Archive: Issue No. 64, December 2002

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In Conversation with Candice Breitz
by Anjali Gupta

South African born video artist Candice Breitz is currently an Artist in Residence at ArtPace. Breitz's work systematically dismantles the lingua franca of popular culture, as expressed in commercial films, television and mainstream music, by stripping traditional narratives of their anticipated function.

Breitz's brief presence in San Antonio overlaps with a screening of Bill Viola's The Greeting, at San Antonio's The McNay. This happy coincidence provided the rare opportunity to confront a new generation of video artist with the medium's not so distant past. The Viola piece, a very literal video re creation of a Jacopo Pontormo painting, was completed in 1995 for the 46th Venice Biennale. Its colossal proportions are housed in a dimly lit 21X21-ft. space in the McNay's Brown Gallery.

Anjali Gupta, a Texas-based freelance writer and video producer, recently worked with Breitz during her San Antonio residency. The following records Breitz's responses to a range of probing questions formulated around Bill Viola's work.

AG: What was your initial impression of the Viola piece?

CB: The first issue that comes to mind when you experience work like The Greeting is that it prompts you to think about the relationship between photography and painting. In the early days of photography, people working within the medium felt the pressure to make photographs that looked like paintings. This occurred at a point in the history of photography where the medium hadn't yet started to define itself in terms of its own set of conventions. Standing in front of a piece like The Greeting one feels that somehow things have come a full circle, and we're at a point where artists working with video - a photographic medium - again feel the need to move closer in proximity to painting. You start to feel a collapse of the border between painting and photography.

AG: Do you think this stems from a continuing need to legitimise video as a medium?

CB: One inherent challenge for video artists has been in working with a medium that is so young. A question that constantly arises is, "Why should people take video seriously as a medium?" People are much more accustomed to receiving video-like images from television and Hollywood, and so why should you go into a museum and look at a video piece? Why should you adapt your expectations of what you are going to see in a museum? As soon as you bring video closer to painting, the invariable result is a kind of monumentality. People tend to take painting more seriously than video. When a video looks like a painting, a lot of people who wouldn't normally be receptive to video as a medium will suddenly become open to it. But I can't help feeling that it pulls back from other explorations of video as a medium that are happening in the work of contemporary video artists.

AG: Do any of those universal issues come into play in this piece?

CB: Time is an issue confronted by every video or film artist. Video unfolds through time and so, for a lot of artists, the temptation is to treat the duration of video as a narrative, as a time in which a story unfolds. In this respect, a lot of video art aligns itself with the structures of Hollywood movies or television programmes. They feel the need to tell a story, the need to move from point A to point B to point C. What I do think is noteworthy and interesting about Bill Viola's piece is the way that he challenges our expectations and our need to fast forward. We live in a culture in which photographic images are usually received in fast forward. Essentially what the Viola piece does is press pause, slow down time, and delay our experience of narrative - despite the fact that this is indeed a narrative piece.

A: What is your interpretation of that unspoken narrative?

CB: It is the beginning of a story, sort of loaded and pregnant with the symbolism of the meeting, the greeting, the origin, the birth of conversation, the birth of social interaction, which I think is very weighted and somehow rhetorical in a way that makes me uncomfortable. Viola insists on slowing us down, which is perhaps the most frustrating aspect of this piece and the one that makes it very interesting to me. It also brings the work closer to painting, because what a painting asks of you is your contemplation.

AG: I found the element of forced contemplation the most interesting aspect of Viola's work. Why do you place it in the realm of painting rather than video?

CB: The trajectory of contemporary art since the late fifties has been about trying to define the inherent qualities of the medium. Painters were interested in making works about those aspects of painting that were most painterly, sculptors wanted to make the most sculptural sculptures possible, photographers increasingly moved away from mimicry of painting into dealing with industrialisation and mechanised life-issues that are specific to living in an urban domain. I think it is interesting that the very same mixed media strategies, which were rejected vehemently by the minimalists, are reversed here. What Viola is doing is throwing painting and photography into the same pot and treating them as though they were utterly interchangeable, no longer feeling the need to define video as separate from painting or vice versa.

A painting wants you to stand in front of it and contemplate it, and I think this is very much what Bill Viola wants you to do. Rather than opening up a dialogue with the viewer, it monumentalises things. It turns something very banal into something very grand. I guess in that sense it fights the possibilities that one associates with video, the possibility to edit, to speed boring things up. If anything, I think this piece is about the complete boredom of everyday life. Many artists have been interested in taking banal, everyday moments and monumentalising them. But I am not sure why someone would want to bring an everyday moment of social interaction into the domain of a mannerist scene that is so symbolically loaded. When one refers to pre-existing art, as artists do all the time, I always feel it is most interesting when it doesn't require art historical knowledge to enjoy the piece. There is something monumental and intimidating in sculpture and painting in the high art sense.

AG: Does this alienate an audience?

CB: Personally I find it hard to identify with. As a video artist, you have a door to an audience, one which a painter or sculptor doesn't have. Everybody speaks the language that you speak. People that have never been into an art museum have watched video, television, seen movies. Even if they aren't accustomed to thinking of that kind material as art, they have a basic fluency and a basic vocabulary in the moving image.

AG: And this type of work does not access that?

CB: For me that is the most problematic aspect of this work, the way it emulates the conventions of painting. The reference point is a mannerist painting by Pontormo. The work itself is mannered. It feels extraordinarily theatrical, extraordinarily contrived. Viola works with temporality, theatricality, and tableau. When he makes video, his reference point is painting. I think this is a painting. I don't think it is a video. It's framed as such, but the size of the work is painterly, the presentation too.

Bill Viola's The Greeting is on display at the McNay Gallery through until February 24, 2003.