The Lives of Others
JAMES BENNING HAS SAID that when he first started making films, in the early 1970s, he was “like a folk artist.” Although he later completed an MFA at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, he initially came to his medium with no formal training in art or cinema. What he did have were two degrees in mathematics, an education critics often mention when accounting for the metric rigor of Benning’s celebrated 16-mm films, such as TEN SKIES, 2004, comprising ten ten-minute static takes of the Southern California firmament, and One Way Boogie Woogie, 1977, composed of sixty one-minute shots of industrial landscapes near Milwaukee. Yes, Benning loves rule-based systems—but not, it must be said, for their own sake. His formal precision has never been formalist; it is a way of controlling the variables and sharpening the gaze, of finding freedom in constraint. For some fifty years, Benning has chronicled American hegemony and counterhegemony through an expert manipulation of light and time, giving unconventional shape to histories of settlement, racial violence, land use, and unbelonging. Even as they eschew expressivity, Benning’s films remain intensely personal, inseparable from his whole life and the obsessions that animate it.
His latest work, the multipart PLACE, 2020—which was scheduled to debut at the Berlin gallery neugerriemschneider this past January before the show’s postponement on account of Covid-19—is no exception. Bringing together an eighty-four-minute video, seven paintings, and a letterpress book printed on 1880s equipment and bound using a sewing machine, the piece suggests that Benning’s identification with folk art remains alive. It pays homage to eight artists—seven real and one invented—he admires, none of them professionally trained. The outlier is Yukuwa, a fictional cave painter born in 142 CE in what is now Utah, the lone woman of the octet and the only one of them to have escaped known hardship. Henry Darger, Martín Ramírez, and Joseph Yoakum were all institutionalized at some point; Bill Traylor was born enslaved and, like Jesse Howard and Mose Tolliver, struggled with extreme poverty; Forrest Bess suffered violence, saw visions, and lived out his days alone in a shack on the edge of the Texas coast. These biographies, presented as single-paragraph entries in the book, vary tremendously, but all tell of lives from which the triumphs of the Famous Artist are absent. Together, they articulate an idea of creation as an autodidactic practice, fueled by necessity, inseparable from daily existence, and distant, in the artists’ lifetimes at least, from institutional validation. In the personal pantheon that is PLACE, art is an unalienated activity undertaken for oneself in response to an internal urge. From within a fettered world, it pries open a small space of autonomy.
Benning has called PLACE “a document of a performance for self.” The video component is a result of pilgrimages he made to locations where the eight artists lived and worked, and comprises one static ten-minute take of each site, prefaced only by an address or place name and sequenced in the reverse order of the biographies. In this alternative cartography of American art, we look out over Bess’s bayou; see the modest brick storefront at 1545 East Eighty-Second Street in Chicago where Yoakum lived from 1966 to 1971; and glimpse the petroglyphs of Sego Canyon. Captured decades after the artists’ deaths, the images reveal little of the circumstances of their lives—quite unlike, for instance, the landscapes of Benning’s “California Trilogy,” 1999–2000, which over time encourage the viewer to speculate about the beliefs and priorities that shape the state’s built environment and spur encroachment on its wilderness. The blocks of duration that make up PLACE are records of Benning’s own process of witnessing, traces of time spent in an itinerant act of memorialization undertaken in the absence of any official monuments. The paintings, meanwhile, document another kind of private performance, one that is, like moving-image recording, a matter of mimesis. With remarkable accuracy, Benning copied one artwork by each of the artists (save for the invented Yukuwa): a lettered plywood sign by Howard and an ethereal watercolor by Darger. Just as the video embalms a series of stops on a journey of devotion, so too are the canvases material by-products of something more fundamental to Benning than the art object: the act of close looking and self-directed learning.
