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Candice Breitz, Wilson Must Go, 2016
Courtesy of KOW Berlin

This Artist Changed the Title of Her Work to Call Out a Museum

Aruna D'Souza

Candice Breitz renamed her contribution to the National Gallery of Victoria Triennial to protest the show's affiliation with a company linked to the mistreatment of asylum seekers.

Candice Breitz, Wilson Must Go, 2016
Courtesy of KOW Berlin

In 2016, Berlin-based, South African video artist Candice Breitz was chosen to participate in the National Gallery of Victoria Triennial, one of the biggest shows in Australia. The event’s curators eventually decided that the theme of this year's installment was “movement,” in response to the fact that a number of selected artists were reflecting on what they felt to be the most urgent global issue of the moment: namely, the movement of refugees due to natural disaster, political repression, and war.

Breitz’s work, originally titled Love Story, has two parts: on six monitors, six refugee interviewees from different hotspots (Syria, Angola, the Democratic Republic of Congo, India, Venezuela, and Somalia) discuss their journeys to New York, Cape Town, and Berlin. In a projection in another room, Julianne Moore and Alec Baldwin reenact the same refugees’ words, now condensed into a highly edited script. The work thus leverages our fascination with celebrity to draw us into conversations about the plight of more than 65 million people torn from their homes.

Shortly before the show was set to open on December 15, Breitz discovered that the National Gallery of Victoria had contracted its security services to a company named Wilson Security—an outfit that oversaw the notoriously inhumane refugee camps at Manus Island and Nauru. The artist was left to decide between pulling her work and finding another way to make her objections known.

She came up with a novel solution, renaming her work Wilson Must Go and appending the condition that whenever the work is shown on Australian soil it must appear only with that title. (When it’s shown at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts at the end of March, it'll be with the original title.)

Breitz spoke to GARAGE about her decision immediately upon her return from Australia.

Candice Breitz, Wilson Must Go, 2016. Courtesy of KOW Berlin

GARAGE: How did you hear about the problematic relationship of the National Gallery of Victoria to Wilson?
Candice Breitz: A Melbourne-based collective called the Artists’ Committee has been working to draw attention to the NGV’s contract with Wilson for months. When the names of the Triennial artists were announced, they reached out to us to provide us with information and to ask that we consider expressing our solidarity. I met with members of the Committee as soon as I arrived in Australia, wanting to better understand the issues at stake. Once they’d educated me about Wilson’s bloody history, I felt it would be morally remiss to remain silent. What I learned made me sick to my stomach.

Did you consider removing the work?
That was my first impulse. The campaign of the Artists’ Committee had received very little traction and the NGV seemed to think it could be swept under the rug. The Triennial’s focus on works that address forced displacement felt like a classic case of institutional whitewashing. Not that one needs any particular reason to be disgusted with the Australian government’s abuse of refugees and asylum-seekers (as enforced by agents like Wilson Security), but the fact that my work on the Triennial focused very particularly on the absence of refugee voices from the representation of the refugee crisis made it all the more unacceptable to me that the security for the exhibition was being provided by a company that has violently enforced the imprisonment of refugees in Australia’s offshore immigration detention centers.

That said, I decided pretty fast that to remove my work from the exhibition would mean muting the voices of the interviewees who share first-person refugee narratives in Wilson Must Go. The NGV also has a pretty heinous record when it comes to gender, in light of which I decided that I would occupy the space that had been afforded to me, rather than vacating it. I decided that removing my voice from the conversation would be less strategically effective than staying in the conversation and engaging it head-on.

So you decided to rename the work instead.
It seemed like a more effective way to amplify the conversation. I announced that the work would carry the new title, Wilson Must Go, with immediate effect, and whenever the work is shown on Australian soil, until the museum severs its relationship with Wilson. Until then, NGV employees, publications, public discussions, press communications, and wall labels would be obliged to use the words Wilson Must Go each time they mentioned the work.

Protesters at the VIP opening of the National Gallery of Victoria Triennial. Photo by Candice Breitz

What was the reaction of other artists and the museum to your act?
In a public statement released three days before the opening, I invited other Triennial artists who might share my discomfort at having their works under the surveillance of Wilson to rename their own works Wilson Must Go, should they so choose. Only one, Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, did. Richard Mosse altered his work to reference the situation.

Though the museum didn't try to talk me out of retitling my work, the director publicly accused me of inciting violence when I chose to participate in (and document) the protest that took place on the evening of the Triennial’s preview.

Were the protests violent?
Far from it! I’ve never attended a more polite protest! The Artists’ Committee had publicly announced their intervention ahead of time. They linked arms to block the entrance to the museum as VIPs started to arrive for the preview. They handed out flyers and offered quiet explanations to those approaching their blockade. They even suggested to VIP guests that they enter the museum via a side door—as opposed to breaking their protest line—should they insist on attending the preview, rather than expressing solidarity against the violence of the Australian state. To save Triennial artists the discomfort of the protest, the museum had sent out an email a couple of hours before, inviting artists to arrive at the museum earlier than the protestors, which is what most chose to do.

The only physical aggression that I personally observed was exercised by a VIP guest, who forcefully chopped his hands through the linked arms of the protestors, despite having the option to enter the event via the side door. It turned out that he had funded one of the key pro-refugee works on the show and was a major patron of the Triennial.

The National Gallery of Victoria Triennial is on view at NGV International, Melbourne, through April 15, 2018.