Review

Queer Botanizing on the Sidewalk

Sadie Benning: Suspended Animation
Wexner Center for the Arts
Columbus, OH
Laura Larson
Sadie Benning, Chicago, March 20, 2003, 2003.

Sadie Benning, Chicago, March 20, 2003, 2003. Flashe paint on paper, 95 x 40 inches. Courtesy of the artist.

For the perfect flâneur, for the passionate spectator, it is an immense joy to set up house in the heart of a multitude, amid the ebb and flow of movement, in the midst of the fugitive and the infinite.1

Reinventing Charles Baudelaire’s concept of the flâneur, Sadie Benning’s new two-channel video installation, Play Pause (2006), poetically surveys American urban life post 9/11 with a queer sensibility. The installation is the heart of Suspended Animation, her first one-person museum exhibition on view at the Wexner Center for the Arts. Photography holds a particular purchase on flâneurie, but Play Pause argues for drawing as an equally compelling medium of reportage. In the aftermath of the World Trade Center bombings, Benning took to the street, photographing her native Milwaukee and second home Chicago. She transformed these images into cartoon-like line drawings, depicting the subjects she encountered on her documentary strolls, steeping them in saturated color washes. The video presents these drawings in a sequence of stills that unfold in a loose ramble. The soundtrack samples and layers ambient sound recordings—the aural corollaries to the video’s visual material—mixing in snippets of pop songs and longer musical passages. A sense of movement is created with the procession of imagery, which is carefully orchestrated with the soundtrack to invoke a spatial tempo. Equally indebted to the practices of photography, the graphic novel, animation, film and video installation, it is difficult to place Play Pause formally, although it is most readily comparable to a slide show, substituting drawings for photographs. In the video, Benning animates her subjects by fixing them in her gaze and this strategy eloquently connects drawing and photography’s shared impulse to memorialize.

The narrative of Play Pause is a shambling affair and to account only for its structure would be to miss out on its joys. As an installation, the viewer is free to enter or leave the video mid-stream, a strategy that reproduces the improvisational character of a walk in the city. What do we see during this stroll? An abbreviated list: a subway platform, street lights, storefronts, a construction site, a restaurant where breakfast is available anytime, a bus stop, a bank of televisions, a wig shop, parking lots, clouds, a gas station, a park, squirrels, and billboards. And people—loitering, cruising, pouring drinks, hailing cabs, making the scene, going about their business, waiting in line, kissing, crying, dancing, masturbating, shopping, watching TV, making lists, and fucking. Play Pause reminds us that walking, rather than an idle pastime, is a cultural act that brings us into intimate contact with the world. Benning collects these fugitive moments, holding the particular momentarily still before it re-enters the slipstream of the multitude. These snapshots exquisitely render the psychic space of walking where the line between interiority and public experience blurs.

Play Pause is navigated via a blank stare that moves the viewer through the public and private spaces of Benning’s cityscape. The video’s reliance on the still image foregrounds the expressive depth of the crudely executed drawings and the two-channel projection further boosts the expansive range of these images. The project vaults between different formal implementations of the split screen, wreaking havoc on cinematic verisimilitude. The images volley, banter, mirror and stare at each other. The split shifts easily between the perspective of the flâneur/narrator and the points of view of the video’s subjects. The dual nature of the screen allows them to take in the world, exchange glances and dream. Even when the twin images join to form a panoramic landscape, a rift quickly reemerges, fluidly contextualizing the movements and subjectivities of Benning’s protagonists.

In its observations of the everyday, Play Pause focuses on the suggestive traces of the deeply troubled American political landscape. A mundane ATM transaction is intercut with a close–up drawing that lingers on the machine’s Diebold insignia, the logo for the company whose voting machines were at the center of election fraud allegations in Ohio. The specter of the 2004 election also looms in a depiction of weathered, wheat-pasted posters peeling off walls that implore VOTE. In a scene at a park, several figures sit on benches, reading newspapers. These solitary figures, united in this public activity, appear stoic in the face of all the bad news. This anxious accumulation of details betrays the deadpan affect of Play Pause.

