The VOX gallery, also known as “Centre de L’image Contemporaine,” is known for its self-reflexive art, experimenting with colour, shape, form, and technology to facilitate public discourse on the nature of image in today’s society. As a nonprofit organization, entrance to the gallery leaves your pockets untouched, making the exhibit accessible to students and contemporary art connoisseurs alike. The subject of James Benning’s Stemple Pass exhibit, however, is somewhat less easily reached in its simplicity and rejection of the traditional narrative style that delights and entertains the modern subject.
The visually stunning, vibrant, and complex aesthetics of the video are accompanied by little movement, sound, or diversion. While this produces a powerful piece of art, it can alienate its audience—which became visible in the restlessness of my fellow audience members. The piece consists of a single shot of a forested valley, with a lone log cabin billowing smoke in the cold months, and mountains dipped in fog emerging from behind. The cabin, a replica of the self-built cabin of Ted Kaczynski—known as the Unabomber—peaks out from behind the thick cover of foliage, characterizing the aesthetic makeup of the rest of the screen. The voice-over narration of the Unabomber’s private notebooks offer the viewer a peek into the comically disturbing world of the mind of a serial killer.
Stemple Pass is a game of concentration. The work itself plays against the viewer, challenging us to achieve a meditative state of focus with the screen. Inevitably, it wins, staying still and silent for longer than comfortable and forcing the viewer over the cusp into distraction and fidgeting. Benning is perhaps utilizing this stillness to succinctly reflect upon duration, time, and the very human condition of restlessness.
The calm of the image is in stark contrast to the pulsating and almost throbbing energy of the disturbing mind of Kaczynski. It is thrilling—by far the best horror film I’ve ever seen. There is comedy in the monotonous, apathetic, and deep voice delivering strange plots to kill people. The resentful anger Kaczynski emanates towards modern society—with its technology, progress, and capitalist culture—is made clear through his simplistic prose. Benning’s fascination with political contrarianism explains in part his choice of the Unabomber’s manifesto for his work, yet to distill the messy and complicated narrative to this would indeed be reductive.
The audience’s interaction with the screen and its subject is guided by the stools situated centrally in the relatively large black room. Much like in a theatre, viewers sit in suspense, watching the screen, bound by a code of conduct. When the theatre space became empty, I felt myself freed from the laws of viewership and possibilities of interaction with the screen and surrounding space entered my mind. Although I only acted on one: Sprawling out in the vast space between the stools and the screen to get a different angled look at the display. This change, however, only made me realize the true fixed nature of the image, and it devolved from a video into an abstract painting. The image lost any cohesion, and was no longer a valley with mountains and a log cabin, but a series of colours, shapes, and disjointed sounds.
A good painting can depict the reality of inhabiting a time and space, whether it be abstract or realist, but this video did just the opposite. In a true Italian Neorealist tradition, it captures the very essence of time and place through an unfiltered, unedited, and very real image, while resisting change for so long as to destroy any concept of setting and devolve into an abstract array, like splotches of paint on a canvas. Benning’s Stemple Pass exhibit is a must-see—even if only to view it in passing.
Stemple Pass will be screened until Saturday, Feb. 21 at various times at VOX Centre de L’image Contemporaine (2 St. Catherine E).