Guy Ben-Ner’s household politics

Guy Ben-Ner first achieved prominence on the international stage with his sculpture and video Treebouse Kit (2005), his contribution as Israel’s representative at the 51st Venice Biennale. Sporting a chunky beard that recalls both those of the Orthodox Jewish settlers who were that summer being forcibly displaced from the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, and those of the wild men of myth and legend who live outside civilization and such frivolities as personal hygiene, Ben-Ner set about dismantling a “tree” into its constituent parts: pieces of mass-produced, modular furniture like those from IKEA (it even requires an Allen key to put it together). First encountering the how-to video and its accompanying sculptural installation at the Israeli pavilion, I must admit I was largely unmoved: a man in Bermuda shorts and a big fake beard shows off his easy-to-assemble treehouse–so what? It was only when I had the opportunity to see Ben-Ner’s earlier videos at the Postmasters Gallery in New York, and at the Images Festival and Pleasure Dome in Toronto, did the great wit and whimsy of his project fully come into focus.

Above all else, Ben-Ner is interested in the dynamics of the domestic home and the nuclear family, and of his place as the artist-patriarch within them. His work is also about the limits of the imagination in transforming the strictly defined, constrained symbolic and physical spaces of family and home. With Treebouse Kit, his project expanded to consider the generic, disposable lifestyles sold by IKEA in particular, but capitalism more broadly, as a means of accessorizing the family. It gets to the heart of Ben-Ner’s oeuvre: the emasculating, soul-deadening consumer objects of domestic life are transformed into the building blocks of a concerted but ultimately futile attempt at escape from this same imprisoning domesticity. In his treehouse, in nature, man can forever be young, free and unencumbered, but this idyll is always a narcissistic artifice, a foolhardy attempt at control and dominion.

Ben-Ner’s mock liberations come from self-imposed isolation in the wilderness and his entering into the alternative forms of sociality that tend to manifest in vigorous, “masculine” physical and sexual behaviours. The slapstick comedy of silent-film era–particularly Buster Keaton–or vaudeville is a key touchstone, as are juvenile masturbatory gestures. (One would hesitate to call what Ben-Ner does in some of his videos “sex” in any relational sense, as it is always solitary and more often than not for purposes other than pleasure or procreation–to create glue in desperate circumstances, or to make one’s penis into a singing puppet companion. If Ben-Net is a reluctant family man, we could argue that sex with someone other than himself is what got him into this mess to begin with.)

Perhaps we should begin at the beginning. Before furniture and besides his own body, Ben-Ner’s essential material for his videos are performances by himself, his children and, occasionally, his wife, with anything that he finds around the house used as props and sets. Almost always set within his family abode–through Elia–A Story of an Ostrich Chick (2003) was set in Manhattan’s pastoral Riverside Park, which played the role of the ostriches’ home–he uses everyday detritus to construct elaborate escape fantasies. In Berkeley’s Island (1999)–perhaps the purest distillation of his project, if also his most immature in his own estimation–he manufactured a deserted island of sand and a single fake palm tree in the middle of the tempestuous sea of linoleum covering his kitchen floor. The subject material is appropriately mythic: Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719). The conceit is that Ben-Ner as the castaway–he is always the male protagonist, here an earlier version of the consumer-survivalist in Treehouse Kit–is wholly unaware that he is not, in fact, stranded alone on a sprawling isle, but actually inhabiting that most modern and efficient of all household environments: the kitchen. His boredom is overwhelming, but he cannot see the reams of distractions and conveniences literally just inches away from him–a microwave, a water cooler–or can he ? After all, Crusoe at one point uses the open fridge as a light source, but he does not let on that he knows there might be anything beyond the cruel, endless sea surrounding him. Ben-Ner’s trademark absurdity here originates in the ridiculousness of staging a narrative of deprivation amidst consumer-capitalist plenty. With a house cat portraying a parrot and his young daughter Elia playing nearby (casually sabotaging things by not suspending her disbelief at the way daddy is, even tampering with his video camera and interfering with both his island and his movie), Ben-Ner makes manifest and theatricalizes his dreams of subverting domesticity. However, this flight from the family means that he has only himself to play with, quite literally, as he develops innovative forms of masturbation and shows off his newly acquired stupid penis tricks. (Ben-Ner’s penis played a prominent role in much of his early work, particularly as he ironized the supposedly castrating effects of domesticity on dads.)

