Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Guy Ben-Ner at the MCA and beyond

stills from Guy Ben-Ner's video, "Stealing Beauty" (2007)
The Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art’s exhibition Homebodies closes on October 13th, and with it a chance to see curator Naomi Beckwith’s multifaceted and thoroughly engaging look at the concept of “home” through the work of more than 30 artists from six continents. If you haven't seen it yet, go.

The show features some important early feminist works addressing domesticity (including Martha Rosler’s deadpan “Semiotics of the Kitchen” and Mierle Laderman Ukeles’ “Washing/Tracks/Maintenance”), but given its thematic focus you'll find it surprisingly hard to find any work in Homebodies that references child-rearing. The void of parenthood exists even here, in part a reminder that while the tension between women’s domestic roles and art careers may have diffused some since the 1970s, it still impacts the kinds of work we make.

The two works in the show that do address parenting by the artists themselves are both by dads: a group of playful interactive installations by Alberto Aguilar (interviewed for Cultural ReProducers here), and Israeli artist Guy Ben-Ner’s video, 'Stealing Beauty,' which I’d been wanting to see for a long time.

Guy Ben-Ner became a father while he was still an art student, an event that profoundly
still from House Hold (2001)
impacted his life and his art practice. In an unpublished interview with artist Boaz Arad, he said “I had to choose between being a bad father away from home a lot, and being a good father, staying at home and making concessions. To work at home is a type of compromise.”  His feelings about these compromises are clearly mixed, as evidenced by work like 'House Hold' (2001), in which Ben-Ner films himself trapped under a crib by his kids. Nonetheless his family has become an integral part of his work, their presence adding complexity and humor to his explorations of exile, property, and private versus public space.

In 'Stealing Beauty' (2007), currently on view as part of the Homebodies exhibition, the artist and his family take over the display rooms of an IKEA store as the stage set for their own awkward anarchist sitcom. Filmed with hidden cameras and without permission, the fictionalized family in Stealing Beauty argues issues of ownership, inheritance and authority around stylish dining room tables and living room couches with the price tags dangling and shoppers browsing around them. After a series of scenes in which Ben-Ner’s capitalist patriarch is challenged by his family, the son and daughter deliver an earnest manifesto, urging viewers to steal both public and private property.

It’s hard to imagine a similar project being undertaken with anyone but the artist’s own family. For one thing, how would you negotiate such a project with anyone else’s kids? The presence of children here adds charm and also an edge of discomfort. What do the children make of all this? How do they feel about participating in such a public spectacle? It's worth noting that a woman artist making similar work would probably be criticized for being a delinquent mother.

Ben-Ner is now divorced (a process also documented in his work) and has a third child with his current partner. His recent video 'Soundtrack,' which recently screened at Chicago’s Aspect Ratio, features his toddler gleefully responding to fire, broken dishware, and other domestic disasters created in tandem with the opening soundtrack of the film "the War of the Roses." The work also includes great performances by his older two kids, now both in their teens. They all seem to be having an awful lot of fun. In a complicated sort of way, Guy Ben-Ner’s work demonstrates that while there are plenty of risks and challenges, making art while parenting can be a satisfying and fruitful endeavor.

excerpts from Guy Ben-Ner's "Stealing Beauty"

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