CURA.

WILL BENEDICT
Time Outside
Text
by Tenzing Barshee & Camila McHugh

CURA. 33

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Television, from the surface on down, is about desire. Fictionally speaking, desire is the sugar in human food.
—David Foster Wallace

Seduction may be baneful, even tragic, but the seducer at his work is essentially comic.
—Elizabeth Hardwick

Tasked to report on the works of artist Will Benedict, who grew up in Los Angeles and now lives in Paris, our writers spend their first days of the decade driving down and around Sunset Boulevard. John Baldessari dies and the Golden Globes are on. They’re looking for bits of Benedict, binge-watching his videos. It’s all sex and TV.

There is nothing disgusting about Degrees of Disgust (2019). But it does leave a saccharine taste in your mouth.

A fierce and sexy woman ladles and delivers food. She contorts around the kitchen in catwomanesque latex while a Jia Tolentino excerpt describing a loop of never-satisfied efficiency and optimization dips in and out like a slyly incongruous narrator. Pink Floyd croons in the background: “You are young and life is long and there is time to kill today.” The relationship between Tolentino’s take on contemporary female malaise and the video’s salacious images is hard to parse. Is this Dominatrix UberEats driver scenario a dystopic take down of a system that leads women to organize their lives around “practices they find ridiculous and possibly even indefensible?” (Jia Tolentino, Trick Mirror). Do moral questions come out in the remix? Or are they stuck inside the fantasies of boys lining up for Jia Tolentino’s latest book launch?

McMenamy straddles a motorcycle and speeds into the night, prostrates herself on the hood of a totaled car with bloody passengers in tow: the confrontation grows increasingly absurd. A convoluted fever dream comfortably constrained by the visual vocabulary available to the empowered woman. A wet dream in videogamelandia of a straight white sort of masochist feminist dude. Atonement for privileged self-loathing and fulfillment of generic male gazey desire—best of both worlds? Or a cynical scoff at the commercialization of any self-emancipation enterprise?

Benedict is self-effacing, performs the puppeteer as he props the Other up center stage. Men Were A Mistake (2018) concludes with Phil Up, the artist Philipp Timischl in drag, strapped and suspended in a harness, miming a somnambulant skydive as the windows of a high-rise scroll behind her. Moments before, the video observes Phil Up in a control center where she watches, or perhaps directs, the demolition of power plants which have been animated with cartoonish expressions and Mickey Mouse arms that flail as they tumble. After receiving a distressing phone call, she paces the room before lying herself down in a writhing, burlesque performance. Again, our subject is prostrate and overtly sexualized. Is she reveling in the space she takes up as old power structures crumble, poking fun at the old guard who fear their imminent toppling? Or playing out a minority marionette fantasy, pointing to the limited—inevitably seductive—vocabulary for her empowerment.

Where does Will Benedict stand in all of this? Is seduction key? A confession takes place: the artist concedes his stake in the temptation game, outs himself as both seducer and seduced. “The word seduction indicates effort of a persevering thoughtful sort,” writes Elizabeth Hardwick in her seminal 1974 essay Seduction and Betrayal. “The seducer as a type, or as an archetype hardly touches upon any of our deep feelings unless there is some exaggeration in him, something complicated and entangled and mysteriously compelling about a nature that has come to define itself through the mere fact of sex.” Benedict channels the overtly sexual to allude to seduction in its more covert incarnation: vulnerability. By exposing the ambivalence of his own position, he masquerades his personal experience of vulnerability. He goes on to use this posture to exploit and mock seductive content, as well as mass media representation of the empowered Other.

Let’s talk about the Trojan horse of blatant and covert seduction. Let’s talk about TV! Will Benedict has described his own practice as watching TV and making TV. He begins his days absorbing a slew of news shows, immersed in a steady barrage of images. Taking TV as a starting point also locates Benedict in a lineage of artists who have turned to television’s form and sway to tell us about some kinds of human experience.

“If we want to know what American normality is—what Americans want to regard as normal,” David Foster Wallace asked and answered in an interview in The Review of Contemporary Fiction in 1993: “We can trust television.” In the late writerʼs view, TV’s main purpose is to reflect what its audience wants to see. It functions like “the overlit bathroom mirror before which the teenager monitors his biceps and determines his better profile… what we as Americans want to see ourselves as.” Wallace was also addicted to TV and couldn’t allow himself to own one as the lure of something always better a remote click away—the screen’s entrancing promise—was too enticing. Like “all relationships based on seduction,” Wallace described the TV-viewer relationship as “essentially puerile and dependent.”

Will Benedict came of age in 1990s Los Angeles and his career-as-artist took off (mainly in Europe) with the new millennium. It was the years in which traditional television programs drowned in a sea of reality TV. After its demise, the medium reemerged in its current version of incessant, online streamable content. Media and technology companies designed to anticipate and manipulate their viewers’ basic desires took the place of TV producers and distributors. At its core, the complex relationship between TV and its audience surely still is, however, like Wallace put it, “albeit debased, intricate and profound.”

For Benedict, TV stands—like food—for the codependent and never satisfied dynamic between desire and consumption in contemporary culture. It is a locus to consider reliance on constant gratification and temporary relief where the artist identifies as both viewer and producer, user and provider, junkie and dealer... and so on, trapped ad infinitum in a symbiotic dead end.