Fortunately, respite is around the corner when the video enters the ZE Bar. The atmosphere shifts into a welcoming languor to the tune of Irma Thomas’ “Ruler of My Heart:”

When you’re alone
Going gets rough
Come back, come back, come back baby
I’ve had enough

Make me a queen
Happy again
Hear my cry
And ease my pain2

Sadie Benning, Play Pause, 2006.

Sadie Benning, Play Pause, 2006. Stills from two-channel projection from hard drive, color digital video. Running time: 29 mins., 22 secs. Courtesy of the artist.

Sadie Benning, Play Pause, 2006.

Sadie Benning, Play Pause, 2006. Stills from two-channel projection from hard drive, color digital video. Running time: 29 mins., 22 secs. Courtesy of the artist.

Sadie Benning, Play Pause, 2006.

Sadie Benning, Play Pause, 2006. Stills from two-channel projection from hard drive, color digital video. Running time: 29 mins., 22 secs. Courtesy of the artist.

Sadie Benning, Play Pause, 2006.

Sadie Benning, Play Pause, 2006. Stills from two-channel projection from hard drive, color digital video. Running time: 29 mins., 22 secs. Courtesy of the artist.

Sadie Benning, Play Pause, 2006.

Sadie Benning, Play Pause, 2006. Stills from two-channel projection from hard drive, color digital video. Running time: 29 mins., 22 secs. Courtesy of the artist.

Sadie Benning, Play Pause, 2006.

Sadie Benning, Play Pause, 2006. Stills from two-channel projection from hard drive, color digital video. Running time: 29 mins., 22 secs. Courtesy of the artist.

Fierce butches, ebullient femmes, preening drag queens, and leather daddies populate this queer oasis. One man’s face is a heartbreaking dead ringer for Allen Ginsburg. ZE Bar feels unmistakably like home.

Did I mention sex? There’s a lot of queer sex in Play Pause and its depiction is disarmingly matter of fact and determinedly unspectacular. The patrons of the ZE Bar begin to couple and spill out onto the street while a woman, perched in a window, watches the furtive groping. Duly reporting the action, Benning situates these encounters as part of the seamless continuum of public life. The video takes another turn with a series of tableaus, which take their inspiration from Southeast Asian erotic paintings. Blank facial expressions couple with beguiling displays of pleasure in these drawings, often to great comedic effect. For example, a woman, with her lover kneeling behind her head, lies splayed on her back, legs spread wide, with a fan directed squarely in the direction of her pussy. What are they doing exactly? In another scene, set in a club, we see a man, restrained face down on a cross-like platform, his ass exposed, smiling in anticipation. Two figures blithely sip cocktails while he waits. In this erotic detour, reportage seems to segues into dreaming, creating a space for queer desire in the public realm. In this context, it is poignant to consider that the function of fantasy in animation and graphic novels is to render the unimaginable. While Play Pause eschews the conventions of these mediums, it is clearly informed by their shared traditions of linking fantasy to political agit-prop.

Suspended Animation also features a selection of paintings (2001–06) that Benning refers to as “the heads.” If the video imagines the lives of her characters, these brightly colored, and monumentalized portraits memorialize her subjects on an epic scale. Although all the work in the exhibition shares a cartoon aesthetic, Play Pause pulls Benning’s paintings into its orbit, providing a meaningful interpretive framework to view these works. For example, Chicago March 20, 2003 (2003), marks the date of the coalition invasion of Iraq, picturing a phalanx of soldiers who resemble the paratroopers from Star Wars. This futuristic brigade, which could easily be police quelling an anti-war protest, is led by a figure with a knife slung on his belt, who brandishes a gun towards the viewer. The title declares the setting as Chicago but the context of its subject is deliberately vague. Does it portray the conflict abroad, as seen on TV, or dissent at home? Are these figures liberators or oppressors? What’s the difference? Fantasy has figured largely in the Bush administration’s prosecution of the conflict in Iraq and Benning portrays this sanctioned aggression in all its dystopic terror. Play Pause articulates the subversive power of fantasy but Chicago March 20, 2003 suggests that its capacity to transform cuts both ways.

