The air in the central room at n.b.k. is warm and heavy. Monitors are mounted on each wall, behind curtains that form a semi-circle around the screens like a shroud; from each partition emerges muffled noises of groaning and screaming, both adult and infant. Candice Breitz’s new work ‘Labour’ derives its material from the eponymous title, depicting women in the vivid act of giving birth. The architecture of the space forms an intentional mimicry of the videos’ content: we are re-entering the womb, so to speak.
Drawing apart the curtains, we are faced up-close with women, chests heaving, legs apart, covered in blood and body fluid. It is almost suffocatingly intimate to be this close to the act of childbirth. It is a graphic reminder of the diametric realities of nature itself: the sheer beauty, power and wonder of creating life, and the simultaneous pain, violence, blood and gore. Yet Breitz destabilizes what we think we know to be true. There is an immediate sense of unease, of discomfort, when we realize that the babies are not emerging, but are instead re-entering, their small bodies guided back into their mothers’ by the gloved hands of nurses. The babies that emerge, or in this case, re-enter, are not pristine Gerber models. They are a taupe colour, screaming, covered in amniotic fluid.
It is subversion on all levels, backwards and overturned. In simple white letters on a black screen, much like an announcement before a scientific slide, is an unfamiliar yet somewhat recognizable word: it doesn’t take much deduction to realize that we are faced with the hypothetical re-entry of ‘Pmurt’, for example, a familiar figure, depicted before his Tropicana-tan with a tuft of toupéed hair. In this way, Breitz’s political practice is revealed. The gesture is completed by the accompanying text; a ‘Matrical Decree’ that sounds similar to the ‘Handmaids Tale’ and yet is quite the opposite of Margaret Atwood’s dystopian world of women’s servitude and subjugation. In this manifesto, familiar political figures—Trump, Kim, Putin and Bolsonaro—are determined to be unfit, to have committed egregious crimes against the maternal matrix and are thus subjected to the ‘undoing of labour.’
Notwithstanding the bureaucratic language in the manifesto, the work itself naturally oscillates between intimate and alienated. We feel comfort from a place that is perhaps prehistoric, deep in our chest, as we watch the new parents cradle their children to their chests and, in turn, we feel unease as the child is then guided back into the mother. The work itself entails and demands a great deal of trust from the participants: these women are sharing their most intimate moments, their pain and their bodies filmed and exposed.
‘Labour’ is considered a work-in-progress and, in light of the political climate, this hardly seems surprising. There are plenty of other leaders who will most likely be deemed unsuitable by Breitz’s ‘Matrical Decree,’ bound to re-enter the maternal womb.