The Canadian Art Database

William Wood

Ron Benner
YYZ, Toronto, September 3 - 21 1984
& Erie — Land of the Puma
Wellington Street Underpass, London, Ontario, from October 13

C Magazine #8, Winter 1985.
[ 2,543 words ]

The memorial is tendentious, but it is unstable as well. It celebrates what is known of the dead, confirming their achievements and solidifying their history, but the memorial can only do this by pricking our conscience with the vigil the dead impose upon the living. 'Lest We Forget' is its primary utterance; a fragile recognition that the constituent stone and script are shaped to memory's transience, a lugubrious admission that forgetting is simple and repetitious. Thus the components of the memorial are meant to frustrate relentless forgetting and intrude upon the appearance of the world in order to render the present as a production of the past, of the dead, of memory. The instability of the project lies in this very foundation — in the fact that it represents an absent subject dismissible from the present, that it is the nominated trace of the dead for a social formation that would prefer to forget.

Ron Benner's series of memorials appear premised in this conception of the form, but they are not a sarcastic exposure of its failings. Rather Benner has chosen to intensify the tendentious aspect, while still acknowledging some partiality, some ambiguity and a good measure of unstable musings. The three pieces displayed at YYZ — two dedicated to the writer / activists Ruth First and Livia Rokach, another to philosopher Michel Foucault — are memorials to figures who rarely receive attention, let alone public celebration. The three subjects share a seditious streak, as First and Rokach turned against their respective states while Foucault diligently critiqued the relations and formations of power in Western culture. Each died early, in some sense, with First being killed by the South African government, Rokach committing suicide, and Foucault dying of cancer. With Benner forming memorials to them, the motivated instability of their roles as irritants to the functioning modes of subjection comes to the fore, along with their odd status as underachievers, as people who did not live to exercise power but to oppose it. Neither was their form of action particularly suited to commemoration, as they disseminated information, organized groups, made people like Benner aware of the political struggles and philosophical bases which coincide in the subjection of masses of people. Hardly the stuff suited to secular hagiography. The artist has learned well from them, for, to choose a designation from Foucault, Benner's work attempts to make their memorials into sites for problematics rather than for stated solutions.

Each piece is formed around three major elements — large photomurals, sculptural elements and basic foodstuffs. All of these elements have allegorical possibilities, but in mixing them Benner has stressed the differential potential of each material. In Visceral: in memory of Livia Rokach, the photographs show a family in a Palestinian refugee camp, with the adult flashing a 'V' sign with both hands, flanked by a pair of pictures of bomb shelters from Southern Lebanon. Echoing the 'V' in the photograph, a large concrete 'V' stands in front of the photograph, its surface containing shards of glass, with a scatter of bulgar grain and a Palestinian headdress at its base. The repeated 'V', in the reportage of the posed photograph and the solid, structural concrete member, comes to have relation to a number of terms and connotations — to the 'victory' of the Palestinian people and the possible 'peace' of the region; to the downward vectors of bombs and the shelter tunnels; to the plain vectors of the arms of the letter towards the ground (the site of territorial struggle), and towards the bulgar (the staple food of the region). This downward movement is opposite to the outward movement of the arms and fingers of the Palestinian, so both aspects of the 'V' are indicated and countered. Benner is particularly attentive to the literal aspects of these meanings, to the enforced artificiality of their combination in his representation. By allowing the repetition and the overlapping connotations to appear, a certain ambivalence is registered that complements Rokach's ambivalence as an Israeli who supported Palestinian causes and opposed the established state. Here the different qualities of literary, photographic and sculptural associations illustrate the difficulties of the situation pictured, its complex character and shifting disposition as a struggle within actual, living conditions. Hence the title word 'visceral', which posits that recurring 'V' within the human body itself.