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Portrait by Jake Wotherspoon Courtesy: the artists 
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Men Were a Mistake w/ Phil Up My Drag Queen, 2018 Photo: Rui Wu Courtesy: the artist 
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Men Were a Mistake w/ Phil Up My Drag Queen, 2018 Photo: Rui Wu Courtesy: the artist 
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Balenciaga Summer 20 Campaign, 2020, Courtesy: the artist and Balenciaga 
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Balenciaga Summer 20 Campaign, 2020, Courtesy: the artist and Balenciaga 
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Balenciaga Summer 20 Campaign, 2020, Courtesy: the artist and Balenciaga 
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Balenciaga Summer 20 Campaign, 2020, Courtesy: the artist and Balenciaga 
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Degrees of Disgust, 2019 Photo: Reto Schmid Courtesy: the artist, Centre d’Art Contemporain, Genève and Unemployed Magazine 
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Degrees of Disgust, 2019 Photo: Reto Schmid Courtesy: the artist, Centre d’Art Contemporain, Genève and Unemployed Magazine 
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Degrees of Disgust, 2019 Photo: Reto Schmid Courtesy: the artist, Centre d’Art Contemporain, Genève and Unemployed Magazine 

Where David Foster Wallace sought to counter the way TV rewards passive spectatorship in his own work, constructing narratives with mounting interpolations the reader has to work to piece together, Benedict is interested in the taboo of manipulating the audience. This intention to influence stands as a mainstream alternative to a cult of authenticity paramount in our circles. He too splices, but it’s slick, it goes down smooth, and then makes you feel a little sick. He manages to recreate that familiar experience of sedated spectatorship, but makes space for a suspicion that something else might be at stake. Again, morality is Will Benedict’s calvary, he puts it plainly—“Moral reckoning to that process of consuming and defecating. The ethical issues that have been put in the blender have to get reconstituted.”

 “Television,” concedes Wallace, “looks to be an absolute godsend for a human subspecies that loves to watch people but hates to be watched itself.” It is precisely that narrative, the stylization of societal isolation, eternal entrapment, which is a recurrent motif in Benedict’s works. In 2014, the curator Martin Clark relates the glass boxes in which the artist usually frames his paintings to screens. “Along with screens,” answers Benedict coyly, “you could also see them as vitrines, windows, sarcophagi. Purgatory?” Which reminds Clark of “that movie cliché where the characters get sucked into a TV, or trapped in some kind of crystal or tank.” This brings to mind the tragedy and comedy in the works of Mike Kelley, the other LA artist who considers the contemporary subject subsumed by mass culture. In his Kandor sculpture series, Kelley cast his variations on Kandor—Superman’s birthplace which his nemesis Brainiac shrunk and bottled—in colored resins and set them in tinted bell jars.

The Italian artist Mario Schifano encased his Paesaggi TV (TV Landscapes) series from the late 1960s in tinted Plexiglas boxes. Schifano used the TV as a form to consider Americana, also a concern for Benedict who looks back at his native country from afar. Transferring television stills from broadcasts of the Vietnam War, late night porn or The Great Masters of Art History TV series onto canvas using photographic emulsion, Schifano then painted over them in psychedelic colors. He anticipated the primacy of the screen, sensed its ability to foster a sense of belonging, accentuated its aesthetic quality.

The screen contains, makes the viewer feel held. Pictures the lonely adolescent face illuminated in screen glow. This promise of belonging certainly extends beyond the teenage archetype and persists even as the screens that captivate us multiply (the French are calling kids these days génération double écran). Benedict often employs split screens and framing devices in his videos and paintings, underscoring this comforting and captive condition. Benedict is captivated, captivating. When held in mental asylums in France in the 1940s, Antonin Artaud wrote and drew extensively in notebooks which would be associated with his Theater of Cruelty. His poetic scrawl included endless lists of food and drugs in hyperbolic quantities: “100,000 tons of figs, 100,000 tons of Muscat grapes, etc.” Imagine these as the ingredients for the next season of The Restaurant, Benedict’s cooking show in collaboration with Steffen Jørgensen.

Benedict likens aesthetics and design to a ball and chain to his artistic practice. His paintings often draw upon the qualities of design, the function and aesthetic of which is to please. Of course art also often seeks to “entertain,” to give people sheer pleasure. Except to what end is this pleasure-giving? TV is unabashed about seeking to please, indeed its “real” agenda is to be liked, for viewers to like what they see and stick around. Benedict uses and confuses this conundrum, here lies his enigma: to restore the strangeness in things, to defamiliarize the utterly familiar.

Remember that Eileen Myles poem that starts, “That morning in the light / that television show got born / I remember it in California / every morning a show / and her wife in bed / do I like her being there / but I have this now.” It’s in there too, Benedict’s Angeleno roots and his distance from here now. In I Spend Too Much Time Outside (2019), the video’s title replaces the Hollywood sign, viewed as if from a drone in dramatic CGI. The screen is split and Benedict’s recurring snailien character mouths the words too, “I Spend Too Much Time Outside.”

 

WILL BENEDICT (b. 1978, Los Angeles, CA, USA) lives and works in Paris, France. He has recently presented solo exhibitions at: Centre d’Art Contemporain Genève; Dépendance; Galerie Balice Hertling; Fondazione Giuliani; Bergen Kunsthall; Halle für Kunst Lüneburg. His work has been included in group shows at: Art Sonje Center; De Young Museum; Museum für Moderne Kunst Frankfurt, amongst others.
TENZING BARSHEE (b. 1983, Basel, Switzerland) is an independent writer and curator. He recently curated exhibitions in Zurich, Brussels, Paris and Berlin.
CAMILA MCHUGH (b. 1993, CA, USA) is based in Berlin, Germany. She recently curated exhibitions as part of the curatorial collective East of Elsewhere in Kuwait City, Venice, Turin and London.

CREDITS:
Video Courtesy: Balice Hertling Paris

 

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