SALEM — “Will there be a day when I wake up completely hollow and empty?” a child ponders.
In one portion of Candice Breitz’s charged video installation “The Woods,” at the Peabody Essex Museum, six young Indians appear on six screens, each perched on a chair in a hotel room/film set, dropping big thoughts about life and the cinema.
It’s an unlikely line for someone who is only 11 or 12, unless it’s laced with snark, and this kid is blazingly sincere — a professional actor, it turns out, reading a script, in a comic mismatch of performer and text.
In “The Woods,” which the museum co-commissioned with the Australian Centre for the Moving Image in Melbourne, Breitz shrewdly uses that dissonance to highlight the tensions among individual creativity, childhood aspirations, and star power. It starts out funny, and grows into a searing critique of the film industry. If “The Woods” were a fairy tale, the film industry would be the big bad wolf, chewing up unsuspecting children.
The show is part of the Peabody Essex Museum’s FreePort initiative, which invites contemporary artists to investigate cultural change – a rather vague directive, but rooted in the museum’s history as an archive of global exchange.
The woods, in Breitz’s three-part installation, are the three largest producers of cinema: Hollywood, Bollywood in Mumbai, and Nollywood in Lagos, Nigeria.
In Mumbai, for the section titled “The Rehearsal,” she tapped young working film actors. Their script: lines culled from interviews with Bollywood superstar Shah Rukh Khan. Many of the words sound supercilious: “Do I have what it takes to be just me in front of the camera?”
Most of these kids have charisma. When Breitz occasionally pauses the action for six close-ups, they sparkle — too much. It’s impossible to judge their acting; what kid could utter these words convincingly? Their strained, overeager performances are funny, then awkward, then sad.
There are plenty of patently bad actors in “The Audition,” the Hollywood section of “The Woods.” Breitz fills two walls with screens. On one, five vertical screens set up side by side, as in “The Rehearsal,” spotlight individual children as they fidget and wait, or as they recite lines — in this case, coaching advice for child actors penned by industry pros.
The other wall sports a larger screen showing kids auditioning from three vantage points. They sing; they improvise dreadful, meandering speeches, and they mug cloyingly for the camera. Some have talent. Many simply have paper-thin charm that wears quickly.
Breitz lets the camera linger as they work harder and harder to make an impression. It almost seems cruel; certainly, it’s horrifying to watch. What parents, I found myself wondering, would routinely put their kids through this process, probably to suffer a slew of rejections? How powerful is the dream of stardom that it’s worth such humiliation?
The Nollywood section of Breitz’s installation, called “The Interview,” is not as painfully magnetic, because it features professional adult actors instead of children, and they’re talking about their experience, not reading fatuous scripts that rankle against type. Nigerian actors Chinedu Ikedieze and Osita Iheme are little people who have frequently played children.
Ikedieze and Iheme have swagger. They dress in boldly colored suits and hats. On two adjoining screens, they sit on either end of a gaudy sofa and talk about the money they make, about what their success means to them. They get pretty fatuous, too: one says to his fans, “Without you, there would be no me.”
I was taking this all pretty seriously, getting bored with the actors’ truisms, when a gang of kindergarten-age kids came into the gallery. They howled with laughter until the two adults in their party shushed them.
The portrait Breitz constructs of these two is arresting and odd. Visually, they’re gangsters and clowns. They laud Gary Coleman as their guiding light — the “Diff’rent Strokes” star who became the butt of jokes and lived a difficult life.
Like the Indian kids on set in Mumbai, like the kids auditioning in Los Angeles, Ikedieze and Iheme were performing, this time in the context of an interview. And just like those kids, they were overly polished. All these actors were selling themselves, hard, and beneath the veneer, something was cracking.
Auditions, rehearsals, and interviews are all part of the movie-making machinery. Breitz presents them as meta-performance, void of real personality, real feeling. Artifice is everything. This doesn’t represent all the sincere and thoughtful artists who work in the film industry, but it captures the dangerous allure, especially for kids, of being a star. As in Stephen Sondheim’s woods, the chances of living happily ever after are slim.