Every now and then I get a hold of a book that makes the reading experience just a little bit more special—more than the pleasure of reading the story—it’s what I think about while I’m reading it and the churning of thoughts after I’ve set it aside. When I started writing this—this, whatever it is, my review in a sense, but not a review in another sense, my musing or my study, my pondering. I done dragged out a trunk load of notions, harvested quotes from the book and mined from art history by the bushel, and have spent days cutting, pasting, rearranging, setting aside, and leaving out to finally get this—this is what I want to say about Benchere in Wonderland. This is my first reading of a Steven Gillis novel, he’s been on my “to read” radar for quite a long time, I’m so happy to have become acquainted (at last). It’s taken me longer to write this than to read the book. Throughout my journey, I bookmarked dozens of pages—if it were an actual paper copy, it would be riddled with dog-ears at both top and bottom corners and yes, underlined with notes in the margins. I read it on my laptop and read it on my phone of all things! (I never thought I’d ever go to that tiny screen—so you see, it made my brain itch enough that I had to read it wherever, whenever, with whatever.) So, let me spell out my general sentiments, as if you haven’t already guessed—I loved the book. (I will definitely want to acquire a hard copy for my library so I can have the tactile experience of dog-earing it properly.)
Let me tell you about my experience with Benchere in Wonderland—I wandered into the Kalahari Desert, observed Benchere working on his sculpture, and indulged in the complex theories having to do with “What is art? And the apt proclamation, “Art for art’s sake!” The core of Benchere in Wonderland is ideas and ideals, art and the man, and the human nature brew of shit happening, whether instigated or not, but sometimes it’s our actions that start the landslide. With that said—while I read the book, I brought my art school baggage, art historical knowledge, and my experiences as an artist for the excursion. As a reader with this artsy background, I appreciated the emotive howls of Michael Benchere when he felt set upon, misunderstood—irritated—or simply full of himself.
I am Benchere, fickle and firm and quick to howl, I want, followed by, I will.
I will, I say, I will, again. (From page 13, Prologue)
Benchere is very human (and he loves his dog, Jazz.) His fumbling courtship with Marti in the beginning is sweet, just as his grieving for her is emotionally palpable in ways that are relatable. He’s back to fumbling when he’s faced with Deyna and feels the natural confusion of feelings, loyalty to memory, and longing to fill the hole in his life—something he never imagined, thus, his hesitation and reluctance is as expected for a man who recently lost his wife. His memories of Marti blend with the present—with her, Benchere went from an unknown sculptor fresh out of college to an unlikely, yet very successful architect, then after his achievements, he quit to follow his bliss—being a sculptor, which in turn garnered success because he is “Benchere”. The public figure—a brand name—the art and the man who makes it—and then the peanut gallery that sits on the sidelines with expectations and their opinions about what it means—this. THIS. THIS!
What is “this”—what is art? (In my experience, everybody has an opinion on this question—some are relatively strong opinions, not necessarily agreed upon by all who are listening—they’re just that, opinions—not the answer, right or wrong.) It’s always funny to me how everyone seems to have their own idea about what art should be—and persist to shout each other down about their point of view—abstract or realism, right or left, Coke or Pepsi, literary fiction or commercial fiction, chocolate or peanut butter. The artist’s intent and the viewer’s experience of the art is a crapshoot. Same goes for books—I connected with this book in a personal level, which books do for everyone who reads them, and so, like art, books can be read and interpreted based on personal experience—revered by one, reviled by another.
Art for art’s sake!
It is what it is—it’s the artist getting in the studio to dirty their hands making something out of nothing. The artist is compelled to do this act of self-expression—not everyone is so “blessed”—a good many lament “I can’t draw a straight line to save my life.” Well, shoot—neither can I, that’s why I use a ruler, even then I can fuck it up if the ruler moves, but who cares? It never stopped me from drawing a horse when I was seven years old—granted, it looked more like a dog, but whatever, I made it—it was mine—it was beautiful.
Does art have to be about something—does it have to “make a statement” for it to be acceptable or exceptional? Whistler said it with eloquent flair so typical of him (which I happily found quoted on page 153 in the midst of an intense discussion between Benchere and Deyna):
“Art should be independent of all claptrap – should stand alone […] and appeal to the artistic sense of eye or ear, without confounding this with emotions entirely foreign to it, as devotion, pity, love, patriotism and the like.”
Benchere believes art is meant to inspire the human soul, not issue dictates or dogma. “My art is no roiled fist. I am not some poster maker. My sculptures aren’t done up as a stomping boot or raised middle finger to be monopolized and propagandized for any faction, right or left.” (P 34)
An artist makes art with the materials of choice—some plan out their studio endeavors with set parameters in mind, while others wing it for the joy of getting their hands dirty—they immerse themselves into the meditation of creativity—the flow of pencil to paper, paint to canvas, hand to clay, hammer to metal, flame to weld. It’s a beautiful state of mind to be in, the struggle both frustrating and passionate, questions and epiphanies, or just the general ramble of thoughts and knots of personal problems outside the sacred realm of the studio, the things that make you grumble to yourself and cause you look up and pause to ask, “What do I want to have for dinner?” Answered with a shrug and “ah, fuck it,” and then back to work. The natural stopping point happens with a sigh, the artist steps away, it’s like waking from a dream—you’ve been gone a long while, time slipped away because last you knew you ate breakfast, the coffee you brought with you has gone cold, you’re starving because you missed lunch, and dinner is late. That is a good day. Goodness knows being an artist isn’t easy—it’s quite terrifying because there’s no money in it unless you’re very fortunate and slip through the keyhole of circumstances that put you with the right people who will support you—not just nurture your talent, but believe in you. Benchere is one of the lucky ones, he’s achieved the artist’s dream of following one’s bliss—for the moment, his is intending to construct a 300-foot sculpture in the Kalahari Desert. (How fucking cool is that?)
