In her newest project, Jane Benson slices violins, a cello, a viola, and a double bass in half—then has musicians play the severed instruments. The result: The Splits. Richard J. Goldstein speaks to her about this strange endeavor.
In her latest project, Jane Benson finds herself moving from sculpture to performance. But she’s not going at it alone. She’s bringing along 10 musicians and composer Matthew Schickle on what is her foray into classical music. She’s been busy applying her carefully considered destructive nature to mass produced, yet ever-elegant, stringed instruments. Cutting right up their middles, Benson fillets two violins, viola, cello, and double bass—what she calls The Splits—to be shared between musicians. Each instrument takes two musicians to play, so the traditional quintet becomes a dectet. Her intent was to bring people together, not only through collaboration, but in making the instruments whole again. Though performative in nature, the concept had its origins with a sculptural curiosity…to open the interior space of the instruments’ bodies.
Richard Goldstein: There’s a definite kind of romance about your work and it seems to me kind of like a very specific kind of English romance with all the swans, etc. in your work…it reminds me of walking through Hyde Park. But it’s also kind of a tweaked version of it and hybridized. These references are drawn from your English background?
Jane Benson: I always think of it as a beleagured romanticism, a broken romanticism. I don’t know whether it actually comes from my background or comes from me having this slightly skewed and darker than natural perspective on the world. It may even be a humor that’s there in the works; romanticisim wouldn’t fulfill me. It’s always, if I’m going to take on something like that then I would have to Monty Python-esque it a little which I think is the nature, the topsy-turvy nature of dealing with either the subject matter and or the object and the material itself is definitely…it’s tweaked in a way that reinvents the subject and the object in that it’s recognizable in itself but it has a character and an identity that is unfamiliar and surprising, which is often not funny but has a humorous slightly sort of wry nature…
RG: …in the turn about
RG: And in that sense, the kind of tweaking of it or playing, there’s almost a science-fiction, mad side to it, too.
JB: Yeah, there always seems to be this sort of very subtle sci-fi element to the work. It’s definitely not specific and its not heavy handed and that would apply to everything in my work. It’s unfortunately subtle sometimes. I’m not hitting anyone over the head with any gesture or any statement; it weaves through ideas and there’s a quiet thread, semantic, and balance through the work.
RG: It’s interesting though that sometimes in your process you do push it to the extreme, with the plucking of birds, for example, or where you cut so far the thing almost falls apart, like the wallpapers or paisley suits.
JB: The Bitches.
RG: They’re quiet but you really are quite aggressive by what you do to them.
JB: I guess you don’t really identify with your own gestures sometimes, but there is an aggressive/obsessive nature to the work. Perhaps, that obsessiveness, which is often quiet, once it’s accumulated can be seen as quite aggressive. In order to reinvent the object to manifest the transition or the transformation of the material, there has to be an element of destruction, I suppose—for me. That seems to be the way I’ve developed this behavior which is…(laughs) Unfortunately, I’ve developed a destructive side to my personality, and it’s apparent in every single body of my work over the past 10 years.
RG: What have you been doing with The Mews work since we last met? It seems like there are a lot more busts here.
JB: The initial body of work that I started exploring after The Mews show spun off from the Wig Head, first seen in The Mews, and it is a marbleized resin faceless bust that wears a clay portrait as a toupee. So the representation of either myself or whoever is being represented is not through the bust it’s through a toupee. The clay representation of the somebody is worn as a cock-eyed toupee on the marbleized bust. So, I wanted to explore the idea of the wig head. I have a whole new series of wig head sculptures which fall under the umbrella of the Family Wig Head, which are basically my mother, father, and myself all worn on various marbleized resin busts. Each toupee, or each portrait, is either the hair of myself and the face of another…so we all wear each other in comic assemblages. Also, the busts in the original wig head series—they were faceless, but they were complete marbleized busts. So, they looked like a Styrofoam mannequin. But in the new works, I’ve pushed the element of cutting and splicing into the pedestal. They’re definitely far more absurd structures—the quite formalism of the original wig head was left behind in 2009. They are far more abstract, far more playful now.
RG: Can you tell me a little bit about your new piece The Splits, and how you arrived at the idea?
JB: The Splits is a new body of work that takes my practice into collaboration and performance for the first time. I’m collaborating with a composer, Matt Schickle, and 10 musicians. Basically, I’ve taken the instruments of a quintet—so five string instruments: two violins, a viola, a cello, and a double base—and split all of them perfectly down the middle. So you’re creating two even halves, with two high strings and two low strings on each half, and the idea is that, as each half only has the high strings or low strings, they have to be played together to complete a tune. So again, the idea of this beleaguered romanticism comes in—you can’t complete a tune unless two players play together each separated half. Originally when I conceived of the idea, I was thinking that The Splits would play within this absurd salon-type environment and the busts, the new Wig Head series, were going to create the environment for the performance. And that still might happen, but initially I saw them as being dependent on each other. But as I’ve worked through both bodies of work, I think they are equally as independent as they are co-dependent on each other.
RG: Did The Splits grow out of a literary reference for you? I know with the work from The Mews you mentioned Against Nature, a kind of sensibility coming from that, is it on the same line?
JB: No, there was no literary reference for The Splits. I wish I could reveal the moment that I knew that The Splits was going to occur. All I know is that I was applying for a residency at the Victoria and Albert Museum, and I came up with The Splits.
RG: How did you meet Matt or get the collaboration started with him?
