This is it

Pub date November 11, 2009
WriterGlen Helfand
SectionArts & CultureSectionVisual Art

VISUAL ART In its opening week, the posthumous Michael Jackson film This Is It topped the international box office. It’s a testament to the enduring ardor of his fans. But one day in the not-so-distant future, the film will likely be core material in a media studies program. Perhaps even a Michael Jackson studies program.

In 2005, Candice Breitz, a Berlin-based, South African-born artist whose works of photography and video installation address the psychosocial power of pop, created King (A Portrait of Michael Jackson). Breitz’s multimedia project efficiently makes the case that the musician and his fans are engaged in a deeply complicated relationship, one with an infectious soundtrack. King is direct — 16 Jackson fans, videotaped singing and dancing to the entire Thriller album, are presented together in the gallery on plasma screens. The result is a dynamic image of the entertainer in which he never appears.

The similarly structured 2006 work Working Class Hero (A Portrait of John Lennon) is one of two celebrity-appropriating Breitz works currently on view at SFMOMA. Like a good pop song, it seduces with a hook and takes a complicated foothold in your consciousness. The second piece, 2005’s Mother, isolates scenery-chewing performances by six major Hollywood actresses: Faye Dunaway, Diane Keaton, Shirley MacLaine, Julia Roberts, Susan Sarandon, and Meryl Streep.

"I’m turned on by the potential for the work of art to articulate complex ideas and simultaneously engage a broader audience which might not be as invested in the discourse of contemporary art," the highly articulate Breitz explains in a recent conversation. She offers what she terms "the South Park model," suggesting the subversive cartoon is something you can simply be entertained by or write a PhD dissertation on.

Breitz’s projects frequently manage to have it both ways. The Lennon piece beckons with the sound of familiar songs. But encountering 25 video monitors, each one slightly enlarging a passionate fan, is involvingly witty — and frightening, due to the intensity of the performances. These are people who clearly take the music to heart and have made it their own. Being able to look at them so closely in a gallery is an uncomfortably intimate experience — an effect perhaps achieved by the fact that each participant is recorded alone.

"I’m interested in the ping pong, that they’re there both as individuals who have their own subtle or radically different ways of interpreting their challenge, but also as members of what Benedict Anderson refers to as an ‘imagined community,’" Breitz says. "They don’t know each other, but by virtue of their shared interests they belong to an abstract community." This explanation concisely identifies a key component of the media-dependent condition of modern life.

The scenarios in Breitz’s works have been complicated by the popularity of American Idol and YouTube. Breitz views them with characteristic criticality. "In as much as I am flirting with those formats, there are certain elements of those programs I don’t care to embrace," she admits. "One is the way in which participants are humiliated and stripped of dignity."

The Breitz exhibition recalls Phil Collins’ crowd-pleasing 2005 dünya dinlemiyor, a chapter of his Smiths karaoke video project that SFMOMA presented in 2006. Collins’ piece also accesses powerful pop bonds, allowing one to see young Turkish fans deliver versions of Morrissey’s lyrics in flawless English. Coincidentally enough, Collins made a project (2005’s the return of the rea / gercegin geri donusu) about people who felt damaged and exploited by their participation in British reality TV shows. While one might imagine a rivalry between the artists, Breitz acknowledges an appreciation and dialogue.

"Who did it first?" she asks. "I find it fascinating when different people do something similar at the same time. I find it affirming — there’s a relevance [when] other people are thinking about the same things."

Mutual thoughts seem to have been entertained by the screenwriters of Kramer vs. Kramer (1979) and Mommie Dearest (1981), which are among the vintage film sources for Breitz’s Mother. The piece essentially constructs new meanings from elements such as Faye Dunaway’s over-the-top performance as Joan Crawford and Shirley MacLaine’s fictitious Debbie Reynolds portrayal in Postcards from the Edge (1990). In the process, it spotlights the ways in which we embrace and consume maternal archetypes.

"There’s a tug of war for meaning going on, and at the end of the rope there are all of those existing meanings and identifications and desires already invested in that material," Breitz says. "And then there’s me — I’m doing my best to bring a new translation or angle."

She manages the feat, not least because her perspectives on her material and equipment are so spot-on. "I think of those plasma displays as vitrines," she says of the screens in her works. "They’re like glass boxes in the natural history sense. Almost immediately, what you put into them is something of the past — they’re less objects of our present than documents that refer back to something which was." Like the first time we heard that favorite Michael Jackson song.


Through Dec. 20., $9–$15 (free for kids and on first Tues.; half-price Thurs. evenings)

San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

151 Third St., SF

(415) 357-4000