Yet the problematics of this piece are not easily accounted for by Benner's careful balance. In Visceral, and in the less successful Crossing the Line: in memory of Ruth First, it is the notion of a mournful politics that is most problematic. As was said before, to memorialize the dead the imposition of a vigil is normally required. But, as Benner provides illustrations instead of missions, these works suffer from being after the fact of the subjects' respective deaths, but before the victory of the causes they promoted. This is much starker than would first be assumed, for if a celebration is announced by the work, then there is no celebrated event to consolidate the memorial, excepting the death. When this paucity is combined with the gallery information sheet posted to tell us about the subjects of the pieces, the entire chain of memorial significance is ruptured — we are asked, in effect, to remember dead people who we did not know about, whose achievements are complete even though the effects of them are continuing. The celebration of confirmed action and the remembrance of respected persons are lacking in these cases, so how could the memorials succeed?

Given this situation, the spectator is placed in flux, trying to articulate a response, trying to determine what to respond to. The illustrations are charming, even aestheticized, but why deal with the dead amid all the work to be done? Where does the personal, the committed body of action, institute itself in this setting for corpses? It may be that, in Benner's version, it is not simply the politics of the personal that is manifest; instead the personal aspects of the political are dealt with in the form of a simulated mourning. Like acolytes, then, we are delivered to a distant view of the 'visceral' in subjection, but that view, complicit with death, comes to be an indictment of the unworldly assumptions that our notions of the political are subject to. The comfort of identifying the person memorialized as exemplary is absent, so the work is not premised on heroics; similarly, the stakes of the struggle are not spelt out, only the appearance of action — removed, traced over by the artist's manipulations — is given. The facile assumption of clear direction, even clear meaning is withheld in favour of a tendency towards the indeterminate. Since Benner illustrates but does not plot on a particular line, insinuates but does not provide effigies, goals, or slogans to cloak the faithful, he avoids producing propagandistic cant. He even mocks it slightly, in the large concrete letters spelling out abstractions that stand as lame universals against the photographic record. Yet it is exactly here, in the coincidence of abstractions with specifics, that these struggles ferment and register a split between current conditions and Utopian figures, where the lived becomes reified into the letter of the law.

What Benner produces is testament to what he admires in his subjects — a recognition of politics as a form of subjection that is undergone as a process of turning the subject against himself, a process of determining relations sensible in the given conditions of collective experience. Such is the position of the seditious who oppose themselves to their 'kind' in order to pursue goals antagonistic to the status quo. This type of subjective turning is Foucault's signature theme, and the third memorial, Cuitlacoche: in memory of Michel Foucault, is the only piece to feature the image of its subject. Foucault is pictured laughing, his portrait, reprinted from newsprint, sitting above a long table upon which is a pyramid of yellow cobs of corn. Beneath the table are several uneven rows of multicoloured, cross-pollinated corncobs, while to the side is a photograph of a single yellow cob covered with cuitlacoche fungus, corn smut, and a living plant bearing yet another cob with the fungal growth.

Once again, Benner is developing a network of meanings through differential placing and suggestive association, the most obvious being the dominant / submissive relation posed between the single strain yellow and the cross-pollinated, multicoloured corn. The first type of corn is our usual produce, uniform fodder for animals, grown as a cash crop from only yellow kernels, subject to the smut fungus while requiring annual batches of new seeds and fungicides to be harvested. The second type is predominant in Central and South America, a staple diet of both humans and animals, grown from multicoloured kernels, hardy and resistant to fungus, suitable for food or for next year's seed. This is an elegant metaphor for the dominance of European power over non-European subjects, with the smut entering as the result of over control, the internal flaw of a ghost that haunts Western logocentrism. Above the table, the traditional representation of judicial privilege, is Foucault with his sly laugh, the slyness being the critique of control, which he undertook.

The fungus is an example not merely of control, but of crude categorization. Like the cancer that killed Foucault, it is a tumourous cellular growth arising out of environmental and biological conditions. As Benner notes on the information sheet, 'Some people consider it a disease'; an analogous situation is easily available with cancer growth, particularly when one considers the many inducements to its growth that we ingest as consumers and continue to produce as a culture. As with sedition, a split is indicated by the designation of disease, with the turning of the agent into a patient being a displacement of the turning of the citizen into a scapegoat. This is a mode of thought centered on identification and nomination, used in the language games of mastery and the tactics of instrumental power. Benner appears motivated to present these instances as emblems of this type of categorization which acts to cut off disturbances and then ignores their causes in the belief that standard procedures will alleviate the trouble, leaving the unexcized 'whole', the body human or the body politic, with a minimum of scars. It is precisely the kind of thought wherein the memorial as a form is found to be gratuitous and problematic, because it pronounces other places where power is demonstrated, in the effects of the past upon the present.

