Guy Ben-Ner – Second Nature




Pinksummer: A few years ago Amos Oz gave a lecture in Germany, later published in a book that in Italy went out under the title “Against fanaticism”, in which he focused on the concept of compromise starting within the family circle to expand, then, into the thorny social-political field of the Middle East conflict. Oz, in fact, asserted to know much about the idea of compromise having being married to the same woman for forty years, and continued affirming that compromise is not an annihilation of individuality, but the overcoming of the limit that individuality imposes us through the recognition of the other, that at the same way also recognizes us: a halfway meeting that involves the triumph of life over the narcissistic thanatocracy of fanaticism.
Compromise seems to us a fundamental concept of your work, as it came out from the tension between the ideal of individual freedom (human instinct, nature, Es) and the equally necessary human need to love, receive love, belong and defend, structuring social life inside laws and conventions (also a human instinct, civilization, culture, superego?). In yours “homemade movies”, absolutely low tech, and not lacking of political references, you have many times affirmed that they are a compromise between your desire of being an artist and that of being a present father and husband. Meanwhile, the interpretive contribution you ask your children, your wife and to the same idea of house, of intimacy, is the pledge your family offers to have you home.
Regarding your work, what is the difference between compromise and sacrifice?

Guy Ben-Ner: Oooo. Do you know that me and my wife just got separated a few months ago?
Yes compromise. You always do. Even when you go to war or divorce you make compromises.
The leap Oz makes from the private to world politics is a bit too simple. It sounds like a Hollywood film -as long as the family cell is dysfunctional there are world catastrophes- invasion from Mars or something. Once we learn to compromise- the Martians are defeated, like magic. This feels more like an educational program by Bourgeoisie morality. Things are more complicated than that.
One of the things that interested me in the video, “Second nature”, was the fact that Esop was claimed to be a slave. But if you read his fables you realize they teach you not to get too ambitious.
The fables want to keep the frog- a frog. One must not try to be what one was not intended to be. Be what you where born to be.
All this made me think Esop was not a slave but an invention of the masters to keep slaves from wanting more than they have. He is like a super ego – an external authority that is inserted within. It works better that way. So I suspect this family morality Oz uses.
I would propose, in the nature of my recent divorce- that Israelis should divorce from the land of Israel.
Jewish people are better off homeless. We are much more productive like that.
I have a slogan for OZ: be homeless. Don’t compromise.

P: History of contemporary art is shaped on the idea of ready-made and you obviously cannot escape that being a contemporary artist. There are two forms of ready mades, conceptually antithetic: that of the “Bicycle Wheel ” by Duchamp, based on the hedonism of the sovereign artist and that of “Head of Bull” by Picasso, constituted by a saddle and a handle of bicycle, much less metaphysical, but as much alchemic, maybe more ludic and open. In your movie “I’d give it to you” the “Head of Bull” by Picasso returns to be a bicycle in the shape of a present, and then it becomes again an artwork, your artwork, through the elaboration and the sharing, and not simply with the recombining. It seems like you use the idea of ready-made of Picasso like a tool to evade both the duchampian dirigism, concerning history of art, and the control of contemporary democracies based on illusionistic self-made kits like Ikea (for adults) or lego constructions (for kids). In a critic essay centred perhaps on “Treehouse Kit” you have been defined a UFO in the standardized world of contemporary art. What do you think about it?

G.B: After I got this question from you I googled “guy ben ner + UFO”. Unfortunately I didn’t find anything interesting.
Regarding your question: I was trying to create a metaphor, that art has a use value in the world.
You take a useful object from the street and turn it into an Art object by restricting its use (you can not touch Duchamp’s “fountain”- let alone pee in it). That’s why museums keep guards.
In this way artists and institutions work like any owner of private property – they restrict your ability to “enjoy” the object they “own”. The idea, to build a functional bicycle out of the 5 sculptures, was an attempt to “redeem” the ready-made objects and give them back their “use value” that was taken away from them – so that my children and I can use those bicycle to our enjoyment.
It is a matter of economy – I owe my children and it is through art that I pay them back (needles to say, they worked so hard with me on this piece that my debt to them only got bigger).
So it ends up being a story about generations – about fathers and their (artistic or biological) children, about owing something to someone and not being able to repay (to the next generation – my children, and to the previous generations – art history). The only way to deal with this un-payable debt, is to create new debts, more and more debts, so many that you can not keep track of them anymore.

