Twitching alongside each other against a stark black backdrop, which stretches across a semi-circular structure of six plasma screens, six Hollywood actresses passionately perform the rites of motherhood. In a second parallel installation, six equally recognizable actors go through the motions of fatherhood. The plasma screens function like glass display cases in a museum of natural history, except that rather than caging desiccated animals, they house fragments of Faye Dunaway, Diane Keaton, Shirley MacLaine, Julia Roberts, Susan Sarandon and Meryl Streep (Mother, 2005); as well as snippets of Tony Danza, Dustin Hoffman, Harvey Keitel, Steve Martin, Donald Sutherland and Jon Voight (Father, 2005).
Having been digitally extracted from their respective movies, the castmembers of Mother and Father are free of their usual trappings, free to perform two new dramas scripted by Candice Breitz. No longer in the service of the House of Hollywood - their strings now held firmly in Breitz’s hands - the kidnapped movie stars are nudged and prodded through two tightly choreographed scripts. Nicolas Bourriaud has described the actors cast in Breitz’s installations as “hostage-images”: ‘Insofar as they are public figures, their work consists of selling their body, their work-force, on the assembly line of industrial images. Breitz uses them as goods and makes them work on an alternative assembly bench.’ The actors emerge from her mixing-desk recycled and coerced into tautly arranged compositions, flashing onto their respective screens rhythmically and obsessively, now grouping themselves briefly into moments of narrative coherence, then careening through wildly nonsensical scenes in which their performance of parenthood is as absurd as it is neurotic. If actors might be thought of as instruments, Breitz plays them here like they’ve never been played before, coaxing out of them an operatic screenplay that catalogues and guts the values that mainstream entertainment tends to naturalize.
These values are nowhere better personified than in the primary and normative roles played by the Mothers and Fathers who populate blockbuster scripts: the self-denying mother who exists in a state of perpetual hysteria (‘Everything I did, I did out of love for you!’), or the over-protective father who dedicates himself to the eternal preservation of his daughter’s virginity (‘No boy comes in this house and takes my daughter anywhere, unless I know who he is, where he lives, who his parents are…’). The readymade language spouted by Breitz’s composite Mother and Father is at times reminiscent of the song lyrics that glibly masquerade as sentences in the novels of Brett Easton Ellis. On the other hand, as they rehearse the irritatingly familiar rhetoric of family life, Breitz’s patchwork parents can at times brush against the same raw nerve as the longsuffering family members described by Jonathan Franzen in The Corrections.
But, above and beyond an astute dissection of family life (as we know it from the movies that we watch, the books that we read, indeed from our own lives), Breitz offers us parenthood as a metaphor for the relationship between the star and the fan. For are not parents the role-models that their children seek to emulate? And is it not the case that the entertainment industry increasingly seeks to usurp the role of parenthood for itself, with young viewers aspiring, more and more, to emulate the role-models projected on the silver screen? In encroaching upon the role traditionally played by the parent, the media seeks and increasingly achieves the same effect desired by the parent: the reproduction of its own social values and political consciousness. Hollywood is composed - Breitz’s work seems to suggest - of a cast of authoritarian characters who would shape and mould viewers in their own image. Yet, she seems to imply, there is no need to do away with this culture entirely; rather, an imperative to avoid consuming it as finished product, and instead, to treat it as mere raw material.
Breitz is neither prepared to capitulate to the onslaught of media-perpetuated values that she wrestles with in her work, nor arrogant enough to assume a sovereign space that is immune from those values. On the one hand, as she grabs the reins from Hollywood, she seems to offer us a chance to direct rather than to be directed, a chance to stare down the spectacle rather than remaining endlessly subject to its paralyzing gaze, a chance to pull the strings. On the other hand, as the sampled actors awkwardly jerk and writhe through her scripts, one senses that the relationship between Breitz and her cast is not so much a relationship between an allcontrolling puppet-master and her marionettes, but rather an earnest tug-of-war to determine who will ultimately control the production of meaning: those who make the movies or those who watch them.
The Mother cast consists of Faye Dunaway, Diane Keaton, Shirley MacLaine, Julia Roberts, Susan Sarandon and Meryl Streep, while Father lines up Tony Danza, Dustin Hoffman, Harvey Keitel, Steve Martin, Donald Sutherland and Jon Voight.