What does it mean, in the American tradition, to withdraw from society, to purposely exclude oneself from the mainstream of discourse, to enter not merely a room of one's own, but to insert oneself into the landscape, cementing one's isolation from the noisy business of the human sphere through a permanent communion with nature—those very forces that society has aimed to tame and control, rather than embrace?
These are questions that have been hovering just beneath the surface of James Benning's films from the very beginning, and are further sussed out in his latest exhibition and the accompanying catalog, wherein Benning has approached them through the standpoint of a reasoned selection of previous thinkers, writers, artists, even terrorists.
Two Cabins, the work that forms the core of the exhibition, also bears the closest similarity to Benning's earlier endeavors. Dual screens, each consisting of a single prolonged shot, are filmed from the window inside the two cabins. Both cabins are Benning's own work, and yet not: they are precise re-creations of the edifices built and inhabited by writer Henry David Thoreau and Ted Kaczynski (better known as the Unabomber). Seemingly straightforward, the notion of "relic vs. replica" is further complicated once one learns that the sound accompanying each projection—crickets chirping, birds singing, the rustling of foliage—was actually recorded on-site at the physical locations of Thoreau's cabin at Walden Pond and Kaczynski's in the wilds of Montana.
Texts by both authors commence the accompanying publication, Two Cabins, which also features contributions from Benning himself, as well as Julie Ault and Dick Hebdige. Also included are yet more replicas, this time in the form of paintings that Benning has copied from outsider artists he is fond of.
At the root of it all, however, is Benning's steadfast gaze, which, through his work, becomes our own. When pursued with the intensity that Benning demonstrates, his long-term project of looking and listening—also the name of the famous course he teaches at CalArts—ultimately gives way to a politicization of both consciousness and perception.
by Travis Jeppesen
[Image: James Benning, "Two Cabins" (2011), 2-channel HD color/sound video, typewriter, wooden desk and pencils, two pedestals
dimensions variable; installation view neugerriemschneider, Berlin 2012. © James Benning, courtesy neugerriemschneider, Berlin; Photo: Jens Ziehe, Berlin]