P: When you have been chosen to represent Israel at the Venice Biennial of 2005, you said that the artist is the one that shows its filthy cloths. Regarding the dry humour that marks your movies, we thought about Freud’s essays about humour, “Witz”, of 1905, and “Humour” of 1927. In “Witz” Freud considers the Jewish stories about Jews like a typical form of humour that is identified with self-criticism. Jewish stories about themselves are always a bit masochistic and self-destructive but however, showing the actual flaws and weaknesses, they get out not only unharmed, but also with a superior dignity based on consciousness: we thought of the greatness of Chaplin, “the little man alone that tries to enter the world, remaining basically outside of it”, but also of Woody Allen. And, by the way, many times the influence of silent movies by Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd on your gestural humour and as such unutterable has been pointed out. In the essay “Humour” Freud, without mentioning anymore the Jewish stories of the Jews of Eastern Europe, affirms that humour is the triumph of narcissism and that it can even become a paranoia and mania of greatness. What is humour for you, an antidote to filthy cloths or a way to dominate them?

G.B: In any way I see jokes as a radical tool, so radical that you can die laughing from the right joke as in Monty python’s funniest joke in the world (where the joke is so funny it becomes deadly, and is used as a weapon of war). For me that is a metaphor for how efficient humour can be. I take it seriously. I try to put it to use.
And yes, the psychic-economical aspect Freud investigates in relation to jokes is of much interest to me – that they are, like dream formations, a way to overcome censorship. That’s simple enough.

P: Regarding that sanctimonious man of Berkeley, to whom you dedicated the desert and savage little island built in the middle of your kitchen in your movie “Berkeley’s Island”. Metaphor, probably, of an exasperated subjectivism that leads to the onanism of the esse est percepi. You believe that the radical individualism that characterizes contemporary social life is the cause of the progressive erosion of the res extensa, the objective extramental reality, space and time for example, that, as foundations of the res publica, results into the corrosion of the social agreement, of the right, that withdraws leaving space to the saviours of the souls uninterested to life, that take God, their one particular God, as guarantee of the licit and illicit matters.

G.B: Wow. You take for granted that I have read all these things? That I know Latin? I am not that smart. But the name does refer to the radical idealism of the bishop Berkeley. It does make a connection between that aspect he elaborates – of mistaking the outside world for my inner perceptions, and does relate that state of mind to masturbation and to the process of home-film-making – that you have to use your active imagination (in order, for example) to be able to see an island in the middle of the kitchen. In that sense the connection is a positive one.
I will not go on to draw more general conclusions from this, though I like the direction you point out. It is of much interest for me today, but “Berkeley’s island” was made 10 years ago and I was even less smart than, then I am now, so to credit such a point of view to it would be unjust.
I was taking one step at a time. Maybe in this case the viewer is way smarter than the piece?

P: We enjoyed your choice for the image of the invitation made by the sleeves of the cds with the compilation “the best” and “the Hot” by Samantha Fox and Sheryl Crow, to recall the Fox and the Crow by Esop you got inspired by for your movie “Second Nature”. In the image you sent us, that which also appears on the invitation for your exhibition at Konrad Fisher, the crow learnt the lesson, not the moral one of Esop about the damages caused by the arrogance of the arrogants, but that of the fox: that becomes smart so to surrender to the allurements without risking to lose the bit of meat, by the way stolen. The crow has tied up the peace of meat to the little claw. Tell us about your morals. Will you present anything else at pinksummer?

G.B: Actually it is a question- can you tell a fable today. Is it not too arrogant to think you can educate someone? On the other hand if I believed art can not deliver any kind of lesson, or critic, to the world, I would stop making it.
So it hangs there in the in-between, humble and arrogant at the same time.
That is an interesting thing about fables that they are such an educational art form.
Maybe my movie is more about the way educational narratives are being constructed – about this idea of “a lesson for life”, about these power structures of training and educating, of being subjected to it.
What I liked about this specific fable is that the “lesson for life” was not possible in it.
I mean – this separation between the “lesson” and the “life” was not possible-. If this fable is about one creature training another, than once you try to train for it-you already perform it. So when Gwen, the crow trainer tries to teach Oreo, the crow to give up his cheese, she unknowingly already takes the part of the fox as it is in the fable. She thinks she is training but actually she is performing the thing itself. It’s like a documentary that is becoming fictitious all at once.
And about ties: just as the food is tied, so are the animals, and so are the people (at least through the lines of Beckett they utter). The tree ties everybody around it.
The other video I will present is “Berkeley’s island” that was the first long narrative video I made, and the first time I used my family members as actors and collaborators. Maybe some drawings. Not sure yet.