CHICAGO — Typical American movie moments of heightened tension use signal sounds in tandem with the emotions portrayed by the actors on screen. The family dog knocks over a precious antique plate, and an ominous tune rolls in to signify that the pup is about to get in trouble. Dad arrives home only to catch his adolescent daughter in the act — a sharp, shrill note strikes just as he opens the door to her bedroom. In the world of Guy Ben-Ner’s “Soundtrack” (2013), the opposite types of moments occur, representing a shift in the notions of a family “drama.” For the piece, Ben-Ner appropriated eleven minutes of the soundtrack for Steven Spielberg’s 2005 War of the Worlds, a sci-fi disaster film, and shot images of his family in the kitchen to match it. He calls the process “budding,” rather than the dubbing of an audio track, and it upends the traditional Hollywood action movie narrative.
“In ‘Soundtrack,’ the idea was to reverse the usual American film projection — the world as a projection of family drama — into the situation where the world is projected into the family,” says Ben-Ner.
The movie War of the Worlds stars Tom Cruise and is loosely based on H.G. Wells’s novel of the same name. The plot is simple and, in the case of Ben-Ner, close to home, both literally and metaphorically. A man’s ex-wife drops the kids off at his place for a few days. Shortly thereafter, aliens invade the planet, and the Earth’s armies are defeated. In real life, Ben-Ner and his wife are divorced, and he lives in Israel amidst the Israeli-Lebanon and Palestinian conflicts. Employing a Duchampian conceptual model, in which the art already exists and it’s just a matter of recontextualizing it to realize that it is, indeed, art, Ben-Ner grabs those eleven minutes from the movie and creates a short video that follows the arcs and lulls of a preconceived Spielbergian audio, action, and narrative.
“The basic idea has been with me for more than ten years,” says Ben-Ner. “It is the mechanism of the work — budding, or the opposite of dubbing — images to a pre-existing, readymade soundtrack.”
As the video progresses, familiar domestic moments like blending a smoothie, swatting a housefly, putting out a minor kitchen fire, or dropping a bottle of vodka onto the floor take on epic proportions, signifying catastrophy. Interspliced with internet footage from LiveLeak of the Israeli-Lebanon and Palestinian conflicts, Ben-Ner makes the personal political and brings it all home into the domestic realm. By budding Spielberg’s soundtrack exactly onto the video, with Ben-Ner and his two adolescent children mouthing the words of the actors in the film (his third and youngest daughter only smiles knowingly, much like Maggie in The Simpsons), the artist creates a work that heightens the closeness of the public and private realms, suggesting that the family unit is never disconnected from a country’s political climate.
Yet, Ben-Ner’s art never crosses into the realm of the purely political. A similar thing happened the last time he wandered into familial territory, back in 2007, with his 18-minute video “Stealing Beauty.” In that piece, the artist, his then wife, and their two children adhere to IKEA’s slogan “Feel free to take advantage of us.” What results is a confounding, half-scripted, half-improvised video of the family experiencing domestic scenarios in IKEA stores the world over. Each sketch lasts until they are asked by IKEA staff to leave for creating real-life scenarios in models of rooms in which these moments could occur. The context of a consumer-driven space that purports to offer a clean, domestic standard the world over further marks the Ben-Ner family as displaced, othered immigrants and artists. Ben-Ner’s works comment on the relationship between consumerism and notions of the modern-day family within the context of a capitalism that conflates identity with image and the power of purchase. “Soundtrack” accomplishes this feat, too, melding moments of familial life with the accepted culture of consumer-driven entertainment experiences to critique both of those structures with aplomb.
Guy Ben-Ner’s Soundtrack continues at Aspect Ratio Gallery (119 N Peoria, Unit 3D, Chicago) until April 26.