The South-African born, Berlin-based artist Candice Breitz first shot to international art-world stardom with an installation simply entitled Mother/Father – a piece which, according to the overhwelming consensus of critics, curators, artists and dealers, was the hit of the 2003 Venice Biennale. The work – since shown in London, at the White Cube Gallery - consisted of a series of television monitors, each one broadcasting a series of cunningly manipulated and edited film clips featuring a famous male or female movie star. The men talked alone in one circle, the women in another, all ingeniously crosscut to produce a communal dialogue on the subject of mothering and fathering, drawn exclusively from the cliches of Hollywood scriptwriting.
Since the successful reception of that work, Breitz has been inundated with invitations to exhibit at galleries and modern art museums all over the world. For her latest work, she has chosen to collaborate with the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art in Gateshead. The result is a compelling and unexpectedly haunting installation – displayed to great effect in the ostensibly unpromising vertical space of the gallery’s principal stairwell.
The artist has plumbed the vertiginous depths of this echoing, post-industrial tower with 30 video monitors. This time, those whose images are broadcast on the television screens are not themselves celebrities, but members of the general public brought together by their fellow feeling for someone who most certainly was. They are preserved in the act of singing their way – like a chorus – through an entire album of songs written by the late John Lennon. Breitz calls the piece A Portrait of John Lennon, although it seems to be just as much a composite portrait of his fan club, embodied by the isolated, passionately singing faces of these admiring devotees of his work.
The artist created her work during a month-long residency at Baltic. The process involved an extensive search for prospective singers – small-ads were placed in the press announcing “John Lennon fans wanted” – as well as a weeding-out process designed to eliminate all but the most hardcore fans of Lennon’s work. Having selected her 30 successful candidates, Breitz invited each of them, one at a time, into a sound studio, to sing every song on the former Beatle’s album Plastic Ono Band. Their voices, musically unaccompanied, but replayed in unison, form the aural dimension of the “portrait”. Their faces, experienced one by one as the viewer descends or ascends the staircase at Baltic, are all that there is to look at. When the end of the album is reached, the video returns to the start of its loop, and the whole thing begins again like a mantra.
Breitz has created a number of previous works on this theme – a karaoke triptych, so to speak - in the creation of which she got Jamaican Bob Marley fans to sing their way through his album Legend; Madonna fans to perform The Immaculate Collection; and Michael Jackson fans to strut, prance and moondance their way through Thriller. There is of course (after all, this is modern art) a conceptual subtext to the whole series. Like Andy Warhol – the subject, in fact, of her unfinished Ph.D thesis – Breitz is interested in the ways in which the mass media and the cult of celebrity have altered the texture of modern experience.
She herself has spelled this out pretty clearly in one of her numerous interviews: “Much of my work,” she has said, “deals with the question of how we become who we are, and to what extent this process is influenced by our absorption of the values sold to us by the mainstream media. More and more we learn who we are, not only from our parents … but also from the entertainment industry … If the mediais competing to be a parent to our children, then what does the media-mom and media-dad look like?” All of those remarks apply neatly enough, to Breitz’s earlier piece, Mother/Father. But her pop idol video installations could also be seen to approach the same territory, albeit from a lightly different angle – a fact of which the artist is also well aware. “The parent-child relationship maps itself quite neatly onto the star-fan relationship. The star/parent offers itself to the parent/child as a prototype to be emulated and duplicated, not only in terms of appearance and behaviour, but also in terms of values.”
A Portrait of John Lennon bears an evident formal similarity to Breitz’s previous “portraits”, but it also seems to deepen the nature of the game that the artist is playing. This has much to do with the choice of music, which is far more visceral and edgy than anything Breitz has chosen before. Unlike the Madonna or Michael Jackson fans of Breitz’s earlier works, who camped their way through the material with, for the most part, a light-hearted parodic glee, the Lennon fans of her new piece seem almost painfully involved with the music and its complicated, uncomfortable messages.
Plastic Ono Band was Lennon’s first solo album release following the break-up of the Beatles, and it remains if by no means his best piece of work, undoubtedly his most personal. Composed while he was undergoing “Primal Scream” therapy, it was among other things his attempt musically to exorcise the multiple traumas of his youth, including his abandonment by his parents, and the death of his mother. Watching and hearing Lennon’s fans sing their way through his pain, it is hard to avoid the sense that they are mapping their own emotions through his – a process that can be helpful, and dangerous, in equal measure.
The choral nature of the piece gives it a devotional feel, makes it seem like a secular version of sacred ritual. This suggests, and was perhaps meant to, the extent to which pop stars and other potentially inspirational public figures have usurped the traditional role of religion, in offering a focus for those seeking a sense of empathy and redemption somewhere beyond the circumstances of their own lives. But in the case of A Portrait of John Lennon, Breitz’s exploration of the star/fan, parent/child relationship seens especially loaded and uneasy – all the more so given the knowledge that Lennon’s own life was oedipally terminated by one of the many surrogate children spawned by his global fame.