James Benning

This review of James Benning: Decoding Fear at Kunstverein Hamburg appeared on artforum.com:

View of “James Benning: Decoding Fear,” 2015.

With its white walls, this latest installation of “Decoding Fear” seems the negative image of the show’s first iteration at Kunsthaus Graz, where sundry objects, texts, and projections were displayed in a dark space. In either iteration, the gallery spaces have felt as sepulchral as the immaculately white, minimally furnished twin cabins at the heart of the show. These simplified, abstract reproductions of the hermitical dwellings that Henry David Thoreau and the “Unabomber” Ted Kaczynski constructed at Walden Pond and Stemple Pass, Montana, respectively, are an essay in contrasts, for all their outward similarities.

The inspired, provocative pairing of these two reclusive figures, who both embody attempts at self-sufficient living, plays throughout. Practically every item on display is confronted with its double, starting with a handwritten page copied from Thoreau’s 1854 Walden and one from Kaczynski’s journals, placed at the exhibition’s entrance. In the video Stemple Pass, 2012, four static, half-hour shots of a lush mountain valley in the Sierra Nevada across the seasons, with a replica of Kaczynski’s log cabin built by Benning in the foreground, have their exact counterparts—right down to the videos’ duration—in the lingering shots of a faithful copy of Thoreau’s cabin, in Benning’s first showing of Concord Woods, 2014.

Are Kaczynski’s antitechnological writings, by turns lucid and chilling, the flip side of Thoreau’s dream of self-reliance? By emphasizing the similarities between these two figures—one worshipped, one reviled—Benning appears to suggest that their games of survival stem from the same anarchic and very American impulse.

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