Article Number: 6327
Soft Cover, English, Staple Binding, 8 Pages, 2014
Peter Pakesch

James Benning - Decoding Fear

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Dieser Text erschien anlaesslich der Ausstellung "James Benning - Decoding Fear".

With James Benning. Decoding Fear, the Kunsthaus Graz continues its involvement with moving images in space. Remarkable positions on this theme have already been presented a number of times in such exhibitions as Videodreams (2004), Diana Thater. gorillagorillagorilla (2009) or Screening Real. Conner Lockhart Warhol (2009/10). In an exhibition curated by Peter Pakesch, the link is now made between James Benning’s filmic work – already very well known in Austria – and other artistic aspects of his creative output.

The film maker James Benning (born 1942 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, lives in Val Verde, California) is a careful observer. His films, which track the extraordinary in daily life using long shots, are marked by precision and calm, offering views of (American) modes of life, landscapes, as well as natural and human phenomena. James Benning’s role is that of eye-witness. His observations would seem almost documentary-like, were it not for the mathematical precision that becomes clear when we examine his films. The image detail – mostly from a central perspective – is always perfectly balanced, the play between image and sound track is exact, the motive captured at the right moment by the camera. Benning’s perspective panoramas, which in their structure seem indebted to a painting tradition, are only broken by moving objects which lend the film a third dimension: a train which drives in and out again of the image (RR, 2007, BNSF, 2013), a female rider galloping firstly behind, then in front of the camera, jumping down from the horse the next instant in order to tie down a goat (El Valley Centro, 1999, from California Trilogy), a gardener who moves his lawn mower towards and then away from the camera (Los, 2000, from California Trilogy), or clouds which float gently through the static photograph of a hut in the middle of a wooded landscape (Stemple Pass, 2013). The staging is perfect precisely on account of these seemingly chance movements, and also due to Benning’s ability to wait for just the right moment, this an elemental condition for the indisputable poetry residing within his films.

James Benning harbours a guarded enthusiasm for technology; before becoming an artist, he studied mathematics, an influence on his thinking to the present day. Hence it would miss the mark entirely to reduce him to the filming of poetic landscapes. Benning’s fascination with nature is not limited to its primitiveness; rather it is human intervention that makes landscape

pictures especially interesting for him. Criticism of the practices of the information society can be heard here, likewise the involvement with myths which show themselves not least of all in figures from recent American history. Specifically, there are two ‘dropouts’ who form the starting point for Benning’s projects, Two Cabins (2011) and Stemple Pass (2012): the writer and philosopher Henry David Thoreau (1817–1862) and the mathematician Theodor Kaczynski, known between 1976 and 1998 as the ‘Unabomber’. As different as the philosophies and outlooks on life of these two may seem at first glance, certain commonalities are also apparent, which are not confined to a (in the case of Thoreau more or less) withdrawn life lived in simple, isolated and self-constructed huts in woods.

Thoreau’s call for civil disobedience is linked to his own person in a non-violent, exclusive manner, yet his criticism of technological developments and their consequences, his reformist ideas and concomitant life as a recluse (at least sporadically) was a clear model for the bomb planter Kaczynski, who according to a biography of mental resistance had made a point of putting a stop to technological progress through targeted acts of terror and the attention thereby gained for his manifesto. And once again James Benning seems to have taken on an observing role: he reflects the attitudes of protagonists, literally adopting their perspectives (i.e. the perspectives from the windows of both huts), without thereby casting judgement or taking a clear stance. Interwoven with a wide variety of objects, replicas and picturesque or typographical reproductions – which Benning has copied meticulously from models found in the Kaczynski hut – the overview of films, objects and installations offers a story which is presented in juxtaposed pairs and can similarly be read ambivalently.
On another level the omnipresent networking of new technologies, more and more taking place in our unconscious, producing unstoppable glass humans and revealing a flood of information about ourselves to intelligence agencies as much as to industry, experiences a metaphorical analogy in the form of Benning’s railway trains, which, as Thoreau correctly depicted, were the first to render the world controllable in a physically synchronised way, and thus space and time, too, in a manner unprecedented at the time.
All in all the exhibition shows the importance of this director’s themes, his work so seemingly timeless, for our life today, shaped as it is by technical possibilities both positive and negative. Finally, its thematic trajectory reaches two other exhibitions of the Universal Joanneum: Matheliebe (Love of Maths) at the Natural History Museum makes mathematics, which plays a central role in Benning’s work, tangible to the senses by means of examples from nature and daily life. The second link extends to Schloss Trautenfels, where a varied course will be on show in 2014, presenting the woods as an inspiration for art and culture, as well as in its function as a creator of myths, and more besides.

Language: English