Candice Breitz: Sex Work
Museum Frieder Burda | Salon Berlin
21 September, 2018 - 5 January, 2019
Review by Siobhan Leddy
In 2013, a well-known South African artist, Zwelethu Mthethwa, brutally beat 23-year-old sex worker Nokuphila Kumalo to death. During the course of his trial, in which he would eventually be found guilty, the Iziko South African National Gallery in Cape Town chose to include Mthethwa’s work in an exhibition, sparking widespread condemnation and protest. The affair spelled out an uncomfortable art world truth: that the careers of successful male artists take priority over the safety of sex workers.
Sex work is one of the world’s most dangerous professions, with physical violence and stigma experienced worsened by inadequate legislative protection. Kumalo’s story, and many like it, are the motivation for Candice Breitz’s artistic collaboration with SWEAT — a sex worker activist group — on show at Museum Frieder Burda.
‘Sex Work’ is fundamentally an exhibition of dialogues centring on sex workers themselves. At the door, the visitor is greeted by a looped video of testimonials shot in extreme close-up, so that only the speaker’s mouth can be seen. These partially disembodied voices speak — or perhaps read, given their somewhat rehearsed quality — about their lives as sex workers. “We need to be alert and awake at all times,” says Regina, “I have lost many of my trans sisters.” Other voices describe the racialised aspects of the job, the tendency for white men to seek the services of black women. That many of the voices — of all genders — belong to victims of apartheid makes this fetish particularly fraught. Yet the job also comes with benefits: although poorly paid, a sex worker in South Africa will receive double that of a domestic worker. Faced with few options, and having to make a living in an imperfect world, sex work is a viable career.
These testimonials are thrown into sharp relief against William Copley’s paintings, which line the walls between Breitz’s films. They, too, depict sex workers, but here they are gawdy and kitsch. With their nakedness, their exaggerated and exuberant poses, they are sex workers as form alone flattened into exotic signifiers; devoid of any relateable humane qualities.
Breitz’s TLDR forms the exhibition’s centrepiece. The film was scripted from interviews with sex worker members of SWEAT, which are also on show here, but at over ten hours’ worth of video, few visitors, if any, will commit to watching them in full. TLDR, then, concentrates these interviews into a scripted film, written for an audience that Breitz perceives as having a short attention span. She employs a variety of techniques in order to hold the viewer’s attention: internet slang, bright emojis, and a simplified “hot take”-style delivery. She uses a 12-year-old white boy as a narrator, and name-drops Hollywood celebrities. This is all done with a wink and a nudge, of course, although it still feels a little heavy-handed. TLDR’s use of youth culture and slang all feels a bit shallow, like Steve Buscemi’s “How do you do, fellow kids?” in 30 Rock, while Breitz’s assertion that “we all have ADHD now” is just eye-rollingly daft. The film feels more like a piece of entertainment than it should, and it left less of an impact on me than the interviews themselves. One, in which a woman describes a horrifying act of rape by a police officer, will linger with me for a long time.
That Breitz references Hollywood celebrities like Lena Dunham and Anne Hathaway to draw attention to the plight of sex workers is particularly pertinent in the #MeToo moment. The Hollywood cases are distressing, but are by no means isolated. Breitz is no stranger to using fame and celebrity to make the invisible visible, and ‘Sex Work’ is no different. She is simply asking us to pay attention to a broader range of experiences, even the less glamorous ones.