Benchere and his marriage to Marti reminded me of the numerous husband/wife creative duos of art history, and the notion of going to a location to create a work of art reminded me most of all of Christo and Jeanne-Claude. Once upon a time, I had the pleasure of experiencing The Gates. Like many people, I have wrestled with the purpose of their work, and because they mystify so many people with their desire to wrap or drape the landscape, buildings, bridges (or whatever tickles their fancy) with fabric, they are probably one of our most controversial contemporary artists. They create work of visually impressive scale (and pay for it themselves without using public funds.) They insist that their projects do not contain any deeper meaning than their “being there”. Their purpose is simple—they want to create works of art for joy and beauty, to create new ways of seeing familiar landscapes. The Gates on a sunny day in February was indeed very beautiful—ideal, very whimsical.
“I am an artist, and I have to have courage … Do you know that I don’t have any artworks that exist? They all go away when they’re finished. Only the preparatory drawings and collages are left, giving my works an almost legendary character. I think it takes much greater courage to create things to be gone than to create things that will remain.” – Christo
Sadly, Christo is now without Jeanne-Claude—yet he soldiers on with plans for new projects. Throughout the process of making the sculpture, Benchere thought of Marti, and keenly felt her presence (absence.) When he climbed to the top of the sculpture to install Marti’s wind chime it was incredibly touching.
Art is—if anything—very personal for the artist.
“It takes an inflated sense of self to build such a thing.” (P. 34) Any self-respecting artist is a bit of a narcissist—some of us don’t like to admit it because it’s frowned upon to be selfish and self-centered, but it goes with the immersion thing that happens in the studio. And therefore, Benchere howls.
The brief interludes with the characters, Rose and Stern, were mysterious and yet, highly amusing. At times, I saw them as the infamous art critics Hilton Kramer and Clement Greenberg sitting back, kibitzing over why Benchere is creating a sculpture in the Kalahari Desert. Then I saw them as the Muppet Show hecklers, Statler and Waldorf, musing aloud to one another from their perch about the state of affairs unfolding in the growing community of Benchere’s followers in the desert below them. This may not be the intention for them, but this is my point of view—my experience of them.
It’s only natural that Benchere’s intentions are suspect, he is a political person, known for civil disobedience and all the water stirring dissention that goes along with that sort of agitation—he has drawn attention to himself in this way as well, which causes questions about his reason for being in the Kalahari erecting a 300-foot sculpture. When it comes to his art—he becomes cagey and sidesteps the questions that people put to him regarding what it means. Everyone seems to have an idea about what it is he’s up to when he sets out to build this 300-foot sculpture in the Kalahari Desert—some political statement to incite the people to do—what? Something—but he says not. He’s building a sculpture. Simple. You think? (Chuckle.) Unfortunately, being a public personality doesn’t allow for anonymity—someone that big cannot fart and not have someone wonder what he meant by that emancipation of gas. The technology of our time makes news of events travel with instant persistence, so that anyone who wants to know about what Benchere is doing and the consequences of his sculpture can watch it unfold—almost like being there, the cast of characters that build up around him is impressive and yet absurd. He refuses to take responsibility for other people’s actions or the connection they’ve made to him, his art, and his politics. As the project commences, the camp is a magnet for followers of Benchere to congregate—some want to exploit while others want to be part of the experience and they declare, “We have shown up solely because you are here.” (P. 118) As the camp population continues to grow, human nature and it’s penchant to meddle, muddle, and attempt to create organization in chaos is a disaster waiting to happen as factions and factors make fractals less mind-boggling—it is a distraction that Benchere was not counting on when he set out for Africa.
When people in areas of political tension start building sculptures at demonstrations and chant “Ben-chere, Ben-chere!” as they run away—the police or military destroy these inspired maquettes—so everyone watching says “Hmmmmmm….” Benchere throws up his hands and says, “Art is open to interpretation, but that interpretation is personal. People are free to interpret my art any way they like. But people can’t use my art to assert their own shit and pretend that their assertion comes from me. You can’t hoof-tie art and drag it around in a gunnysack, yanking it out in order to tell people what to think or not think.” (p. 149)
The anthropologist, Deyna—the anomaly that pokes at Benchere—continually challenges him during their discussions—
“Nothing occurs in a vacuum,” Deyna says. “The moment you place something in the world, there is consequence.” (p. 110)
“I’m only interested in making my sculpture. What comes of it comes of it.” (P.110)
Then in making the comparison anthropological exploration to art Deyna says “You’re searching as you create, never completely sure what you’re going to find and yet knowing, if all goes well, you’ll discover something amazing in your work.” (p. 111)
And then a few pages later:
“My personal politics are just that. My beliefs are mine and my art is something different.” (p.152)
“And what is that thing?”
“This,” Benchere says and slaps his chest then throws out his arms with such force as to surprise himself.
The debate goes on—Benchere goes on from there.
What is art…
I found I could say things with color and shapes that I couldn’t say any other way – things I had no words for.—Georgia O’Keeffe
6/17/2015 Laura J. W. Ryan