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Issue 237

Guy Ben Ner’s Low Budget Tales of Longing and Transgression

The artist’s survey exhibition at Tel Aviv Museum of Art paints a nuanced picture of a life of itinerant creative production

BY Kimberly Bradley in Exhibition Reviews , Reviews Across The World | 25 MAY 23

What is freedom? This might be the primary question guiding Guy Ben Ner’s career-spanning survey exhibition, ‘Go Back Where U Came From’. In it, no-budget videos starring himself and his family in ‘readymade’ locations – home kitchens, public spaces – plumb humanity’s ongoing conflict between constraint and liberation, while critiquing the structures behind artistic and cinematic production with self-effacing, often slapstick, humour.

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Guy Ben Ner, Berkeley’s Island, 1999, installation view. Courtesy: the artist; photograph: Elad Sarig

The earliest piece on view, Berkeley’s Island (1999), sets the stage for the exhibition’s clever tales of escape, longing and transgression. A young Ben Ner sits on a mound of sand on a kitchen floor, leaning against a fake palm tree. His offscreen narration is straight from Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719), but his preschool daughter interrupts his reveries, playing with the camera or digging in the sand. (Other, childless, interruptions include scenes in which he masturbates into a sand hole and extinguishes two candles with a double stream of urine.) Ben Ner is trapped again in Household (2001), this time behind the bars of his son’s crib. Attempts at escape include biting off a thumb and crafting a hammer from a carrot. To liberate himself from family obligations in order to make art, he makes art from family obligations.

Guy Ben Ner, Stealing Beauty, 2007, film still. Courtesy: the artist

Arranged mostly chronologically, the majority of the 17 videos on display in Tel Aviv Museum of Art’s angular new wing are screened in black boxes or projected onto the soaring atrium walls. With each work, Ben Ner’s children grow, narratives develop and overlap – references to philosophy, literature and cinema abound – and the artist’s vulnerabilities and desires become clearer as his biography unfolds. In Stealing Beauty (2007), the family acts out sitcom scenes in IKEA showrooms in a scripted dialogue about economic structures and private property gleaned from philosopher Friedrich Engels while real customers pass through the frame. In later videos, we see the artist’s divorce and midlife crisis discussed amidst staged car and plane crashes, and the fetters of donor-based art-world funding addressed in metered rhyme (If only it was as easy to banish hunger by rubbing the belly as it is to masturbate and Drop the Monkey, both 2009).

Guy Ben Ner, If only it was as easy to banish hunger by rubbing the belly as it is to masturbate, 2009, film still. Courtesy: the artist

I’d seen several of Ben Ner’s videos individually, but together the works paint a more nuanced picture of a life of itinerant creative production, as technology advances while the artist moves between Tel Aviv, New York and Berlin. They also capture the issues faced by Gen X: born in 1969, Ben Ner came of age at a time when the gig economy’s now-familiar precarity was just getting started, but also experienced youth without social media’s current mandate to document everything. Ben Ner’s early use of domestic settings has thus been remarkably – albeit possibly inadvertently – prescient; his insistence on low- or no-cost DIY, as curator Doron Rabina writes in the exhibition catalogue, was a ‘declaration of independence’.

Guy Ben Ner, ‘Go Back Where U Came From’, 2022–23, exhibition view. Courtesy: the artist; photograph: Elad Sarig

Which brings us back to freedom: the artist’s most recent videos expand the notion to the broader contemporary condition. Whatever Gets You Through the Night (2022), for instance, intersperses footage of a peak-pandemic Zoom meeting at the Hamidrasha Faculty of Arts at Beit Berl College, where Ben Ner is currently dean, with scenes of the artist at night, dismantling public furniture in a locked-down Tel Aviv and stealing neon letters from retail signage to spell ‘We’ve Lost’. At the end of the film, a wooden structure he’s built around himself collapses during a clearly insufferable Zoom session, but no one on the call even notices. Have we lost? Not yet, Ben Ner seems to say, as long as we keep trying to claim the freedoms we seek, in any way we can.

Guy Ben Ner’s ‘Go Back Where U Came From’ is on view at Tel Aviv Museum of Art until 3 June.

Main image: Guy Ben Ner, ‘Go Back Where U Came From’, 2022–23, exhibition view. Courtesy: the artist; photograph: Elad Sarig

Kimberly Bradley is an art critic, journalist, editor, educator and moderator based in Berlin.