Parenthood has the perhaps not-so-surprising side effect of making one so much less judgmental of other parents. In the pre-kid era, it’s so much easier to roll your eyes at an operatic tantrum and say, “my kid will never…” I guess that’s the thing about inside knowledge, suddenly black and white make room for myriad shades of gray, and a pesky thing called nuance creeps into your perspective. But some parental decisions continue to boggle my mind, including the phenomenon of the “stage parent.” An exhibition of video works at the Blaffer by Candice Breitz had me pondering this topic deeply, even though not one spray-tanned harpy (ala Toddlers and Tiaras) makes an appearance.
Breitz has included three separate pieces in The Woods, an exhibition that reveal various complicated facets of the world of child acting. World is an apt description, as the artist has chosen American child actors for the Audition, Indian actors for The Rehearsal, and two former child-stars of Nollywood (Nigerian) fame for The Interview. The presentation of the videos is visually flawless. The ultra-hi-def, perfectly syncopated video monitors switch on and off as Breitz conducts our attention. We encounter The Audition first, a set of several roughly half life-sized screens against one wall, and a large triptych of screens adjacent. On each screen is a different kid. When Clementine and I entered the deeply black screening room, a child’s voice was sweetly lilting. The prepubescent voice addressed a pop song’s generic “girl,” abstracting the concept of unrequited love. In each featureless white frame, a child stood and looked at the camera, or danced, or wriggled happily but nervously. After the song ended, they began alternately reciting lines. Rather than any dramatic piece, Breitz has created a sort of monologue based on quotes from “industry insiders,” the very people who decide which of these kids will sell the most cereal, or make the best Annie.
It’s this weird turn about that transforms the documentary leanings of this work into fine art. The children literally become vehicles for adult opinions. The knowing voice of the monologue exhorts the children to, “be themselves…know their strengths…not dress exactly like mom.” It’s probably the reason that the far wall of the gallery shows alternating child actors (this time not speaking) in a sort of larger-than-life video portrait. After a time, the “voice” of the adult speaker usurps the images of the cute kids. We become painfully aware of the pressures placed on them by adults on both sides of the audition process. It’s certainly subtler than the “Toddlers and Tiaras” approach, and I think much more powerful. By physically removing the adults in the equation, but making us no less aware of their presence, Breitz doesn’t allow us to easily dismiss them as some flawed caricature. We see the direct evidence of their actions presented in the hopeful and beautifully un self-aware children. And as an adult viewer, Breitz turns the onus on us, we become the elephant in the room.
As you can imagine, all this is particularly pointed with an almost two-year-old clinging to your hip. She’s so unaware of film “convention” that a dark room is still just a scary place she doesn’t want to be alone in. There’s no expectation of entertainment.