By Vivien Sham
For most of us, meeting a pair of twins would elicit an exclamation (or at least mild feelings) of intrigue and curiosity or warmth and adoration or a permutation thereof. Candice Breitz’ Factum plays to this fascination in exhibiting seven pairs of identical twins and one set of triplets in multiple-channel video portraits. Each twin or triplet is dressed similarly and filmed against the same backdrop. They address the audience directly and share personal stories of their lives. Through this entertaining and accessible format, Breitz probes into the issue of identity and its uniqueness in every individual.
Being amidst the Factum installation is like being a kid in a candy shop, with many colourful and enticing goodies clamouring for our attention. Breitz exhibits variety in the selection of the subjects; they originate from diverse backgrounds and are of different demographic profiles and each provides a ‘singular’ experience of being twins. The youthful and attractive Tangs triplets are concerned about issues of self-image while the McNamara twins, are pre-occupied with fatherhood and the upbringing of their children. Each set of twins is highly charismatic and provides a deep well of experiences the audience can dig into.
Other than their attention-grabbing function, twins are also the perfect subjects through which to explore the issue of identity, arguably the main purpose of this art piece. Listening and watching them, we realize that these twins have it hard in terms of the amount of scrutiny they naturally subject themselves to. A heightened self-awareness develops whereby in every action, a refrain of “What is my other twin doing” runs in the back of their minds. In Factum Kang, Laurie relates how she used to model herself after her twin Hanna and look for “life strategies”. As they grew up and Laurie sought to be different, Hanna followed suit. They never really escape the condition of being a twin, as Hanna shares “when Laurie steps away from me I step away from her”, a move ostensibly to create distance but paradoxically strengthening their ties, as they obey the mechanics of a mirror. Having a closely similar ‘other’, which one uses as a point of reference, makes the study of identity in twins so pertinent.
As we look at these identical twins positioned mirror-image style beside each other, we suddenly see ourselves and our struggles with identity reflected on the screen as well. It is like a three-way mirror. Extrapolating to normal ‘untwinned’ people, there is a contention between ‘me’ and the ‘I’, the socially compliant side and impulsive character. As an audience we understand the futility of trying to base ourselves on societal expectations, but realize it is still needed for forging our identity – a social construct, a performance.
The inclusion of the triplets adds another dimension in the exhibition and complicates our concept of identity. The exuberant Tang triplets all love shoes, but dress differently, work as models, but at different places, look alike, but are of different heights. We realize how multi-faceted the process of identity negotiation is, especially when the triplets share their experience of being models in an image-centred industry.
While the rich discourse and complex personalities are the stars of the show, Breitz’s filming technique and conceptualizing of the space also made the piece work. Factum is tremendously accessible as everything about it is so clearly spelt out. All one has to do was sit down, put on the headphones and be enraptured by the sharp, clear images of the twins on large screens. We are watching them talk frankly about their lives, with nothing hidden or mysterious. That does not mean Factum shuns complexity. In Factum Tremblay, the controversial question of identity construction is overlaid with the issue of nature vs nurture, given the twins homosexual orientation. I was interested to watch the Tremblay video because of their funky dress sense and was shocked by their feminine voices. Thus Breitz’s natural and unceremonious presentation of these people’s lives invites the audience in and implicitly touches upon serious themes existing in society.
In addition, Breitz takes great care in dressing the twins in matching outfits and placing them in an exact setting, down to the Kang twins’ pink toenails. It is an artistic arrangement that fits neatly into our view of identical twins and creates a sense of harmony. Twins forever fascinate us and the placement of two human portraits directly opposite each other simply lures us into observing them. Breitz’s shrewd mirror image portrayal actually de-emphasizes the twin-ness between them as we became aware of first the minor physical differences, followed by their mannerisms, and then their character; getting caught up in the (often) juicy gossip of their private lives.
This appeal to the voyeur in each of us may cause some to label Factum as frivolous entertainment rather than art. But I would argue that Breitz’s work fulfills all the aesthetic and realistic criteria of art. If art is supposed to bring pleasure, Factum certainly does so for me, as I flitted between videos drinking in their entertaining stories. For Tolstoy who questions “What is Art?” and decides that art must create a specific emotional link between artist and audience, it is certainly easy to empathize and relate to these modern human subjects.
Factum isn’t a documentary, it’s an interactive piece. The very design of the space has the audience moving around and watching short snippets of the videos, like viewing pictures in a gallery- an experience more dynamic than watching it on the TV screen from the sofa. Furthermore, unlike the mass-produced feel of TV, watching these videos has an intimate feel to it, like sitting in on a sharing session with these people. Each person’s experience in the gallery is also different, as they watch different segments of the video and choose which twin to spend time with.
Another reason the artwork was so effective was that the videos were edited and arranged with a clear purpose at every moment, both conversationally and visually. Breitz freezes a twin in a particular position, just as the other twin gestures she might go through the same motion. Although each twin was filmed separately, a dialogue is created between them in Breitz’s arrangement of the clips. In Factum Kang, Laurie says “I appreciate having a best friend, a soul mate” and is abruptly cut off by Hannah who interjects “That’s intimacy”. This is not your typical uncensored, messy confessional; it is a video art installation with a strong authorial presence and a seamless and natural quality.
That said, we also have to question the veracity in what we are seeing, as the sophisticated use of technology may have been used to manipulate the twins’ stories into an artistic narrative sympathetic to Breitz’s personal viewpoint. Granted, art is under no moral compunction to be politically correct and totally accurate. It is not a documentary after all. But acknowledging the indivisibility between form and content makes us aware that what is presented may not be the truth.