero (A Portrait of John Lennon), 2006
Once I forced my analytical-critical mind to shut up for a minute, I began to soak up the experience in full. Singing out loud alone is one of the rawest and most private moments a person can have, especially if he or she is not a terrific singer. Watching these people, pictured just slightly larger than life on vertical monitors with unforgiving lights causing their foreheads to glisten as they sing their hearts out, became touching. Cracking open windows to their souls, they precariously carried the tunes with no audible musical backup, belting lyrics like "Mama don't go/Daddy come home" with a passion seemingly equivalent to John Lennon's.
I began to wonder about their childhoods, their hopes, and their shattered dreams. What did Lennon's first solo album really mean to them? Where did their mamas go? And what would compel them to sing a capella on video for all the world to hear? The latter question might be answered in one (compound) word -- YouTube. As the museum's literature points out, this work produced by Breitz in 2006 predicted the rise of the YouTube celebrity. But perhaps Breitz's subjects participated in the project for therapeutic reasons, rather than in hopes of fame. Some seem completely lost in the music and become visibly emotional. Others drag ending notes out too long like that embarrassed kid in music class whose voice is the only one left ringing in the air. They all take water breaks between songs and they all seem a bit awkward. In the end, I wanted to give each of those sweaty fans a hug.
In the next room, Breitz's 2005, Mother, features a remix of chopped-up scenes from films starring powerhouse actresses Susan Sarandon, Julia Roberts, Diane Keaton, Faye Dunaway, and Shirley MacLaine. The scenery is blacked out, isolating the characters as they hold looped, abstract conversation with each other across the screens -- talking, screaming, crying, laughing, they all seem to be generally stressed out on motherhood.
Candice Breitz, Candice Breitz, Mother, 2005
According to the museum's Web site, Breitz is attempting to call out the "Hollywood cliché of the difficult mother." But in a recent Art in America article about another Breitz installation featuring Meryl Streep, which aimed to highlight gender stereotypes in Hollywood films, the writer contends that Breitz's bias feeds her own message. Streep has played plenty of strong female character leads that the artist could've chosen instead. Still, I appreciate Breitz's cleverness in synthesizing a cross-section of maternal filmic portraits. And tackling today's still rampant gender biases is brave because in the art scene and everywhere, it is unjustifiably still a man's world.
Like regular television, video art can easily be tuned out if you don't make a commitment. In most cases, not watching the entire piece is like looking at only one corner of a painting. Breitz's work is potent. I'll go back to that dark room and watch those people sing again. They might sound like a train wreck, but they seem remarkably real, and that's what makes their presence (and Breitz's work) compelling.
On View: Candice Breitz is at SFMOMA through December 20th, 2009.