The Norwegian city of Bergen, home to about 265,000 people, is getting a full dose of Lynda Benglis this year. As part of Bergen Assembly, an alternative to many cities’ biennial or triennial format, a two-woman outfit called PRAXES is mounting seven exhibitions and events showcasing Benglis’s work throughout the year (other Bergen Assembly programming includes investigations into music and instrumentation by Tarek Atoui and public seminars on infrastructure by a collective called freethought). Different venues around the city will host each show and event; the first, Primary Structures (Paula’s Props), ran at the KODE art museum in February and the last, Is It Now?, will take place at several private homes around town beginning December 6. On Screen, an exhibition of three video works from the early 1970s, opened on June 17 at Entrée, an independent, non-profit gallery.
Over the course of more than 50 years, Benglis has worked with tremendously varied media. At different stages, her practice has incorporated poured latex and foam, urethane, aluminum paper, ceramics, video, and more. Throughout, Benglis has rebelled against labels and refused to adhere to simple categorizations; her early work in the 1960s defied the male-dominated Minimalist trends of the era, and while her art evidenced feminist concerns, she remained on the outskirts of the feminist art movement.
“It’s such a broad and all-encompassing practice,” PRAXES’s Kristine Siegel told me via Skype. “It’s almost like you’re seeing an exhibition by a new artist every time.”
Siegel’s cohort, Rhea Dall, spoke of the period of Benglis’s career showcase in On Screen “one of the super interesting moments in her practice … a funny moment … where she more or less stops working with some big phosphorescent boards that come off the wall. Very radical.”
The three films on view, “Now” (1973), “Collage” (1973), and “Female Sensibility” (1974) are all provocative works that explore female sexuality in more or less explicit ways. In “Now,” Benglis’s voice seductively asks, “do you wish to direct me?” In “Female Sensibility,” she’s making out with another female artist, Marilyn Lenkowsky. In “Collage,” she’s peeling and eating an orange. The period during which she made this work coincides with her infamous 1974 Artforum ad, in which she’s naked and holding a dildo. According to Dall and Siegel, Benglis is tired of talking about the ad. Siegel noted that Benglis’s work didn’t quite fit with the feminist discourse at the time, but more closely corresponds to what’s happening today.
If Benglis was ahead of her time in the 1970s, she continues to look forward. When I spoke with her by phone, she was more interested in discussing her current practice than her past. She’s based in New Mexico now, where, she says, “you can communicate. You can pull back and resolve some ideas.
“I’m not focused on the past, I’m focused on the now,” she said. “I think as you get older, you have more trash. I just get rid of it by concentrating in my studio.”
Eventually, Benglis opened up about her video work. “I thought of myself as processing the time, definitely,” she said. “Because time was the box … time was fluid.” At the time, film was still reel-to-reel. She was interested in feedback and “the idea of essentially indulging oneself in a masturbatory way. That’s what early video was about, contextually. What you do with the camera.” She added that she conceived of having a “porno with fruits and vegetables,” which recalls her work in “Collage.”
“I’ve never seen the ceramics so beautifully displayed,” she said of Glacier Burger, the exhibition that was on view in the spring at Bergen School of Architecture. She compared the experience to scuba diving and described the massive building that housed her work — a precarious, wharf-like entrance with no ceiling, just black. “You didn’t have a sense of … up and down,” she said. “You’re kind of free. You’re flying in liquid. In this building … it’s strange because you’re surrounded by water underneath. … It was as if you were discovering a different kind of fish or a different kind of coral.” Floating on pedestals, the works became “gestural and sea-like. … That was the most brilliant thing I think I saw,” she said.
Her vivid description betrays her interest in conveying the intangibility of experience. “How could you feel one way but be another?” she asked. “This is what the issue is in art. We feel one way and are another and art is one basic means of communicating.”
Works by Lynda Benglis are on view in On Screen at Entrée (Markeveien 4B, Bergen, Norway) through September 4, in the group show Adhesive Products at Bergen Kunsthall (Rasmus Meyers allé 5, Bergen, Norway) from September 2 to October 9, and in Is It Now?, which will be staged in several private homes around Bergen from December 6–9.