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James Benning

James Benning, 2007

James Benning, 2007

Photo by Jake Fuller

Born 1942, Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Before earning an MFA in filmmaking from the University of Wisconsin at the age of thirty-three, James Benning studied mathematics at both undergraduate and graduate levels. His 16mm films are known for their rigorous treatment of the American landscape and their critical exploration of history, memory, and documentary traditions. After living and working in New York for several years, Benning joined the faculty at the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts) in the late 1980s.

His Two Cabins project encompasses an ensemble of installations, paintings, drawings, prints, and films, along with a publication. In 2007 Benning began to build a cabin on the isolated property he owns in Val Verde, near the CalArts campus, modeled after the famous structure that writer Henry David Thoreau built near Walden Pond. The next year Benning erected a second cabin, approximating the infamous dwelling of the “Unabomber,” Ted Kaczynski. While Thoreau occupies a hallowed space in the national imaginary and the terroristic rhetoric and actions of Kaczynski render him irredeemable, the two cabins unearth Thoreau and Kaczynski’s shared investments in solitude, self-determination, and nature as well as in civil disobedience. By faithfully duplicating these iconic structures, Benning joins this dialogue, triangulating his own position. Handmade copies of works by “outsider” artists, from Bill Traylor to Henry Darger, decorate the interior of the cabins. Benning’s attempt to inhabit and learn from the eccentric practices of these artists intimately probes the boundaries of the mainstream art world that separate their positions from his own.

Featuring long, stationary shots of the lush, wooded landscape visible from Benning’s porch, with only his replica of Kaczynski’s cabin as a reference point, his film Stemple Pass is divided into four segments, one for each season. The first fifteen minutes of each shot are set to Kaczynski’s words, taken from his manifesto, journals, and a 2001 prison interview, which slip between innocuous musings on nature and violent screeds and threats. These texts, read by the artist, are followed by a long stretch of ambient noise, fostering a state of heightened alertness in the viewer. Kaczynski’s words find their pendant in the extracts from Thoreau’s writings that the artist reproduced in After Thoreau. Just as Benning lent his own voice to the film, he retraced Thoreau’s script in his careful hand.


Jenevive Nykolak


Ault, Julie, ed. (FC) Two Cabins by JB. With James Benning and Dick Hebdige. New York: A.R.T. Press, 2011.

Pakesch, Peter, and Bettina Steinbrügge, eds. James Benning: Decoding Fear. Cologne: Verlag der Buchhandlung Walther König, 2014.