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What lends a distinct sense of pathos to the familial angst being purged on-camera is that Ben-Ner’s prisons are only illusory, a form of self-inflicted suffering soaked through with solipsism. This idea is taken to its extreme in the jaw-dropping House Hold (2001), a prisonescape flick marked by a particularly dark, neurotic zeal all the more startling for being expressed so stoically. In it, Ben-Ner’s wife Nava accidentally traps him under his baby son Amir’s crib. Thus fatherhood literally becomes a prison, as the title suggests, and the video dramatizes the fanatical lengths that he goes to to escape his bonds, including biting off his own finger, peeling off a toenail, plucking armpit hair and stealing a carrot from his son, all in order to fashion multi-purpose tools of survival. Of course, all this would be thoroughly unnecessary were he simply to lift off the crib or call for the assistance of his nearby spouse, but he is incapable of effective communication (a much trafficked-in male stereotype, though his prelinguistic state and his crafting of rudimentary new technologies suggest he is man in a prehistoric state). His children, meanwhile, remain oblivious, playing within arm’s length but blissfully unaware of both his absence from day-to-day life and his distress–or maybe just unwilling to help. The humour here is exaggerated by the minimal set: the spectators see an easy escape for Ben-Ner, and not only does he remain ignorant of it, but his plans of action are always infinitely more Byzantine and outlandish than necessary. Though more about duration and the legacy of body art–another key influence is Bruce Nauman–than its predecessor Berkeley’s Island, in both videos Ben-Ner’s confining cell is of his own making, forcing him to direct his attentions inward with hilariously self-absorptive consequences.

When he is not fenced in or cut off from others around him as in Berkeley’s Island, House Hold and Treebouse Kit, Ben-Ner has involved his family in increasingly elaborate, even convoluted, dramas that finesse his recurring interest in civilization and savagery with themes of pedagogy, parenting and power. These began with the slapstick and sight-gag-heavy, silent-film era comedy pastiche Moby Dick (2000), which saw the artist use the kitchen once more as the set for a ruthlessly abridged version of Melville’s classic tome. Portraying an assortment of seamen, including both Ishmael and Ahab, Ben-Ner shares the spotlight with his energetic daughter Elia, who also fulfills multiple roles, including a bartender and deck-boy Pip. Beyond the irony of having a little girl inhabit a man’s world of adventure and hard living on the high seas, the tape is marked by Ben-Ner being on the receiving end of a barrage of exaggerated, often punishing pratfalls, both of his own devising and at the hands of Elia. While Ben-Ner has claimed that these masochistic scenes of comic comeuppance are in fact to punish him for exploiting his children for his art, this is the tape where the child is clearly having the most fun, no doubt because of the harm she is permitted to unleash on her hapless pap.

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Elia–A Story of an Ostrich Chick and Wild Boy (2004) both cast Ben-Ner’s children as hybrid concoctions lost halfway between untamed and civilized, both animal and human at once. These tapes burlesque how fathers often feel alienated from the monstrous new sucklings–not just of the mother’s milk, but of her attention–in their lives. Elia sees the entire family donning delightful but by no means disbelief-suspending ostrich costumes and wandering around the park–a highly managed piece of nature, in drag as “the wild” as much as Ben-Ner’s kitchen could be–and performing as if for a nature documentary on ostriches, with Elia the focus as the eldest chick. Ben-Ner has talked about how he tries to resolve all the tensions of the family unit in his fictions. Languidly paced and plotted, Elia seems the best example of this, as our young heroine is jealous of her baby brother becoming the new focus of her parents’ concern. Part of Ben-Ner’s motivation for choosing for his family to become ostriches was that the male of the species is very nurturing and maternal, a “male mother” whom the children must imitate when learning to fend for themselves in a hostile world. However, because their elaborate ostrich costumes are worn backwards and the footage of their peregrinations reversed, it is the unpredictable children whom Ben-Ner was forced to copy during the shoot, rather than vice-versa. This gambit suggests that the Ben-Ners’ entire domestic movie studio in fact reverses the flow of power in the household, putting the unmindful and impulsive young in charge. Like the protagonists her father had played, Elia at one point ends up lost, desperate and alone, separated from her family. In the happy final reunion, Ben-Ner’s male-mother character is left out; he is sleeping as usual, a grumpy, flea-bitten and clownish leader.

