Mister X: Benni Efrat's Primal Scent
By Naomi Aviv
Benni Efrat is a diligent, energetic and over-focused artist, who has harnessed his visual world to the promotion of environmental and ecological ideas for at least thirty years. However, even before he committed his art to a creative altruism against the darkness of destructive egocentrism; that is, before he truly engrossed himself in problems such as the interrelations between human beings and other living creatures; and before he started warning us about catastrophes resulting from deforestation, water and land pollution, hunting, nuclear disasters, the weapons industry, the drug cartels, the politicization of religion, global warming, habitat destruction, species extinction, the invasion of new species into existing habitats, and population explosion as causing a severe disruption of the ecological balance – his diligence and determination were already invested in the foundation of an artistic oeuvre, but no less in its deletion or destruction. It seems that one of his hands has always been thwarting the work of the other. The one breathing life, the other meting out death. The one serving Eros, the other Thanatos. Benni Efrat is like nature: both making forests grow and annihilating them; on the one hand giving them sun, rain, organic fertilizers and pruning (by animals), and on the other assailing them with decimating fire, only to repeat the same cycle again. Or like a tectonic force, destroying continents at the same time as building new ones. Efrat treats his own physical death in the same paradoxical way: on the one hand he instructs that his body should be burned and the ashes scattered on Mt. Carmel, that is, he is not interested in a grave, and on the other, he orders a gravestone bearing the inscription “I am not here”. After all, he is still one of Duchamp's legitimate children.
In the meantime, his here and now rock hard. To say subversion and poetics about him would be an understatement. “Art is not a mirror held up to reality”, argued Bertolt Brecht, “but a hammer with which to shape it”. If only. Benni Efrat would have loved to be allowed to do that, literally; in fact once, at the Museum of Modern Art in Lille, France, he exhibited an anvil with human bones and a hammer. In other words, the desire to bombard the viewer with visual illustrations based on artistic means that are as violent as possible still forms mirrors that reflect a reality, however shocking and representative, rather than really hammering it out or beating it. Efrat can paint a yellow circular saw butchering a list of Latin names of endangered animals that seems to spill out of it like out of a Pandora’s Box; moreover, he really forced us to feel like murderers when he once installed, next to a fish tank with some fish and an oxygen pipe, an instruction sign saying: “At the push of a button you can supply them with oxygen”.
His huge and diverse body of work, which had its beginnings in the 1960s in Tel Aviv and can only now be seen, strikes those who visit Efrat’s studio with amazement. His severe dyslexia is compensated for by visual genius: conceptualism, minimalism, sophistication, brilliance, abstraction and concretization. And such optic, kinetic and physical inventions… Drawings and engravings, paintings and sculptures, installations and performances and at least a hundred experimental video pieces made when the medium was still at its infancy. By the early 1970s, the Whitney Museum in New York had already recognized him as one of the medium’s pioneers, along with Nam June Paik and Bruce Nauman. Many artists of his generation make sure they give him credit for his inspiration and generosity. To one of them he revealed the secret of relying on measures and standards used in construction; to another, the idea that the act of crumpling marks the paper with its traces and therefore creates a drawing, in the same way that any tearing or cutting, as well as erasing, sketches on the paper a line that betrays a temperament; to the third he pointed out the secrets of gradual or long exposure to light; and to the forth, the possibility of playing with increasing or decreasing the number of frames per second.
His works are exhibited too rarely. A retrospective would only reveal a handbreadth of what has been exhibited in London, Edinburgh, New York, Texas, Montreal, Paris, Lyon, Amsterdam, Brussels, Johannesburg and Antwerp. A great number of works have never been shown. Among them some astonishing light installations. There are many reasons for this infrequent encounter with his works, including his tendency to wander far and seek deep solitude. However, here he is, returning to Israel after 40 years of self-imposed scattering and yet, one of the graphic marks handcuffing the majority of his works is the X that crosses out and nullifies, grasps and dismisses, determines and erases, embraces and smothers. The X in his works, which functions as an oxymoronic ideogram, at once reinforcing the work and canceling it, first appeared in ’69, as an erased mark on newsprint grid sheets. And it came to stay. The X is a synecdochal detail standing for Efrat’s entire oeuvre, which teems with self-contradictions, often expressed in the formation and positing of intercrossing and mutually-neutralizing forces. For example, the installation Action in common, 2038, included in this exhibition, which shows an insulted Bible. The book, with its light and airy pages, lies open on a display table. Fans operate on both its sides, endlessly turning the pages or leafing through the book with a sensuous, refined motion. The pages seem wind-struck, and the act of leafing through them prevents the viewer from concentrating on the words and in fact seems to blow the sacred text in the air or simply refute and nullify it…
The reciprocal relations between the X in the work and the work itself bring to mind the optic relations between the colors red and green. Although the X signifies Efrat’s need to rebel against artistic products, and in general to express a kind of chronic protest, sweeping reservation and negation, we should not ignore the same sign’s ironic ability to represent multiplication, that is, propagation and fertility.
Benni Efrat’s absurd X serves as an Archimedean Point for his figure as an artist and as a sharp critic of art and human beings as two phenomena that tend to proliferate in a way that terrifies him. Once he estimated the amount of canvases (in kilometers) painted in one day in New York, and on another time he screamed out in dread the number of people already living on earth today (“The blessing of population growth will overcome nature, leaving behind remains of botanical gardens, zoos and flower pots”, he declares-warns in one of his pieces); once he counted how many farts Dutch cows release every hour, and on another time he paraded the number of animals that had become extinct in the twentieth century, or were destined, as he felt, for immediate extinction…
Efrat went even further than exiling himself from this bad place for forty years (indeed, a symbolic number).
