Him + Her

Candice Breitz considers how media images shape our behaviour in this 'intricate, complex and exciting show' in the Void gallery in Derry~Londonderry

Void gallery's first full exhibition of the City of Culture 2013 year opened opened on January 26. Him + Her is by the internationally-acclaimed South African artist, Candice Breitz. Although it is not a new work, it is being shown in its current form for the first time at Derry~Londonderry.

The show takes up two separate rooms. Banked on a wall in each room are seven screens, three lined vertically down the centre of the wall, with two either side. In the Him room is Jack Nicholson. Scenes from 23 of his films stretching back to the 1960s play on otherwise black screens. In Her is Meryl Streep: Breitz has selected from a pool of her films made over the past 30 years.

We see only the two actors. We hear the words their characters speak. Music from the various movies is occasionally used, as are relevant sound effects. All backgrounds have been removed so that we see each actor against a black screen – a new context is created in which we can experience their words, gestures and expressions.

Let there be no doubt about it: this is an outstanding exhibition. It’s fascinating, thought-provoking, engaging, clever, funny and fun. it might sound simple, but it's not. It draws the viewer in, revealing more and more layers of intrigue as it does.

I have to admit that part of the pleasure – for me, at least – comes initially from playing an anorakish game of 'spot the films'. That’s A Few Good Men. Sophie’s Choice, I think. Out of Africa? The Crossing Guard?
Although that might sound trite and trivial, I’d say it’s an important element of the show.

For many, these two actors, their characters, and their films will have been regular features in their lives, cultural companions and markers through the decades. We’ve seen them age and change, and the roles they’ve inhabited have changed with them. Jack Nicholson has moved from patient to therapist, from rebel to general; Meryl Streep from brave campaigner to embittered boss.

And in developing, they have gained iconic status, first reflecting and then dictating concerns and attitudes. As such, audiences, deliberately or subconsciously ape their language and gestures and poses. When Breitz presents these images, meticulously collated, she’s saying, 'These people have told you how to be, and you’ve let them.'

Watching this intricate, complex and exciting show, it’s interesting to list the roles played out before us. Adulterer, seducer, wife, soldier, spinster, philanderer, the wronged and hurt, the charmer and the coquette, perpetrator, witness, suspect, accused, accuser, mother, leader, patient, doctor, the active, the passive, the bitch, the boss, girlfriend, husband, victim. The living; the old. The young, the hopeful, the resigned, the dying. Take the list and divide it into two columns: the Him and the Her.

Gender stereotypes fill the columns. On one hand, we see the loud, angry, demanding, questioning man; on the other, the woman – meekly strong, responsive, explanatory, moveable, apologetic but never weak. Her self-doubt is on show. His is masked.

Of course sometimes the same role appears in both columns. The accused, for instance. But when Nicholson is in the witness box, answering questions, he’s on the attack, even though he’s wrong. When Streep is on trial, the tone is altogether different – subdued but righteous.

The Him and the Her both last exactly 27 minutes. One of the most interesting things about watching them is the journey you go on as the viewer. You start – or I started anyway – by looking at one screen at a time, watching and listening to each different character from one film or another. It doesn’t take long, however, before the seven screens become just the one.

It’s like an entirely new film has been created, with each role becoming a character in the same film. An intricate, complex and often funny script is created. Young speaks to old, experience confronts innocence, the patient responds to the doctor, the victim discusses with the perpetrator, or another victim, and the disappointed mother talks to the childless woman.

Questions and answers, accusations and excuses pinball between the characters. 'Tell me who you are? You looking for me? You want answers? You’re not like anybody. I don’t know exactly. I want to know who you are. Do you know who I am? I really don’t know.' And in Her: 'I’m sorry. I’m really sorry.' And 'You want me to do well, just not better.'

And then soon, you realise the words are coming out into the room. 'Who are you? I used to be someone else but I traded him in. Most people go back to being themselves.' And most telling of all maybe: 'You’re asking the one person who can’t help you.' But we nevertheless look to that one person for the answers.

This exhibit is about men and women, about growing old, about identity, and how the individual finds or creates an identity which allows him/her to cope within a community. And it’s maybe about the need for icons to lead us and to do things for us. I think Him + Her is a brilliant exhibition, worth seeing again and again. It runs at Void until March 8.