JB: Through incredibly generous and open musicians that I met. I started talking to people about The Splits and from the very moment I opened my mouth about them, I’ve been met with nothing but generosity and enthusiasm and I think I first met my violinist and then the first violinist introduced me to the cellist and another violinist and then it was, You should meet this composer. And it’s really just been this really wonderful spontaneous community that has been created which is actually one of the ideas with The Splits because in the destruction or the halving of the instrument you destroy the original aesthetic identity, but its reinventing the instrument and creating new community. So, you have new communities not only of what would be one violin player having to become two violinists playing together; and the new community of myself, the artist, working with musicians, and the composer. It’s been nothing but this continuing dialogue since I started.
RG: So it’s splitting and joining.
JB: Exactly, which was initially the very idea. It was not to destroy the instrument it was to create something new, a new aesthetic possibility. I want to just say at this point if there are musicians cringing at the idea of splitting the instrument, I’m working with Chinese mass produced string instruments and the reason I started doing that as I was talking to musicians, it came up at numerous times, but I was talking about the price of instruments and instruments that I’ve seen and they were saying, Oh well, the Chinese instruments, these mass produced instruments, they don’t actually consider to be real instruments. They wouldn’t play them, these cheap ones that are churned out by the factory. So, that seemed like the perfect trajectory—these are considered fake instruments and I’ll take something that’s fake and reintroduce it, reinvent it as the split. There’s this negotiation between the real and the fake in various forms for many years.
RG: And Matt’s writing music specifically for them?
JB: Matt is writing an original composition for The Splits. The premier will be at Henry Street Settlement, Abroms Art Center at the end of January. So there are 10 musicians, Matt, and myself working towards The Splits’ first performance.
RG: You’re also altering the scores, right? You’re cutting into the paper.
JB: Yes, because each half of the instrument only has hi notes or low notes they can only play a very specific range of notes. So the musician that’s playing the side of the violin with the high notes plays the sheet music with the low notes cut away and vice versa. I’m also working on a series of decollage pieces that involves the sheet music and the cutting out of specific notes for each musician.
RG: How do the instruments sound once you open them up?
JB: They sound very different, particularly the violin. It seems to be that the larger the instrument, the double base and the cello, they resemble the sound of the original instrument to a certain extent. When the musicians have picked the instruments up, the element of shock at playing the double base and the cello is far less than when the violinist picks up the split violin and negotiates the sound for the first time. The violin was actually really beautifully described by Matt as the sound, he imagines, a sitar makes through the radio, a bad radio. The sound is much higher and the notes are much shorter with the body of the violin and the body of the instrument being cut into two—the resonance is greatly affected. You have this very short note and a note that’s much higher than the original sound.
RG: There’s a sense of completion and incompletion in your work. How do you go about finding a sense of completion with the different pieces?
JB: It’s an interesting question, and I think I’ve been negotiating that problem quite a bit lately. The Wig Head series is actually the most formal sculpture I’ve made in a long time. With The Splits there’s, of course, the idea and the action and I’m done. Whereas with the Wig Heads the completion of the piece, after the original idea of the portrait to be worn as a toupee, is a negation between destruction and repositioning. Work is initiated with the destruction of the pedestal and continues with it’s reconstruction and reinvention with the addition of the Wig Heads. Their placement is directly related to the cuts and slices in the pedestal, so the restructuring of the pedestal in the construction of the final piece requires seemingly endless formal games between cuts, slices, wigs, and busts until a formal stand off is achieved. I think of it as a stand off rather than a balance because a formal practice is something atypical of my practice. I don’t know whether this has something to do with this very apparent notion of completion and incompletion, but there are some I just can’t complete…perhaps I’m more comfortable with something being destabilized rather than complete.
RG: You mention some of these pieces being really formal and one of the things that sets that up is the use of the plinth. Do you think some sculpture is afraid to present itself formally…That it prefers to be more casual and laid back out of this fear of being on the plinth now and more formal?
JB: I’m not sure. I think there’s an awful lot of formal sculpture in contemporary work. I think maybe there’s a renegotiation of what formal might be, but it is very much about the relationships between elements of the work no matter how casual or formal. Even a casual gesture is as formal as something that might immediately seem more apparent to be serious formalism in a work. But it’s hard to talk generally.
Even the split instruments—currently we’re looking at them all lined up on the wall of the studio—look like incredibly formal works. They’re beautiful. I don’t mean my work is beautiful (laughs); I mean splitting, the very act of splitting an instrument in half and seeing the interior of the instrument, seeing something we’re never permitted to see, paired with their gorgeousness creates this absolutely flawless object. I did have to do a little re-engineering with each half of each instrument: the bridge of each instrument originally only has two feet, but when split only has one foot, so I had to add a foot to each half bridge. So there’s re-engineering in the bridge and re-engineering in the tail piece, in that there’s one tail gut to each tail piece, once split, I have to secure each half of the tail piece to the tail gut.
RG: So you’re just getting the recital down now?
JB: At the moment, we’re basically involved in practice sessions and actually as we speak one of the violins is with Matt. He’s working with one of the violinists recording a short violin duet. So, it’s practice sessions. There’s a steep learning curve working with The Splits. So far, there have been nothing but some pretty fantastic surprises.
RG: Are you playing any of them?
JB: I’m not. (laughs) I don’t have a musical bone in my body, which is the wonderful side of this. There are very specific roles. I am the sculptor and I hand the object over to the composer and the musicians, which is sort of fantastic because for one they are not precious objects any more. They are things I could mail to somebody if they need to work with them overseas or something. But I hand these objects to the musicians and they become theirs. They are like functioning instruments. And also it is incredibly liberating because there is that element of completion and incompletion that you were talking about. I hand off something that’s entirely incomplete. I have cut it and it’s useless and goes nowhere unless somebody else takes it and completes the work. Perhaps I’m tired of incompletion. (laughs) I need somebody else to finish my work, so I’ve decided to collaborate!