Candice Breitz has an almost insurmountable faith in her subjects. “Sometimes it’s as simple as being willing to treat somebody as an interesting subject,” says the South African-born, Berlin-based video artist. “It’s as simple as saying to someone, ‘I’m interested enough in you to spend six hours listening to you natter’…

“Given the space, everybody has a story to tell; everybody has something that is interesting to listen to.”

Breitz is chatting about The Character, her major survey exhibition at ACMI, which closes on March 11. Tracing Breitz’s oeuvre from 2003 until 2012, the show takes notions of identity and its multiplicity as its nub, bringing together Breitz’s incursions into the backrooms of the entertainment industry, pastiches and appropriations of cinematic devices, modes and her unique take on portraiture into a melange of moving images and video installations that investigate fluid notions of self.

“I’ve always had an interest in thinking about the portrait’s place in a kind of classical, humanist way, as an expression an internal…platform that captures a variety of things as they …are mediated through somebody who thinks of themselves as a self,” says Breitz, who wrote a thesis on late Warholian portraiture as part of her previous studies in art history.

“I think it’s still there and particularly strong in a work like The Character.”

The work in question – a 2011 video which draws upon interviews with 15 school students in Mumbai, tracing their thoughts and opinions of the story and lead character of recent films – shifts the focus from the unidentified films to the children themselves, their responses offering an elucidating vantage upon their own personal character traits, value systems and subjectivities.

Much of Breitz’s work sidles such complications. Earlier video installation, Becoming (2003), pairs scenes from Hollywood romantic comedies (Pretty Woman, You’ve Got Mail and Legally Blonde included) with Breitz’s own mimed renditions, teasing out notions of appropriation, cultural influence and the extent to which we play an active role in shaping and performing our own composition of self. Him + Her (2008), meanwhile, montages snippets, catchphrases and gestures – cut from their backgrounds and isolated from context – from the film careers of Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep. We’re left with a cache of the actors’ devices, tools and expressions, set free from the bounds of narrative. “I call it his inescapable ‘Jackness’,” laughs Breitz of Nicholson. “Regardless of the character, that ‘Jackness’ seeps through, whereas Meryl is very much about scrubbing the ‘Merylness’ off and replacing it.”

Breitz approaches a similar set of tensions in a major new work in three parts dubbed The Woods (2012), which delves behind-the-scenes of the Nollywood (Nigeria), Bollywood and Hollywood film industries to capture an interview, a rehearsal and an auditioning session in the respective industries, making explicit each of their mechanisms and artifices in the process. “I wanted each of the pieces to take a show business ritual as the setting and…explore different moments in the trajectory of an acting career,” explains Breitz, who captures a pair of adult Nollywood stars (who play children’s roles), successful Bollywood child actors and aspiring child actors in Hollywood. It’s amusing and chilling all at once.

Perhaps Brietz’s most celebrated body of work is 2010 series Factum, which saw the artist study and film sets of identical twins from Toronto and Edmonton, Canada. Interviewing each twin alone in great depth, Breitz shows each video transcript beside one another as a twin-channel work, which dominates the main space. It makes for an intimate, incredibly moving exploration of assumptions, shared identity and the acute need to carve out one’s own niche.

“To me, that piece isn’t about twins so much as it is about the way that twins highlight or exaggerate a set of experiences that we’re all constantly having in relation to others,” explains Breitz, who frames her interest in notions of identity in terms of “inter-subjectivity”.

“It feels to me that we are who we are in the space between ourselves and others; in the distance or proximity that we feel to our parents; in the degree to which we hope to emulate or distance ourselves from our parents and our siblings and our school teachers and our hockey mates and our colleagues at work; in that space where we, consciously or not, assess that proximity…

“Working with twins was a very beautiful way to do it because they’re so conscious of that space,” she offers. “For them there are no illusions. It’s not like, ‘This is me, this is where my borders are, that’s the world’. I think it’s impossible for them to have that sort of delusion because they’re so used to experiencing themselves in relation to another person.”

Candice Breitz: The Character runs until March 11 at ACMI, Federation Square.

acmi.net.au