Benner has produced another memorial, one much larger in scale than those discussed, but one clearly related to similar concerns. In Erie: Land of the Puma, a two-part installation of photographs, a different kind of categorization, a different type of subject is mourned. The main photographs are of a puma caged in the Paris zoo, a prime double instance of domination in that the subject is an animal caged by humans and that the animal is native to North America and not Europe (even the name 'puma' is an appropriation as the derivation is Peruvian). The photographs were first installed along a cliff face on Lake Erie last fall, adhered to the cliff with glue and the formation's constituent clay, then left to be battered and disseminated by winter storms. This fall, with the permission of civic authorities, Benner put the same images up in a railway underpass in London, again using glue and clay, but augmented the feline presence with photographs of the cliff used in the other installation. He also added an etymology that outlined the impetus for the project; in the accepted version the name 'Erie' means 'place of the puma', and the word also used in the names of tribes of native people living near the lake. Until quite recently the cat was spotted in the area, even after the derivation of the name had slipped from the more recent inhabitant's usage and the tribes themselves subjugated and thinned out along with the cats.

The installation memorializes all of these subsequent namings and tamings, returning the image of the puma along with indications of the historical processes regulating its disappearance. But, by adhering the photographs directly to the cliff and the concrete walls of the underpass, Benner achieves a mortified trace, a literally grounded image of death returned in partial presence. The images conform to the given site, bubbling and wrinkling with the uneven surface, using the depth of the site to address what once was there. It all has a sentimental side, but Benner's photographs are of groggy, docile beings kept in a grimy, carceral cage of rough concrete and bent rods that has a definite sense of the torturous and despicable. This work as well has its internal transience, for, like the storms on the lake, the locals have persistently damaged the installation, tearing down the images, reducing it to the immemorial.

In line with the other memorials, no explicit cause is triumphed in this installation and the absence, the death of memory, is represented as a lacuna in social discourse, as part of the general scheme to colonize the non-instrumental and remove disturbances from view. Benner is emphatic in developing methods of displaying this scheme and rupturing our contingent senses of history and place. Overall, however, this memorial work is slightly forced — the ironies and understatements are studied and Benner rarely admits any critical elements to confine his deployment of resources and question his homey use of foodstuffs or his selective camera work. Even so, his critique is well placed, making political content affecting while also constructing compelling formats for its presentation.

But it is wrong to be misled, for, from a reading of Baudrillard, the same man who wrote 'Forget Foucault', we would no doubt see this work as mournful in a totally different way. Benner gives us so much of a construction of the real, using anthropology, agriculture, reportage and so on, that the work has an intrinsic reliance on the types of thought it critiques. If it problematizes instrumental practices it also tends to institute critique as a mirror image of the instrumental. Thus, to remember, in Benner's work, is to reach an operative level whereby the real is accessible in the forms of repressed information, unwritten history, 'real people'. But do these elements reflect the real or merely refract its simulation, much as the spectator of the memorial is induced into a simulation of mourning? Ruptures in subjectivity may just give the illusion that the fabric can be sewn up again and be reconstituted as the new real, even as it replicates the duplicities of the last version. It may well be that the elegiac mode of the memorial is all we have, not of the past alone, but of the entire discourse Benner relies upon — that of social interest, political action, endangered pockets of existence, history itself. From that point of view, the absence of a celebration is the salient issue, because all that remains, in the words of a dead French thinker, is to refuse what we are.

C Magazine #8, Winter 1985.

Text: © William Wood. All rights reserved.

The Centre for Contemporary Canadian Art
The Canadian Art Database: Canadian Writers Files

Copyright ©1997, 2020. The CCCA Canadian Art Database. All rights reserved.