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James Benning’s Collaborative Gift Economy

For an exhibition at O-Town House, Los Angeles, the artist and filmmaker invited 31 friends to photograph artworks he gave to them

In 31 Friends (October) at O-Town House, US artist and filmmaker James Benning declares his practice be seen as a series of relations with the people in his life. Designed as the final chapter of a project started at Marfa Book Co. & Gallery in 2015, the show extends his book of the same name, in which 31 artworks Benning gifted to friends are displayed in recto and, on the facing page, fond descriptions of encounter are set above notes about the work’s origins. In turn, these artists, filmmakers, teachers, lovers, writers, poets and family photographed each gift in their homes and studios; across California, New York, Illinois, Texas, Wisconsin and Montana, and in Berlin, Paris, Vienna, Sydney. Throughout his work, precise physical and linguistic returns to the ‘outside’, such as Robert Smithson's Spiral Jetty (1970) in Casting a Glance (2007), the real and unreal territories of Henry Darger or the reconstructed cabins of US writer David Thoreau and ‘Unabomber’ Ted Kaczynski in Two Cabins (2007) have revealed a prevailing interest in community as subject matter: a conscious mise-en-abyme, with sources that reflect their objects.

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James Benning, 31 Friends (October), 2018, installation view. Courtesy: the artist and O-Town House, Los Angeles; photograph: Chris Hanke

Now, a rather visionary after-effect of this understated show of 31 photographs of the re-collected artworks in situ is the reminder that such objects may be encountered, produced, re-produced, and exhibited in a collaborative gift economy. In a band of standardized white frames, the photos function as intimate scenes of correspondence, linked only by the presence of the gift from Benning. A certain power emanates from the works; perhaps it is the lack of any figures, except a staged baby and artist and filmmaker Deborah Stratman’s cat. Or perhaps it is the readiness with which each friend shares a surface, messy with wine or magazines. It could also be the unseen intersection on which the photos all pivot – their simpatico with Benning.

Anna Faroqhi – daughter of the late German filmmaker Harun Farocki – set the cardboard presentation box that holds FAROCKI (2014) – ‘a single shot of a cloud,’ originally made for her father – on a crowded bookshelf-turned-retable. ‘When I finished shooting the afternoon of July 31, 2014,’ writes Benning, ‘I got a message from a friend telling me that Harun had died the day before. In the last film he made, Harun compares a real cloud to a virtual one.’ Such art-life synchronicities radiate profoundly, anecdotally, once the book is consulted for whose space holds which work (there is no wall text). Other participants include Thom Andersen, Julie Ault, Sadie Benning, Juliette Blightman, Dick Hebdige, Rachel Kushner, Richard Linkater, Michael O'Brien, Joanna Swan and Danh Vo.

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James Benning, 31 Friends (October). Courtesy: the artist; photograph: Julie Ault

In 31 Photographs (October), Benning mines his enduring interests, concerns and subjects: Kaczynski, Darger, solitude, duration, reproduction and, to quote Julie Ault on his films, ‘landscape as a function of time.’ But in this chapter of the 31 Friends project, what resonates more than the reoccurrence of these subjects is not the series’s perpetual art-within-the-art presentation nor the gemlike stories behind the scenes, but ‘a sleeping dog in the backseat’, as Benning writes in the book when recalling a time fellow-filmmaker Peter Hutton's dog Red saved Hutton from going to jail – provenance.

Might I write out in 31 measures how I first met my friends, as Benning does: is this where art starts, truly – in friendship? Not in the fact that I did arrive, however gradually or instantaneously, to the objects of my converging interests, but in whom I'd hope to give my affection?

James Benning, '31 Friends' runs at O-Town House, Los Angeles, until 17 November 2018. 

Main image: James Benning, 31 Friends (October), 2018, installation view. Courtesy: O-Town House, Los Angeles; photograph: Chris Hanke

Corina Copp is a writer and poet based in New York.

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