by Emily Watlington
MUSEUM OF FINE ARTS, BOSTON | MARCH 31, 2018 – JANUARY 21, 2019
In 2003, describing how disasters were traditionally represented in the media, Susan Sontag wrote that in photographs of atrocity, “people want the weight of witnessing without the taint of artistry, which is equated with insincerity or mere contrivance.”1 In the decade and a half since, however, it has become increasingly clear that it is impossible to represent atrocity without artistry (or, more generally, to represent atrocity objectively). The pervasiveness of media bias and the fear of “fake news” have bred unprecedentedly widespread anxiety about the subjectivity inherent to representation.
Responding to this growing anxiety, Candice Breitz’s Love Story (2016) takes up conventions and tropes for representing atrocity by mining the cinematic medium’s capacity for eliciting empathy, while also highlighting the ways in which the screen reinforces distance. Love Story tells stories of asylum-seekers from conflict-ridden places who fled to New York, Cape Town, and Berlin. The first room of Breitz’s video installation features a projection of actors Alec Baldwin and Julianne Moore in front of a green screen, narrating refugees’ stories in the first person. The two actors describe scenarios ranging from being abducted as a child soldier in Angola, to experiencing persecution as a transgender person in India, and each tale is movingly narrativized and performed. In the second room, behind the large projection of the first room, are six monitors playing videos featuring unknown figures, who also speak in front of green screens. Headphones and benches invite viewers to experience these individually, and watching, it is quickly (and, crucially) revealed that these are the faces of actual refugees telling their own stories—the same ones later grippingly reperformed by Baldwin and Moore.
Love Story highlights the fact that we are regularly moved to tears by Hollywood film scenarios, yet apathetic or desensitized to similar types of stories when covered in the news—or in Sontag’s words, presented “without the taint of artistry.” In the videos of the asylum seekers, the screen can feel like a barrier, reinforcing our distance from them. When Bretiz’s lens is trained on professional actors, however, the screen becomes a powerful tool for disseminating affecting narratives. Indeed, the second room includes over 20 hours of footage—more than can be reasonably watched in one sitting—while the scripts and footage for the reenactment have been edited into a digestible 74 minutes.
Crucially, Love Story makes its points not simply by pointing fingers at the media industry, but by revealing how effective their well-worn tactics and formulas are on viewers and consumers. (I, for instance, later realized that I had first sat down in front of the video of Sarah Ezzat Mardini, a refugee from Damascus, because I most readily identified with her in age, gender, and appearance.) Commercial media’s strengths are thus utilized strategically: the affective power of Moore and Baldwin’s renditions of these stories of atrocity—which they performed pro bono—are used to elevate marginalized voices. At the same time, Love Story makes painfully visible the problems of whitewashing and racial homogeneity that persist in Hollywood—a subject Breitz comments further upon in her video Profile (2017), coincidentally concurrently on view at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston. Profile considers what it means for Breitz, as a white person, to represent South Africa in the Venice Biennale (where Love Story first premiered in 2016). Like Love Story, Profile is shot in front of a green screen, which recalls the feelings of uprootedness or placelessness that can accompany experiences of migration: the green screen is a placeholder for a setting to be inserted. This maneuver also reveals the project’s “artistry,” or fictitious and authored qualities, by—quite literally—showing the artist’s studio.
Love Story’s presentation at the MFA Boston marks its U.S. premiere, situating the refugees’ stories and Breitz’s critique within our political climate. In the United States, for instance, our press and politicians tend to use the word “immigrant” rather than “refugee,” indicating that they are concerned less with where someone is coming from, and why, than with the fact that they are now here—flattening the range from refugees to ex-pats. The piece also provides a timely commentary on the state of the American media industry and culture of celebrity. As Sontag noted in the wake of September 11th, “it felt like a movie” has become a common phrase for survivors of catastrophe to express the unassimilability of what they have gone through. 2Love Story elaborates on this by showing not only how cinematic conventions can be used to give atrocities more affective power, but also by pointing out the extent to which our “fictional” cinematic worlds are melded with contemporary realities, emblematized by the phenomenon of celebrity politicians.
- Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others, (New York: Picador, 2004), 26-27.
- Ibid., 22.
is the curatorial research assistant at the MIT List Visual Arts Center.