The artist and filmmaker James Benning’s latest exhibition, “Found Fragments,” at Galerie neugerriemschneider, Berlin, inter connects multiple socio-political narratives and their relationship to national accountability. He has depicted this complex thematic web through paintings, sculpture, and found objects (like an aluminum fragment from a crashed B-52 found on the shore at HuuTiep Lake).
Also on view are two film triptychs, one of which juxtaposes the struggles of the Navajo people driven from their land by the US Army in the 1860s; the ‘Christmas bombings’ of Hanoi during the Vietnam War; and burnt timber from the 2016 wildfire that ravaged the mountains near the artist’s home, foretold by years of drought and the intensification of global warning. Titled “Found Fragments (scorched earth, Ash 01, RED CLOUD),” this three-channel piece “speaks loudly to how we are all implicated” in the havoc of today’s America, Benning said.
Although he started working on the project in the spring of 2016, Benning said the genesis for “Found Fragments” began after 9/11. Fifteen years ago,“Many were saying the world had changed. I expected this from CNN, NBC, CBS, ABC, and FOX, but I was a bit surprised when many of my friends were saying something similar,” he said, countering: “Nothing changed! It’s just come back to bite us all in the ass.”
The critic and theorist Dick Hebdige has described his friend Benning’s work as a “historical echo chamber.” “We think of time as linear with a future, present and past like a film projector. But there is a problem with this model,” Benning said. “The present is a point dividing the future from the past.”
This perspective informs his sense of pace and his approach to representation. “I am very interested in narrative, but not in any traditional sense. I’m most interested in defining problems and then finding solutions. I take my lead from mathematics”— a subject in which Benning got a master’s degree —“where the most elegant solutions are the simple ones.”
Rising to prominence in the late 1970s, Benning whose,work is also included in the current “Outliers and American Vanguard Art” exhibition at the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. (through May 13) — has produced around 25 difficult-to-categorize films in his 40-year career. (A 2015 New York Times article described his work as “formally lean and austerely poetic.”) His durational frames often use the landscape as a means by which to explore themes of natural conservation, racial marginalization, and political destruction. As Benning once told Artforum, his films are “not about consuming more; they’re about seeing and hearing more of what’s already around you.” Patience is a key characteristic of his work.
Benning credits the development of this skill to growing up in the 1950s and the liberty his parents gave him: “Early adventures made me a good observer.” It also helped him counter bouts of extreme anxiety in his late twenties, funnelling dedication and focus. “Looking and Listening,” a field-based class he taught for several decades at California Institute of the Arts (as well as in Europe, Asia and Latin-America), instructed students in the art of paying attention. Despite seeming antithetical to today’s rampant distractibility, Benning recounted a constructive engagement with students: “I accompany them on trips where we practice paying attention. I don’t tell them anything. I just do what I do, and they seem to be challenged by it,” he said.
His work also deals with a more transversal predicament: “How does class affect the way this work is seen? Or any art is seen?” It’s something he’s been wrestling with as far back as his own roots, and he regularly asks viewers to re-evaluate themselves, “feeling your loss of privilege, or being embarrassed by it.” As he puts it: “Class is the key to everything. Class cuts across gender, race, sexual orientation, and nationality. Understand class, and most problems could be solved.”
Born in 1942 in Wisconsin, Benning grew up in a white working-class neighborhood adjacent to Milwaukee’s black ghetto. He was surrounded by what he now sees as “an institutional racism that was fueled by government and labor,” despite an allegedly progressive context (Socialist mayor, unions-led strikes). He bought a film camera in 1968 while living in Springfield, Missouri, doing community organizing in poor neighborhoods. In 1970, he taught math at a junior college in upstate New York, before being fired for organizing protests against the Vietnam War. He transitioned to film and received an MFA in 1975. He has always been engaged in addressing the systemic oppression and exclusionary prejudice he has witnessed in American society. He does not shy away from calling himself obsessive, and cites obsessive artists as extremely influential —“so-called outsiders” like Henry Darger, Jesse Howard, Martín Ramírez, Mose Tolliver, Bill Traylor and Joseph Yoakum. Emily Dickinson has been an influence since his high school days.
In a 2013 interview via the British Film Institute, which helped archive his early body of work, Benning stated: “I experimented, not in the sense of ‘experimental films’ but real experimentation: what can a camera do with this lens?” The artist, who switched from film to digital video cameras, stated in the same interview: “The equipment can take you in either direction — to the total abstracting of the image or towards a much closer reality.” He is not precious about the creative possibilities of maneuvering images: “It’s silly to talk about ‘complete reality.’ It’s always your point of view what you leave out and where you point the camera.”
Today, Benning lives and works in the Sequoia National Forest in Val Verde, California, without phone reception. His work remains tethered to the American landscape, something he has always gravitated to, barring a period of living in Tribeca in New York in the ‘80s, where he “saw the ugliness of gentrification and art world greed.”
He infamously built two smaller cabins on his surrounding land, one modeled after Henry David Thoreau’s, the other after Ted Kaczynski’s, which jointly became the artwork “Two Cabins.” The structures reflect polar depictions of social isolation. Throughout, the themes in Benning’s creations are rousing ones, but there is no overt activism underpinning his practice, he insists. “At this point, my life and work are the same,” he said. “I make the work for myself, to help better understand the world I live in. My work is very obsessive. And through obsession I hope to become a better person.” Still, he also hopes it might spark something in viewers: “Perhaps others will question who they are. We all have that responsibility.”
— This article appears in the March 2018 edition of Modern Painters