What does an artist do when he's 26, at home with a young daughter and struggling to find time for studio work? For Guy Ben-Ner, video seemed like a good idea — as did turning his home into his studio.
"Treehouse Kit" from 2005 was an interpretation of the classic castaway tale "Robinson Crusoe," featuring a large sculpture beside a video projection of Ben-Ner dismantling a tree sculpture to create furniture. The Israeli artist followed that with 2007's "Stealing Beauty," set in Ikea showrooms. They served as settings for his family to stage guerrilla theater of domestic routines while unaware shoppers milled around.
Both of these pieces are part of Ben-Ner's current installation, "Guy Ben-Ner: At Home," at Virginia Commonwealth University's Anderson Gallery. But the centerpiece is his latest video, "Soundtrack," an 11-minute domestic drama set to Steven Spielberg's movie "War of the Worlds."
The mechanism for "Soundtrack" was established before Ben-Ner had any idea what story would be narrated through it. It was the technical idea of dubbing images to a pre-existing soundtrack that preceded all other decisions and sparked the project.
"Spielberg's 'War of the Worlds' presented enough problems for me to decide that the game was worth playing," Ben-Ner says in an email from Israel. "The whole process of marrying and divorcing image to sound, fitting the sound of an outside catastrophe in the Spielberg movie — buildings collapsing, car chases — to a film shot inside a kitchen."
Particularly compelling was the idea of downscaling the drama. The sound of a car exploding was married to a plate crashing on the floor while the sound of rain in the original film was retrofitted to the image of an egg frying in a pan.
Ben-Ner was particularly fascinated with one element of Spielberg's retelling of the classic H.D. Wells novel: In the book, there's no mention of a family, much less a dysfunctional one. Why then had Spielberg built everything around a dysfunctional father? To Ben-Ner, the question was larger: Why is it that American mainstream cinema can't help but transform any story into a family drama? Why does every world catastrophe turn out to be a projection of private household affairs?
"In Spielberg's version, we have a divorced, dysfunctional father who's in a state of panic because he has to take care of his children for a whole weekend," he says. "As a projection of his panic, the Martians invade. Finally, because the father learns how to be a proper parent, the Martians are defeated. I was trying to reverse this ideological situation. Instead of looking at the world as a projection of the family, to see the family as a projection of the world — to bring the projection back into the kitchen, in a way, to let the outside invade."
The process was anything but fast. He spent several months listening to the soundtrack and trying to imagine a different story attached to the same sounds, in essence the equivalent of writing a script. Shooting in his Tel Aviv apartment in 2013 took eight months because he chose to shoot no more than half an hour a day with the children. Adding to the protracted undertaking was the need to edit immediately after every shoot to ensure that it fit the ready-made soundtrack.
Visitors to the Anderson Gallery will see the chaos of the resulting film is inventive, humorous and thought-provoking. Despite the wildly different action unfolding in Ben-Ner's version, Spielberg's soundtrack sounds tailor-made and without prior knowledge of the original film. So it becomes a philosophical question: Which came first, the chicken or the egg?
Questioning the world and how humans do things is de rigueur for Ben-Ner, who's presently finishing up his latest piece, "Surplus Leisure." In it he plans to wire fitness-room equipment on a building's third floor to extract the wasted energy that people spend there and transform it into productive energy — electricity — that'll be used on the ground floor.
Should he need them, he knows he has a ready stable of actors in his family. Some artists might find it challenging to use children in their work — but not Ben-Ner. "It is easier than working with animals," he says. S
"Guy Ben-Ner: At Home" runs through Aug. 3 at the Anderson Gallery, 907 1/2 W. Franklin St. For information call 828-1522 or visit arts.vcu.edu/andersongallery.