Ben Rivers

A Foundation, Liverpool, UK


Ben Rivers, Origin of the Species, 2008, film still

Ben Rivers, Origin of the Species, 2008, film still

Ben Rivers makes films about latter-day hermits and pioneers – usually men – who have chosen to exist at an ideological and geographical remove from the rest of society. The London-based artist journeys into the depths of private, imperfect, perhaps misguided but defiantly hopeful worlds. His use of a wind-up Bolex camera and hand-processed film seems not just to be a matter of interpretation, but the only appropriate response to the jerry-rigged and hamstrung lifestyles he is permitted to witness.

Take, for instance, the 14-minute black and white film This is My Land (2006), in which Rivers’ camera follows a long-haired and bearded figure as he potters around his ramshackle cottage. A tractor belches black smoke, snatches of bluegrass emerge from indoors, and the man explains how he buries empty cans and ‘any kind of junk that I can’ in his garden (‘it’s bound to have some kind of mineral or something in it that’s some good for something’). The film is a tender and respectful character study that does not seek to ridicule the eccentricities of this self-sufficient lifestyle.

Time, and the variable rate of its passing, is a preoccupation of many of Rivers’ subjects. In Origin of the Species (2008), a man’s voice explains that ‘evolution’s been my bag for an awful long time’. While he struggles to convey his reflections on Charles Darwin, quantum physics, Earth ‘before man came along’ and the uncertain future of the human race, the camera explores his wooden hut, his overgrown garden and drawings for his inventions: all far more eloquent articulations of the man’s world-view than his own words. The film rattling through the squeaky projector at 24 frames per second highlights the disjunction between the timeframes discussed – and inhabited – by the subject and our own.


Ben Rivers, 'A World Rattled of Habit', 2009, installation view

Ben Rivers, 'A World Rattled of Habit', 2009, installation view

In this exhibition (titled, without explanation, ‘A World Rattled of Habit’), as with other recent installations of his work, Rivers showed the films in huts cobbled together from salvaged wood and corrugated iron. The constructions resemble the dilapidated shacks in his film Sørdal (2008), leftovers from a 1970s Norwegian film set. That these visions of escape all teeter on the edge of fantasy is more successfully revealed in the films themselves, however, than through their presentation; as stagings of artifice, the huts are reductive, even twee.

At root, Rivers is concerned with the construction of hermetic worlds. For earlier works in this exhibition, such as We the People (2004) and House (2005), he made intricate models of buildings that, when filmed, became almost indistinguishable from reality. These works lack the complicated richness of his more recent films, brought to them by the tension of real social situations. (Even when there is only one person in the film, we are constantly aware of the dynamic between filmmaker and filmed, the confidence that Rivers earns from his subjects and their need to explain themselves to him.)

These films might almost be taken as documentaries if the medium (and Rivers’ errant focus and wandering attention) didn’t put so much hazy distance between us and his subjects. In the most striking work shown at A Foundation, Ah, Liberty! (2008), children range over piles of tyres in a debris-strewn farmyard, pose in horrible masks made of sheepskin and fall out of a home-made go-kart (Rivers doesn’t rush to help). Out here in the wilds there are no rules, but neither is there room for comfort or sentimentality. As the rain lashes the lens of the camera, we are aware that, in this desolate hinterland, freedom comes at a price most of us wouldn’t choose to pay.

Jonathan Griffin is a contributing editor of frieze and a freelance writer living in Los Angeles.

Issue 128

First published in Issue 128

Jan – Feb 2010

Most Read

In further news: white supremacist vandals attack Rothko Chapel; Israeli minister bans art produced in solidarity with...
To experience the music of the composer, who passed away last week at the age of 69, was to hear something tense,...
In a year charged with politicized tensions, mastery of craft trumps truth-to-power commentary
The US writer, who died last week, brought a quality of inestimable importance to the modern novel: a mind that was...
The $21M painting was the highest price ever paid for a work by a living African American artist at auction
Royal bodies, the ‘incel’ mindset and those Childish Gambino hot-takes: what to read this weekend
In further news: women wearing rainbow badges beaten in Beijing’s 798; gallerists Georg Kargl and Richard Gray have...
‘Coping as a woman in France is a daily battle: the aggression can be subtle, and you always have to push harder to...
The rapper and artist have thoughts about originality in art; Melania Trump tries graphic design – all the latest...
The dilapidated Nissen hut from which Rachel Whiteread will take a cast
Yorkshire residents complain that the concrete sculpture of a ‘Nissen hut’ will attract excrement, vandalism and litter
Poul Erik Tøjner pays tribute to Denmark’s most important artist since Asger Jorn
Toyin Ojih Odutola’s portraits of a fictional aristocratic Nigerian family push toward an expanded definition...
Photographer Dragana Jurisic says her account was deactivated after she uploaded an artwork depicting a partially naked...
In further news: open letter protests all-male shortlist for BelgianArtPrize; Arts Council of Ireland issues...
From Sol Calero’s playful clichés of Latin America to an homage to British modernist architect Alison Smithson
Everybody’s favourite underpaid, over-educated, raven-haired art critic, Rhonda Lieberman, is as relevant as ever
‘Prize & Prejudice’ at London's UCL Art Museum is a bittersweet celebration of female talent
The curators want to rectify the biennale’s ‘failure to question the hetero-normative production of space’; ‘poppers...
A fragment of the brutalist Robin Hood Gardens will go on show at the Venice Architecture Biennale
‘Women's role in shaping the history of contemporary art is being reappraised’
Three shows in Ireland celebrate the legendary polymath, artist and author of Inside the White Cube
The legendary performance artists will partner up again to detail their tumultuous relationship in a new book
An open letter signed by over 100 leading artists including 15 Turner prize-winners says that new UK education policy...
Naturists triumph at art gallery; soothing students with colouring books; Kanye’s architectural firm: your dose of art...
Avengers: Infinity War confirms the domination of mass culture by the franchise: what ever happened to narrative...
The agency’s founder talks about warfare in the age of post truth, deconstructing images and holding states and...
From hobnobbing with Oprah to championing new art centres, millennial crown prince Mohammed bin Salman is following a...
A juror for the award last year, Dan Fox on why the Turner Prize is and always will be political (whatever that means)
The argument that ancestral connection offers a natural grasp of the complex histories and aesthetics of African art is...
One of most iconic and controversial writers of the past 40 years, Tom Wolfe discusses writing, art and intellectual...

Latest Magazines

frieze magazine

March 2018

frieze magazine

April 2018

frieze magazine

May 2018