Screaming and singin
Richard Dorment reports from the Candice Breitz exhibition at White Cube on Telegraph.co.uk:
“Among the critical riff raff who descended on Venice for three days in June, almost every conversation seemed to include some reference to the South African artist, who was showing her work in a group exhibition at the Italian Pavilion. No one I know had ever heard of Candice Breitz before, but we all loved her work.
And, in the art world, things move fast. Here we are, less than three months later, and Breitz is having two major international shows – one at White Cube in London and the other in New York, at the Sonnabend Gallery.
Upstairs at White Cube, Breitz shows a new work, and, if anything, it’s even better than Mother + Father.
“Queen” is a 30-part video installation in the form of stacked TV monitors that fill a whole wall of the small, windowless gallery. To make it, Breitz advertised on websites devoted to Madonna for Italian fans so obsessed with the pop star that they know by heart, and are happy to sing in public, all the songs on her greatest-hits album Immaculate Collection.
She then asked each fan to perform alone in front of the camera under identical recording conditions and against identical backdrops. The visual influence here is Andy Warhol‘s Screen Tests, a series of 18 very short films in which Warhol asked friends and hangers-on to sit in front of a camera for a few minutes, in much the same way as we sit for our portraits in photo booths. As the camera rolled and the minutes ticked away, each subject gradually revealed his or her personality to the artist.
Like Warhol, Breitz uses the camera as a neutral recording instrument, not for editing or creating a composition. She does not impose her own feelings or thoughts on her subjects, but allows them to indulge their whims and reveal their deepest selves in any way they wish. You hear Queen before you see it. Although each singer was filmed and recorded separately, the 30-voice choir begin and end each song at the same time since they are, after all, singing in synch with Madonna, as in karaoke.
Clearly Breitz didn’t test them for their talent. Most of the fans belt out the songs completely out of tune, but the few strong voices singing in harmony somehow pull the whole thing together. Far from being the caterwauling you’d expect, they don’t do a half-bad job on Material Girl and Like a Virgin.
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What is so touching is to watch each singer throw him or herself heart and soul into their performance. As with Hollywood films, pop music constitutes a language of its own. These people are all native Italian speakers, but they have completely grasped the nuances of the lyrics, and the meaning of gestures learned by mimicking their idol.
The moment a song starts, the distinctions between the genders melts away as each man and woman becomes Madonna. They have her half- closed eyes, pouting lips and camp hand gestures down pat in performances perfected by years and years of practice in front of the bathroom mirror. Notice that every one of the singers is in their late twenties or early thirties. That must be because they were all teens or pre-teens when Immaculate Collection came out, and, as teenagers do, they simply played these songs over and over again until the music had become part of themselves. I could do the same thing with the Beach Boys or the Beatles.
To say that they are uninhibited is an understatement. There’s a transvestite who freshens her make-up in the middle of a song, a girl wearing angels’ wings and keeping time with her magic wand, a fellow who does extravagant things with a black shawl and fishnet gloves, and a couple of guys who have clearly been waiting their whole lives for an opportunity to perform for us like this.
Just as important as the songs themselves are the moments between each song when, as the music stops, each fan instantly reverts to being themselves. Only then do we have some sense of the identities they can discard so easily when they are transformed into Madonna. Undoubtedly there is something melancholy, and even a little scary, in the ease with which pop music can obliterate individual identity. But let’s not get too heavy. Much more important, I think, is the sheer unadulterated joy these people get from performing, and I promise you it’s infectious.
Queen is a rush of pure adrenaline. When I saw it late on Friday afternoon, Sarah, the young woman from the White Cube’s press office, spontaneously broke into her own Madonna imitation, and I was pleased to see that even the two macho technicians who were installing the piece seemed to know Madge’s inimitable hand gestures.
But that is what popular culture is: songs and dances we have internalised, even if we don’t always realise it. I am going to go back next Saturday to see whether, faced with the uninhibited joy displayed by these amateur performers on screen, visitors will spontaneously discover the Madonna inside us all. I earnestly hope so.
You have to go, too. After our long, dark, depressing summer, it will restore your faith in humanity.
From an article by Richard Dorment, The Daily Telegraph.
“Candice Breitz” is at White Cube, Hoxton Square, London N1 (020 7749 7450), until Oct 8.