Shaping Grand Cultural Narratives: Guy Ben-Ner
Guy Ben-Ner and Francesco Tenaglia in conversation
In this exchange, Israeli artist Guy Ben-Ner reveals narratives and scenarios behind his video works. For his recent show at Sadie Coles HQ, London, he presented a series of films—Berkeley’s Island (1999), Moby Dick (2000), and Soundtrack (2013)—where his singular style of filmmaking and the absurdist mode of his storytelling collapsed into domestic follies, reflecting the role of solitude and isolation as a “mental state, but also as an allegory for the practice of an independent filmmaker as a bricoleur.”
FRANCESCO TENAGLIA: The video works you showed at your latest presentation at Sadie Coles HQ, London, may suggest the childlike, playful make-believe mise-en-scène that younger kids adopt while playing—a form of absurdist avant-garde theater—or may recall the economy of means and the early, dreamlike quality conveyed (because of budget limitations) in early commercial broadcasting. What are the components that interest you in (or have motivated you to adopt) this methodology?
GUY BEN-NER: Both—he who has budget limitations and the playing child—have to be content with make-believe. So the two were in perfect harmony for me at the time. The other component you mentioned, avant-garde theater—I would think maybe of Bertolt Brecht—is related to the childish ideology of he who has budget limitations, the exposure of the means of production. That also played a part for me, as well as the fact that children play, not act. To get them involved demanded a certain type of economy of means, one that tries to encourage their imagination by cheap fabrications rather than fulfill their fantasies by perfect imitations.
FT: What are the methods that lead you to select the preexisting narratives (novels, films, Moby Dick, Robinson Crusoe, et al.) from which you build your video works?
GBN: The anxiety of a video artist is that viewers always enter his movies in the middle. (The film director’s anxiety is that viewers might leave in the middle). Preexisting narratives, known to everyone, allow the viewer to enter in medias res and still know what it is all about. The second reason was my interest in the way grand cultural narratives enter the “private” family domain and shape it (the way, for example, the Oedipus complex, as a fabricated story, enters and structures our private lives). So I was trying to tell my own story through well-known narratives. For example, sea adventures usually begin with the protagonist leaving home—enacting them allowed me to express this wish to children under the fictive disguise. The same could be done with a Hollywood Steven Spielberg film, which usually projects little family dramas on a large-scale catastrophe.
FT: Some critics have talked about your work—because of the containment of the film set, the very limited supporting cast, but also stories like Robinson Crusoe or Moby Dick—in terms of interest in the condition of solitude. Do you subscribe to this reading? If so, could you tell our readers what you find interesting about isolation?
GBN: Isolation, as an idea, could generate different meanings at different times and in different contexts. Sometimes the island would be the political island of my home country, engaged in fortifying itself against the outside, blocking communication; and other times, it would suggest the illusion of an origin, of starting from nothing. Solitude could be a mental state, but for me, it could also be an allegory for the practice of independent filmmaking, of a filmmaker as a bricoleur, of making use of whatever the island can supply you with. I usually start with reality, with what is at hand, and not with the fantasy that would demand to create a new reality for its realization. I begin with what I have, rather than with what I would want to have. As far as I am concerned, that’s the only way to work with a medium that is supposed to give an alternative to industrial filmmaking, rather than try to compete with it.
FT: Soundtrack (2013) brings into play, through a reversal of the relationship between soundtrack and cinematographic images, an alienating narrative mechanism. Your work contrasts the big-budget, grandiose fear of the invasion of the “other” with a modest, almost artisanal production and relates the family dynamics of the protagonist of The War of the Worlds—played by Tom Cruise—with the fact that you often involve your family in productions. How, if at all, do you want to tackle the elements of the threat and the family?
GBN: The War of the Worlds (2005) by Steven Spielberg has a history. The 1897 novel by H. G. Wells lacks any mention of a family structure, which means the protagonist is by himself. But the American movie adaptation changed all that, as if the family unit was needed to create the motivation for telling the story. So, in Spielberg’s film, the dysfunctional father is reflected by the chaos created by the Martian invaders, and it is only when, towards the end, he becomes a functioning dad that the world can be saved and the invaders beaten. It’s a psychological projection, which sees everything as resulting from the family romance. I myself was aiming at the Marxist projection, in which the family unit is invaded by the outside—in other words, the family is a construct of the economy rather than its origin. Another important reference was Orson Welles’s radio drama adaptation of The War of the Worlds (1938). It is a perfect illustration of the fact that the cheapest production value could have the greatest effect, in reality. Sometimes you need so little to cause people to flee in panic.