In 1982 he took the trouble of notifying a selection of museums, colleagues and friends that from that point on he intended to date his works starting from the year 2030. Pieces made this year, therefore, are dated as 2059. In other words, he emigrated to the future, to the estimated year of his expiration (in ripe old age and after the flood, one presumes), and by doing so seemed to define all his work as an archeological find from the present, a find that he hopes will survive the impending flood (he tried to choose durable materials) and serve as testimony for the warning prophecies which have been igniting in his consciousness since 1977, following his meeting with the scientists Carl Sagan and Philip Morrison, when he exhibited an artistic project at M.I.T. Gallery in Cambridge, Massachusetts. At the time, the whole world was entering the final apocalyptic straight leading to the end of the millennium. Doomsday scenarios proliferated and visions of the end flourished in many people’s imaginations. Ideologies atrophied and utopias breathed their last. But Benni Efrat, an avid modernist, only substituted the thin and conceptual artistic ideology with a saturated and symbolist green ideology. His X, by the way, remained, never ceasing to appear in his works, albeit sometimes replaced by a multitude of countdown tables or photographs of babies playing with hand grenades, or by using florescent red paint as a kind of warning sign, in which painted skeletons of animals wander around like ghosts squeezed into architectonic spaces. The paintings of skeletal animals on the walls of a space painted like a modernist cube recall the magical urge felt by primeval man when he painted what he wished to capture on the walls of the cave.
Those visiting Tel Aviv’s Contemporary Gallery at the moment are simultaneously struck by a lot of red, and by a green “primal scent”, as Efrat’s current exhibition is called (his penchant for the literal again) and as he calls the whole project on which he started working in the fall of 2054, that is, six years ago, or exactly twenty years after the birth of his best known performance-installation: Ararat Express, fall 2034. This spectacle consisted of a convoy of horses passing through the city streets. Each horse carried on its saddle two television screens (one on each side) and two VCRs. The screens showed swarms of people and animals engaged in a hopeless search for food and living areas; as well as herds and packs of animals and people escaping from disaster zones. The soundtrack, incidentally, was personally recorded by him in Somalia: the hum of flies rummaging through cadavers. The annoying buzz is occasionally overrun by alarm sounds and thunder storms. Here, Efrat crisscrossed ancient means of communication and war with digital media that have turned the world into a global village (the project visited Lyon, France, then the first Johannesburg Art Biennale, and two years ago also Herzliya, as part of the Biennial for Contemporary Art, and two days later Nazareth).
The current exhibition includes a collection of video works, paintings and installations, as well as certain items representing the installation Primal Scent which was executed about two years ago in a physical space at the Prague Biennale. An environmental scent piece of freshly cut lawn or grass, for instance, engineered in French laboratories. The green, strong smell of grass, spread mechanically through the space, is encountered, hidden and complimented by the red paint that dominates several canvases. In the paintings themselves appears a geometrical white outline of a rectangular and sterile architectonic space, painted entirely – walls, floor, ceiling – in red. Inside the red – from a plane’s-eye view, since each wall is painted from the perspective of a vanishing point marking a general tendency of disappearance – which closes in on everything like the primeval man’s cave, graze herds of animals, they too, like the skeletal space, outlined in white. The primal scent is now joined by primal painting.
This exhibition also features an installation dated winter 2044, which includes a mosquito net hanging from the ceiling. The gestational net hangs over a stool, on which sit a slide projector and a fan. An engine spins the seat of the stool. The projector is programmed to revolve while projecting 74 slides, directed and photographed by Efrat himself. In the colorful pictures we see very small children, handcuffed and playing with hand grenades or messing up lines of cocaine. Sometimes we see the chained legs of small girls, their faces made up and their appearance quasi-slutty. The net, designed to protect the children from petty nuisances like mosquitoes, fails to save them from tangible dangers such as hunger and violence. The net’s bloated belly functions as a kind of Trojan horse: babies run around in it in existential starvation. Only a curtain, as airy and thin as the walls of the womb, separates the infants from the world into which they will be vomited. The installation, by the way, is called My mother always wanted me to take violin lessons.
For the production of a new video piece shown here, Benni Efrat installed a 30-meter-tall crane. Around it he placed tree trunks, vegetation and stones, as well as a daily portion of food. When the animals started getting used to the crane’s presence, they were caught by a video camera installed on its top. At the editing stage, Efrat began dividing the screen into a grid of 111 squares, and breaking the number of frames projected per second (25 minus one frame or several frames in each square). In this work, called Time Cracks, 2057 (5 minutes in length), flicker animals such as rhinos, zebras, gazelles and pigeons. Everything is geometrically alive, as if it were a documentation of the making of a Cubist piece. As if by magic, the animals appear and disappear, are added or erased, are present and absent. This video piece was first projected on the floor of the Artists' Residence in Herzliya, in a display curated by Varda Genosar as part of the events of The Biennial for Contemporary Art, 2009. The experience of viewing Time Cracks, 2057 combines with and influences the experience of looking at the current exhibition as a whole: the works project physicality and transience. Their presence is alternately concrete and ephemeral.
There is only one Benni Efrat, and his personality and saturated visions become a live charge that blows up in your face, spouting shrapnel of primordiality and futurism, aesthetics and anxiety, sensual remembering and prophecy, technique and poetics. And above all: primal scent.