BERLIN — Alec Baldwin as a migrant on an overcrowded boat en route to Europe from Somalia? Julianne Moore as the victim of violence and forced displacement in the Congo? In Candice Breitz’s Love Story, currently on view at KOW, Berlin, the artist interviews six men and women who recount their stories of escape, which are then reinterpreted and told by Hollywood stars Baldwin and Moore.
Breitz, who is previously known for appropriating clips of famous Hollywood actors and creating montages from them, uses her work to deconstruct popular Hollywood tropes around identity and reality. The title of the exhibition references the hopes, struggles, and realities of life on the move for those who have been displaced, baiting the viewer with an installation of the aforementioned actors portraying each refugee. The exhibition brings to light the stories of six interviewees as they report their experiences going through asylum interviews, which are then acted out by the two Hollywood stars.
The cultural lexicon Breitz draws from is the whitewashing tendency of Hollywood, a perennial controversial topic that made headlines late last year after several high-profile nonwhite characters were played by white actors: Tilda Swinton as the Ancient One in Doctor Strange (2016), Matt Damon as a Chinese warrior in The Great Wall (2016), and Scarlett Johansson as Major Mira Killian / Motoko Kusanagi in Ghost in the Shell (2017). In the last several months, social justice groups have called attention to the practice of whitewashing and demanded more accountability in Hollywood, which they rightly accuse of severely underrepresenting nonwhites in leading roles. According to a study reported on in Reuters last year, minority lead roles in Hollywood film peaked at 16.7 percent in 2013 and dropped to 13.6 percent in 2015. Yet whitewashing is by no means a new phenomenon. In the 1960s, a bucktoothed Mickey Rooney offensively played the role of Japanese caricature I.Y. Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, to cite just one example, and by the 1970s, postcolonial and literary theorist Edward Said began discussing cultural imperialism, connecting it to the way the mainstream media, popular culture, and Hollywood collude to construct and manipulate the image of nonwhites, particularly Arabs, often relying exclusively on negative stereotypes and generalizations. “Arabs, for example, are thought of as camel-riding, terroristic, hook-nosed, venal lechers whose undeserved wealth is an affront to real civilization,” Said wrote in his 1978 book Orientalism.
Love Story deconstructs the Hollywood tendency to whitewash and, in the process, subverts and exposes it, rendering the practice directly visible and audible. The dark, cavernous space of KOW lends itself particularly well to Breitz’s seven-channel film installation. Upon entering, the viewer is immediately confronted with Baldwin and Moore recounting the tales of six individuals, each filled with love, loss, hope, and hopelessness. The 73-minute video features the two actors in medium and close-up shots as they take on the different roles of the individuals interviewed by Breitz in New York, Berlin, and Cape Town in late 2015. These six individuals, whom Breitz casted through personal relationships and contacts, include a Somalian (Farah Abdi Mohamed), a Syrian (Ezzat Mardini), a Venezuelan Luis Ernesto Nava Molero), an Indian (Francis Saveri), a Congolese (Mamy Maloba Langa), and an Angolan (José Maria João), — all of whom have unique memories that deserve individual attention. They are all seated in front of green screens, a neutralizing background that allows the viewer to narrow in and focus on their stories, which are at times saddening and confusing but also funny and laden with anecdotes about love and friendship. Baldwin and Moore take on their roles dutifully, capturing the mannerisms of their characters with compassion and emotion.
Interrupting the smooth faces of Hollywood privilege, Breitz presents six large screens with accompanying headphones corresponding to each of the six individuals whose narratives of escape were reinterpreted by Baldwin and Moore. These are the real faces and stories behind the Hollywood pair’s interpretations. According to one of them, Mamy Maloba Langa, who was forced to flee from her native Kinshasa, in the Congo, “People don’t even care about us, you know. They would never put us on a movie screen and talk about us.” Another, José Maria João, a former child soldier from Angola, entreats Baldwin to take his role and responsibility in this project seriously. “Alec, you must be happy that Candice is giving you this opportunity to give people my story, to tell them about my life. I just want to ask you to tell this story that I went through in the right way. You must get it right.”
By positioning the voices of these six individuals together with Hollywood actors, Breitz’s project exposes how cinema, the mainstream media, and even visual art still requires star power in order to amplify the stories of marginalized people. As such, the exhibition foregrounds two important questions: Are such dramatizations culturally insensitive? Or do they invite empathy?
To some extent, the interview format does allocate a space for empathy, but it does so in a way that requires time and patience. Each interview is more than three hours long, making it difficult, if not impossible, to see each in its entirety. Accordingly, the project deserves to be understood as one that questions the precarious nature of our ability to take in information. It deconstructs the logistics of the attention economy in a way that calls into question how we perceive the narratives of those who have been forcibly displaced, albeit filtered by deceptive forms of Hollywood whitewashing. By infusing the project with Hollywood star power, Breitz at once considers multiple overlapping textures of pop culture and how our ability to consume entertainment masks our ability to see and empathize with others.
Above all, Love Story uncovers the mechanisms of cultural hegemony and how the media de-personifies narratives of displacement. It does so in a fascinating way that juxtaposes mainstream Hollywood entertainment with first-person accounts of individuals whose stories stand in for millions of others, thereby inviting the viewer into a contemplative space. Breitz’s project lays bare these cultural and political dynamics, and in doing so gives voice and autonomy back to those who are typically silenced — or whitewashed — by the mainstream media, Hollywood, and the art world at large.
Love Story continues at KOW (Brunnenstr. 9, 10119, Berlin) through July 30.