Walking to the entrance of Candice Breitz’s current exhibition Working Class Hero (a portrait of John Lennon) is an overpowering experience. The brazen, or the overtly intrepid, may think nothing of wandering straight amongst the 25 channel video installation of Lennon fans singing his 1970 release Plastic Ono Band in a cappella. This viewer however approached the scene with something approaching trepidation, almost feeling as though stepping any further than the doorway would be in the same realm as barging unannounced into a performance of a community choir.
As an introduction to the exhibition,- Breitz placed an advertisement in a paper in Newcastle, England calling forth a legion of John Lennon fans willing to be recorded singing Plastic Ono Band in full. After a rigorous selection process 25 were chosen and Working class hero is the culmination of the project. Exhibited in a variety of contexts, this installation is perhaps one of the most egalitarian with each video evenly spaced around the room, not affording privilege to any individual’s rendition of the album.
Die hard fans these diverse, expressive faces may be; crazed fans they are not. Breitz’s work is a respectful and sensitive exploration of fandom and the myriad of ways one can be a fan. In the words of the artist, each “performer” is idiosyncratically responding to the same set of parameters, and the storytelling of the piece takes place in the choices made by each individual. Some charmingly, endearingly mumble the lyrics under their breath while others are more performative and boisterous. Bashful faces turn to earnest storytellers as the track list rolls on and alongside the Lennon-esque gold-rimmed glasses and fan t-shirts we gain an understanding of the subjects as we witness the water, coffee or beer the subjects sip for stamina throughout their recording.
Just as the performers grow more comfortable as each song rolls on, so too does the audience. After tentatively hanging on the edge of the ‘stage’, for one tune, maybe two, the viewer’s response begins to be ignited as much by the subjects as by the songs. A walk around the room gives the sense of artwork and audience gravitating towards a common ground, both approaching a pinnacle of inner reflectivity.
In a curious paradox, the subjects themselves are completely disconnected from the audience. Aside from a flicker of awareness of being documented they are completely absorbed by the emotion of Lennon’s recording – the songs being fed to them via earpiece. Conversely, the audience cannot hear the music and is absolutely lost in the role of voyeuristic observer. These homage-like performances have strength of emotion so deep-seated that what in another setting could have been labelled karaoke now transcends the sing-a-long and ignites a sense of the rawness of human emotion.
Yes, this work is a portrait of Lennon – part of him being superimposed in the faces of the 25 people involved – but it is much more than that. It is also a portrait of the viewer, the performer, the music appreciator. It is a portrait of England and its inhabitants. It is about a collective experience; a shared sense of humanity and the act of making the every man the every day hero.
You may intend to stay for a few songs and be on your way, but more than likely you will find yourself hooked in for the full 39 minute loop and then some. Leaving early would seem akin to taking the back door halfway through a concert, out staying the entire loop equating to a personal encore.
Working Class Hero (a portrait of John Lennon) is on show at Anna Schwarz Gallery, 245 Wilson Street, Darlington (Carriageworks), until 28 September, 2013.