For me art has to be about art. I’m fully aware that not all artists are like me – I respect that, and I definitely don’t think my taste in art is superior. I’m cool with art that’s about other concepts, but for some reason, I never manage to relate to art that is about a foreign subject such as the ‘Vietnam War’, ‘the artist’s childhood’ or ‘the artist’s broken heart’, as much as art that is about a more broad subject like visual perception, life, death, or art itself. For me, I want everything a work of art has to say to be obtainable from the artwork itself – I don’t like it when I have to know the back story to appreciate the artwork.
That said, there are artworks that have a strong narration behind them – which I find interesting before I know the narration, and if there is a narration, I can’t resist not getting to know it. A case in point is the work of Matthew Benington.
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What made you interested in using pre-existing photographs to create you work?
MB: My interest is not necessarily towards the content, but more about content itself. I got interested in this idea of creating a fictitious archive which is underlined by specific instances and a lot of missing gaps. Appropriating for me is generally a personal metaphor. But I also have a personal relationship with these images. My grandma was one of 8.5 million people who were dislocated from eastern Germany when the Russians began their advance to the east towards Berlin. There weren’t any photographers at those times so the little photo documentation that exists is very precious. Some of the photographs I’m using in my artworks are taken from a few family photos that my grandma kept on her while she was on the run. There must have been more, but these are the only images we have now – which makes them very special.
In 1944, during World War II, the war-photographer Robert Capa was on the combat zone working for Life magazine. He sent four roles of film to his editors in London, but only 11 images made it because the lab technician accidentally burnt three and a half roles while processing them. Most of these 11 images became iconic photographs of war photography. I find this account similar to the photos we are left with from my grandmother. I appropriated one of Robert Capa’s photographs in one of my prints, as well.’
Why did you choose to commemorate these images in this way? Why not write a history book?
MB: Something that attracted me to this subject is the unreliability of the little data that we have. Photographers that were commissioned by the state during time of conflict, were commonly made to paint a very biased view of what was really happening. History can easily be misguiding. It’s formed by subjective accounts which sometimes can be very unreliable. I take this into account when I do my work. In my work I’m not bridging the gaps of history or taking assumptions – I’m creating something of interest with what we have to work with. At times I don’t want the narrative of the image to be particularly clear, there’s nothing worse then dictating the meaning of your work too strongly.
Did you ever study history?
MB: I did. I enjoyed it very much but I wasn’t particularly good at it.
Before we see more images, tell us about your technique. It’s clear that you have to be obsessed by the technique to do what you’re doing.
MB: Well yeah, I hand paint the photographs invertly – so what’s white is black and what’s black is white. With a sort of gooey paint I paint a negative then make a positive out of it using traditional printing methods. Hand painting the negative makes you build a relationship with the figures, and you can emphasize that relationship sometimes. Many times, since the medium is so ambiguous, you don’t necessarily achieve the result you initially intended to achieve. So things change in that process – especially facial expressions.
One of the most striking images you have has a ferris wheel – where was that image taken?
MB: Ohh that’s Chernobyl. What struck me most is that the site has been manipulated since the disaster. The Ukrainian authorities, weirdly, scattered dolls around the site to make the experience of visiting even more horrendous!
What do you mean? As a tourist attraction?!
MB: Yes! A tourist attraction of atrocity – to make the location more popular with visitors.
That’s amazing. But in a way we do the same thing here with War Museums! War isn’t something to be proud of. But at the same time we have War Museums with tanks and weapons!
MB: Yes, in a way we do it less honestly then them.
I find it very weird how we have museums that celebrate art, design, science… and then we also have museums that celebrate war! Art and science are human achievements; war is the result of unsuccessful countries and their government of the time. I can’t understand how people are delighted to see, for example, a showcase of soldier uniforms. I’m sure that the enemy at the time wasn’t delighted in the least when they saw the same uniforms trying to kill them. Next question – how do you think your grandma and other people shown in your artwork would feel if they saw the fine-art you’re created out of their miseries?
MB: Hopefully they wouldn’t judge me too critically! My grandma is still alive, she’s 91. She didn’t see my degree show but I interviewed her extensively for it. It was highly emotional. She was pleased that what she’s been through will not be forgotten. I don’t see myself as a voyeur. I try to appreciate the immense fortune I have by living in this present time where there’s no war around me. I think this is a recurring theme in contemporary art at the moment. Trying to comprehend where we are and make sense of our place in comparison to other times.
I saw your ‘locker installation’ at the Saatchi’s New Sensations show in London – tell us a little about that.
MB: The lockers were a piece of work based on photographic absence. It was my way of reconciling the fact that I had no visual documentation of my grandmother’s expulsion. The lockers are made out of steel. The number of lockers and their sizes signified my family who fled. The form the lockers comes from Robert Capa’s lost negatives, however the interior is based on my personal experience of photographic absence. There are photographs inside the lockers. They are a juxtaposition between my grandma’s home town before her expulsion and appropriated images of the flight. A way of filling in those narrative gaps.
It was difficult to properly view the images.
MB: Yes, the viewing window was only 4 inches wide. I intentionally made it partially obscured, as a metaphor to how the story is partially obscured due to lack of documentation.
For me, people who found the lockers interested without knowing the narrative content is the best reaction I had. It meant that it wasn’t necessary for me to be there justifying the work.
Definitely. Conceptual work that is appreciated through explanation is fine, but conceptual work that is appreciated before the explanation is told is even better!
MB: Absolutely. You don’t want to be the artist lingering in the gallery space trying to convince people why your art is good!
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Matthew and I met at his little studio space inside the Royal College of Art, where he is currently sitting for an MA in print-making. Which brings me to something that I’ve just got to mention…
At one point during our chat, while talking about Saatchi Online, Matthew and I looked at each other and wondered in amazement at how can a recent-graduate-artist/writer-wannabe is interviewing an unknown art student for the world’s most popular art-website!!? (When I came to tell my friends that I started writing for Saatchi Online a few weeks ago [this is my second contribution. First was an interview with All Visual Art’s Joe La Placa] I made them guess which website I’m going to be writing for and as a hint I told them “It’s the most popular website about art.” Most of them got it right on first try.) From here I want to congratulate this website’s ringmaster (Bruce Livingstone) and his crew for bringing Saatchi Online down to the people and being so accessible and putting up content that’s not just about the top people in the art world!
OK. Many of Matthew Benington’s artwork can be seen on his Saatchi profile. Do have a look and while you’re there you can also have a look at mine- to get a better understanding of what I was talking about at the beginning of this text.