Benning has consistently played with the dynamics of role-playing in her work, emphasizing the provisional nature of identity. In her diaristic early videos, shot on a Fisher Price toy video camera, she speaks of the trials and pleasures of being a queer teen. Formally, these tapes rarely offer a full view of the artist herself. Instead, we get pieces—a pierced nose, an eye, a mouth, a pimple. As self-portrait, it’s her voice that does the work of representation. She lets the viewer in on her secrets but purposefully frames these confessions as performances. While the reality of social experience is clearly at stake, she plays fast and loose with the notion of a consolidated lesbian identity, especially the identity of Sadie Benning. In contrast, Play Pause’s visual narration hovers and moves between the first and third person. The shifting embodiment of this point of view suggests a model of empathy and solidarity. Although the flâneur/narrator doesn’t speak, she is hardly silent and her detachment hints at an ardent subjectivity. To be a spectator, even a passionate one, is a lonely occupation, and a sense of alienation and melancholy suffuses the mood of the video.

Rather than reaffirming the binaries between public and private experience, reality and fantasy, cool observation and the erotics of the gaze, Play Pause collapses these seemingly oppositional realms, insisting upon their interconnected nature. In dissolving these splits, Benning circumvents the logic of outing and reinvents the politics of queer visibility. All her figures, in a sense, are “out” in the world. A lonely businessman lingers in front of Club Euphoria and his despair and longing are achingly displayed. The soccer game in the park becomes a field of homoerotic play with the players exchanging charged glances and affectionate slaps. Even the security guards in the airport become the Village People in their butch uniforms, presiding over video monitors that scrutinize the vulnerable bodies of travelers. An androgynous figure stands in front of the men’s room but his eyes are turned towards the ladies’ room, as if unsure of which door he/she should enter. This personal moment of apprehension painfully echoes the particular distress of contemporary air travel. In Baudelaire’s formulation, the flâneur is not a politicized figure but Benning’s is quietly radicalized, bringing a heightened awareness to these overlapping, politically charged spaces.

The synthesis of the ordinary and the fantastic reaches its apotheosis in the final sequence of Play Pause with the image of a couple screwing on the wing of a plane. Clouds pass through and beyond the outline of the plane—all rendered flat and yet oddly dimensional—as this couple carries on with their lovemaking. This flying fuck makes demands in its defiant pleasures. I am reminded of the lovers in the song, Dragon Lady, by the Geraldine Fibbers:

We’ll take hostages, make demands, set fire to all our best-laid plans.
We’ll assemble volatile explosive devices, sell them for exorbitant prices.
Purchase an airplane, learn to fly, run out of gas while we’re in the sky.
Automatic pilot and x-ray spex, we were kissing in the cockpit when the airplane wrecked.3

Beneath its calm surface, Benning’s work agitates, intimating that the flâneur’s solitary activity of watching and dreaming contains the seeds of political insurrection.

Laura Larson is an artist who lives and works in Athens, OH. She is an Assistant Professor of Photography at Ohio University.

Footnotes

  1. Charles Baudelaire, “The Painter of Modern Life” from The Painter of Modern Life and Other Essays, ed. Jonathan Mayne (New York: Da Capo Press, 1964), p. 9
  2. Irma Thomas, “Ruler of My Heart,” (New Orleans: Minit Records, 1963).
  3. The Geraldine Fibbers, “Dragon Lady,” from Lost Somewhere Between the Earth and My Home, (Beverly Hills: Virgin Records America, 1995).
Further Reading