Ben-Ner has described Wild Boy as a reversal of Berkeley’s Island, for here nature is stranded in culture and not the other way around. Similarly, critic Sergio Edelsztein pointed out that the figures of Crusoe and the feral child mirror one another. Wild Boy is deeply indebted to Francois Truffaut’s glorious 1970 feature The Wild Child, in which the director starred as a doctor who must civilize a savage young boy who has evolved completely outside of society. (Parallels have been drawn between Truffaut’s film and how he essentially raised his young star Jean-Pierre Leaud, with whom he worked from The 400 Blows in 1959 through to 1979’s Love on the Run.) Ben-Ner has gone so far as to say that he and his son Amir are not performing scientist and feral foundling but director and actor, and indeed the tape is fundamentally about how to physically keep a rambunctious little boy within a static camera frame without resorting to sedation. Ben-Ner’s son gets his first starring role here, subjected to Ben-Ner’s intense scrutiny and rigorous training after he is captured in the forest. Unlike the other videos, here Ben-Ner embodies civilization and authority, and the role of the fish out of water he so often portrayed himself has been passed on to his male heir, whose non-verbal character he christens Buster. The physical comedy is also taken to new heights through the tape’s pedagogical structure, as man teaches boy to wash and dress, and how to write, read and speak through mimicry and mirroring. The Ben-Ner house once again stands in for the characters’ “home”: the boy’s wilderness, for example, is an expansive set with hill, pond, branches, burrow and animals. Of course, the greatest joke of all is that a child Amir’s age is difficult to pin down as either wild or civilized in the first place, and Ben-Ner’s ministrations are arguably just more theatrical exaggerations of those that all parents must go through to “train” their children to become part of human society (knowing how to stay still to be recorded is just one small but increasingly important part of this training, similar to getting a haircut and learning to speak your mother tongue).

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Bookended by Berkeley’s Island and Wild Boy, this span of Ben-Ner’s oeuvre can be seen as staging different forms of regression through the performative language of children’s make-believe, whether revisiting a less advanced state of civilization or by becoming an animal. By contrast, for the 2007 Skulptur Projekte Munster, Ben-Ner built three stationary bicycles that required viewers’ active participation through pedalling to keep the video that faced them on the handlebars moving forward. q-he video shows Ben-Ner and his two children cobbling together a bicycle from parts appropriated from various modern sculptures, such as Marcel Duchamp’s Bicycle Wheel (1913) and Pablo Picasso’s Head of a Bull (1942). They then bike around the city of Munster in an homage to Rodney Graham’s already reference-heavy yet utterly enthralling Phonokinecoscope (2001), a film and LP contraption featuring the artist biking around Berlin’s Tiergarten after dropping acid. I’d give it to you if I could, but I borrowed it seems like a light, tangential work that generally puts aside Ben-Ner’s typical concerns to engage almost exclusively with the signs of modern and contemporary art itself–but to what end?

More satisfying is Ben-Ner’s latest video, Stealing Beauty (2007), which takes Treehouse Kit’s modular furniture playset to another level of critical complexity and conceptual brilliance. Ben-Net’s ambitious attempt at creating a mock television sitcom starring his family, it is a clever rumination on property, theft and domestic roles. The catch is that all the sets are IKEA showrooms, in three different countries, and the family did not ask for permission before filming with covertly placed cameras. Shoppers wander into the sets without realizing that the Ben-Ners are performing and price tags hang all around. The shooting stopped whenever the family was ejected, but they simply continued the scene where they left off at another IKEA location. This makes the rudimentary “drama” continuous while the settings are not, as numerous rooms in numerous I KEAS over numerous days pass by-like a catalogue pages-thereby subtly underlining the big-box retailer’s ubiquity and the standardization of its products. Wordier than the earlier videos, Stealing Beauty becomes a full-on theoretical treatise on the economics of the family unit, with Max’s masturbation a metaphor for monetary waste, for example. If at IKEA, private spaces become public to entice consumers, Stealing Beauty’s guerrilla domesticity steals them back–only to make them platforms for delivering highly theatrical political rhetoric.

Stealing Beauty seems to herald an exhilarating new chapter in Ben-Ner’s career. He has taken the family outside and found that the market has produced its own imaginary domestic spaces that are as loaded with absurdities and psychodrama as anything he could create in his own home showroom. In IKEA and all that it represents, Ben-Ner has a worthy foil: a capitalism that promises to patch up with assembly-line efficiency and style all of the tensions and frustrations of home life that he so effectively exorcised. What better place for Ben-Ner to make a mess?

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