Candice Breitz | The Formation Of Identities

The films of South African artist Candice Breitz deal with the personal existential and relational issues of modern day men and women, and seen collectively offers a glimpse into her own life. Using ‘isolated’ scenes of Hollywood movies, scenes that have the protagonist isolated and the background blacked out, she projects several of these simultaneously to create a ‘symphony’ and a conversation between these characters, creating a story in the process.

Him (2008) Candice Breitz
Him (2008) Candice Breitz

By using household-name Hollywood movie actors and actresses, Breitz is also exploring another premise, our tendency to project the lives of these characters, played by famous actors, into our own and the formation of identities in the process. That by imagining ourselves as those actors, we are living in a media induced hyperreality.

Him (2008) features scenes of Jack Nicholson in his movies from the past 40 years and others, cut up, spliced together and looped to create the impression that one character (and its mirror image) is talking to another, while both are fidgeting around.

Him (2008) Candice Breitz
Him (2008) Candice Breitz

What these characters talk about, are issues that almost all men face such as identity, recognition, worth, knowledge, rejection, truth, respect, self confidence, sex, relational commitment and the need to ‘find oneself’. The answers given, most of which reflect uncertainty, ambivalence and self-doubt, sprinkled with optimism (and the occasional sexual desire, anger and the questioning of one’s sanity at times), are indicative of the state of modern manhood.

While these answers are disconcerting, it is delivered in an at times hilarious manner, which belies the serious nature of the underlying premise; that the emancipated man is at serious risk of self implosion.

Him (2008) Candice Breitz
Him (2008) Candice Breitz

Towards the end, there is a masculine display of musicality, of song and dance which some men experience the need to demonstrate at times, and finally with a lament that ‘pop culture and day-time TV’ has ‘killed’ art and that nobody reads anymore.

Him (2008) Candice Breitz
Him (2008) Candice Breitz

Similarly Her (2008) is about most of the issues women face, namely who to marry, having children, relationships, trivialities of daily life, relational failures, self-confidence, fear of loneliness, loss of identity and the need to ‘find oneself’ for one’s existential meaning.

Her (2008) Identity
Her (2008) Identity

Through cut-out scenes of various Meryl Streep movies, and using the same splicing and looping technique of Him (2008), the film quite succinctly portrays the subtle nuances of female existential issues; of what its like to be a woman sometimes.

Her (2008) Chores
Her (2008) Chores

Where they differ, is that while Him (2008) ends on a depressing note amidst a male struggle for identity, Her (2008) ends on a more positive note of self liberation and the achievement of becoming a ‘whole human being’. Although both have their own ideosyncrasies, the journey for Her (2008) seems to be more about the sharing of emotions to someone rather than the pure expression of emotions in Him (2008), along with the occasional whimsicality and goofiness.

Her (2008) Infidelity
Her (2008) Infidelity

Treatment (2013) goes a bit further by introducing a play on our expectations by having a woman do the voice-over for the father role, and having an older man do it for ‘Michael’, who might presumably be Breitz’s brother.

Treatment (2013) Michael
Treatment (2013) Michael

Split into 3 acts, the first act depicts Michael being berated by his father, who has a woman’s voice, for being too girly to the point he starts calling him ‘Michelle’.

Treatment (2013) Voice over for daddy
Treatment (2013) Voice over for daddy
Treatment (2013)
Treatment (2013)

In the end he takes his shirt off to reveal spores all over his body, which are a manifestation of how he feels about his treatment, and the resultant conflicting feelings of both hating him and loving him at the same time.

In the second act, ‘daddy’ (still with the female voice) who is now playing ‘Candice’, confronts her ‘mommy’ about why she hit her and scratched her with her nails. While initially denying such a thing would ever happen in this world, upon further questioning, mommy concedes that some mommies, the bad, ‘fucked up’ ones, might do that, finally confessing that her own did that to her.

Treatment (2013) Mommy
Treatment (2013) Mommy

At which point, the roles change, with ‘daddy’ who was playing Candice, now has become ‘mommy’, and the other mommy has become ‘Nola’, as Nola recalls how she beat her and threw her down the stairs.

Treatment (2013) Mommy
Treatment (2013) Mommy

In the third act, ‘daddy’ walks in on a daydreaming Nola, identifying himself as ‘daddy’, while Nola acknowledges him as ‘Frank’. Was ‘daddy’ in fact ‘Frank’, which would mean he told a lie, or was ‘Nola’ confused about who was sitting before her, or is this another invisible role change at the end of the 2nd sentence?

Treatment (2013)
Treatment (2013)

As Nola, whose voice-over actor is Breitz herself, describes how her father despises her and has been trying to take away custody of her little girl, ‘daddy’ who reveals he is Frank, reasons that daddy was just ‘trying to protect his little girl from being hurt’, not even by her own mother. At this point the roles change again, with ‘Frank’ changing to ‘daddy’, and explaining that he had protected her (Nola) just as Frank had protected ‘Candy’ (who is presumably Breitz herself).

Then Nola becomes emotional as she berates daddy for not standing up for her when mommy hit her, slapped her and twisted her words, finally ending the tirade with “Oh God, I love you” but questioning whether he actually loved her since he didn’t stand up for her. But it is unclear whether Nola still Nola at this point, or if she has become Candy, which would mean Breitz was playing herself through the Nola character, and adds to the confusion, even if it is done on purpose.

Treatment (2013) Candice Breitz
Treatment (2013) Candice Breitz

It is safe to presume this is about Breitz’s family when she was growing up, but who Frank and Nola are in relation to Candy is a bit of a mystery. If daddy is her dad, is Frank an older brother and Nola her mother?

The line “I hate you. And I hate you because I love you.” spoken by Michael, and “I love you, daddy” spoken by Nola/Candy just before her emotional outburst, describe the mixed, conflicting emotions experienced by Candice Breitz and her siblings (assuming Michael is her brother).

Was it that confusing growing up in the Breitz family? A place where a father speaks with a mother’s voice, where brothers and fathers, mothers and Candice herself change roles seamlessly amidst the trauma of the physical and verbal abuse? More than just a 3 part play providing a glimpse into her childhood, the film also explores the codification of sights and sounds, which enable the illusion of what we think is reality and fundamentally how identity is formulated. In Him (2008) and Her (2008) however, its sort of the opposite; in these cases we shift and mold our identities according to what our ‘role models’ do in Hollywood movies.

But when these celebrities or characters start talking with someone else’s voice or when they endlessly repeat themselves, mechanically looping like a dysfunctional record player, then they are exposed for what they are; a representation of an ideal, a sign. All three films however, explore the formation of identities in the midst of a saturation of media images, images of celebrities and fictional characters to which we aspire.

Treatment (2013) Candice Breitz
Treatment (2013) Candice Breitz