Although Benning was dabbling in moving-image installation as early as 1978, it is only in the past fifteen years that he has more thoroughly embraced the gallery context and begun to regularly present work in media other than 16-mm film. It is a common migration these days, but one that is especially notable in his case, given how closely identified he is with a slow, ostensibly minimalist style of filmmaking that depends more than most on the specific perceptual and temporal qualities of the movie theater and, in particular, on the experience of duration it affords. Indeed, when, in his 2017 book, Film and Art After Cinema, Lars Henrik Gass, director of the International Short Film Festival Oberhausen, Germany, sought an example of how cinematic works suffer when imported into the gallery, he turned to Benning. The exhibition visitor would miss the “expansive dramaturgy” typical of his films, Gass argued, lamenting, “The only thing this kind of person would see and understand is that nothing is happening, there is only beautiful emptiness.” Gass was right to warn that many of the artist’s films would be immeasurably diminished if shown for a wandering viewer. In the instance of PLACE, however, the situation is different. The video is, in the artist’s own telling, a remnant of a performative action, just one element of a tripartite work intended from the start as an installation. Even if the long take persists as a favored unit of filmic vocabulary, PLACE exerts no durational demand, making irrefutably clear something that has always been the case, even for TEN SKIES: Any critical reception of Benning dominated by formalist paeans to cinematic specificity and slowness, while not entirely wrong, is woefully insufficient.
What, then, is it that comes to the fore in Benning’s work when duration is set aside? First, that he is a copyist. He began producing facsimiles of work by his cherished folk artists in 2005; some of them hang on the walls of huts that are themselves replicas, copies of the structures where Henry David Thoreau and Theodore Kaczynski (aka the Unabomber) lived in isolation, built by the artist on his land in the High Sierras as the site-specific work Two Cabins, 2007–2008. He has remade his own films and those of others, most prominently in his “52 Films” project, 2015, which includes digital reinterpretations of TEN SKIES and Michael Snow’s Wavelength, 1967, plus more besides. Even Yukuwa is a copy, having made her first appearance in Benning’s Four Corners, 1997, a film of artists’ biographies and location shooting with significant parallels to PLACE.
There is humility in this retreat from ex nihilo creation, but it would be wrong to see Benning’s penchant for reproduction as first and foremost a critique of originality. It is better characterized as a practice of attachment and attunement, a way of doing that makes manifest the artist’s desire to transform himself into a vessel for what most captivates him so that he might more fully comprehend and appreciate it. This posture is equally at play in the formally rigorous observationalism for which he is best known: Benning’s camera copies phenomena he deems worthy of special attention for whatever reason, be it the place of those phenomena in a given history, what they suggest about the relationship between nature and industry, or simply because they strike him as beautiful. In scrubbing his shots of expressivity and extraneity, eliminating camera movement, and devising rules to determine the editing, Benning does something not altogether unlike copying another artist’s work: Both are strategies of what Yve-Alain Bois calls “non-composition,” in that they evince “a programmatic insistence on the non-agency of the artist,” an independence from his subjectivity. Benning abides by set parameters so as to maximally give himself over to the task of honoring what is before him.
A second thread at the heart of PLACE concerns Benning’s long-standing affinity for figures who exist at a distance from establishment norms, and at times even in opposition to them. He champions solitude and independence. There is, of course, a danger in romanticizing the position of the outsider, and a risk in implying that Benning is the spiritual kin of these folk artists, a latter-day inheritor of their ethos. Perhaps, though, this is where it is worth recalling that every act of copying is inextricable from the birth of difference; to assert similarity is not to claim sameness. The life stories recounted in PLACE touch on mental illness, slavery, houselessness, and debilitating injury. Most of them belong to nonwhite artists. All tell of individuals who, while alive, received nothing approaching the recognition that Benning has, even when they sought it out. Rather than shying away from these realities, Benning foregrounds them in the succinct prose of his letterpress book. Avoiding all psychologization—for how could he know how these artists felt?—he dwells in the hard, material facts of existence. In their externality and their bluntness, these texts remind the reader of something important: the distinction between being excluded and excluding oneself.
Erika Balsom is a reader in Film Studies at King’s College London and the author of a book on James Benning’s Ten Skies, 2004, to be published this June by Fireflies Press as part of its Decadent Editions Series.