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Lost in Play: Adapting the Zone of Imagination in the Works of Guy Ben-Ner

Tom Gunning, Professor, Art History and Committee on Cinema and Media Studies, University of Chicago


Adaptation provides a key to the video work of Guy Ben-Ner, but not simply because some of his key works (such as Moby Dick and Wild Child, both included in the Smart Museum’s Adaptation exhibition) take their titles and imagery from preexisting literary and cinematic works by Herman Melville and François Truffaut. Instead of simply repackaging famous texts in a new form or medium, Ben-Ner deals with adaptation on multiple levels. Most profoundly, Ben-Ner explores the fundamental adaptations that occur as human beings construct their worlds: the creation of a habitus, a home, but also a means of living and dwelling upon the earth.

The creation, or transformation, of domestic dwelling space often takes center stage in his work. But for Ben-Ner this drama does not revolve simply around the struggle for nourishment and shelter (the creation of a human realm that protects life against the stern demands of nature). Nature in the raw rarely appears in his work. Indeed, Wild Child works in the opposite direction, creating within Ben-Ner’s interior loft space an artificial image of the forest and the realm of nature (an obviously synthetic and constructed set that has been re-created for the Adaptation exhibition, allowing a sort of mise-en-abyme experience as viewers watch Ben-Ner’s video seated within a re-creation of its fictional site). Thus Ben-Ner portrays nature through a humanly created second nature. But this second nature also must be transformed and adapted, from a space of everyday life providing a place to eat and sleep, to a place where the imagination can expand: kitchens invaded by sharks and sea squalls, loft spaces complete with burrows and tree houses. Domestic space in Ben-Ner’s work becomes adapted into a space of play and fiction. Ben-Ner reminds us that we don’t simply dwell in a space that serves our immediate survival needs, but in spaces that shelter the essential functions of make-believe and that provide the basis of literature, religion, and rituals—in short, human culture.

Ben-Ner’s work evokes the world of children’s play, not simply because much of his work shows him behaving in a childlike fashion or goofing around with his own young kids. His work captures something fundamental about a child’s imagination, yet he never sentimentalizes childhood, choosing instead to reveal the truly serious role that playing constitutes for children. Play provides the means of acculturation in human society, helping children to adapt to the world of adults. For children, play becomes serious, important business. As the great psychologist of childhood D. W. Winnicott, claimed, playing stakes out and explores an essential area of human experience, fashioning a space where inner and outer realities merge and one adapts to the other. Winnicott describes the role of play in the foundation of human culture this way:

“No human being is free from the strain of relating inner and outer reality, and . . . relief from this strain is provided by an intermediate area of experience which is not challenged (arts, religion, etc.). This intermediate area is in direct continuity with the play area of the small child who is “lost’ in play.”1

According to Winnicott, maintaining the openness and freedom of this buffer area between illusion and reality allows the child to adapt to the demands of reality and become a mature healthy adult. Playing takes the elements of reality and redefines them in terms of fantasy. Ben-Ner’s adaptations of Melville or Truffaut never even attempt to re-create a believable illusion of reality (the sort of simulacrum that could be found in John Huston’s rather dull 1956 adaptation of Moby Dick as a Hollywood film, or in the remakes of classic films that seem increasingly to fill contemporary movie theaters). Instead, Ben-Ner frankly displays the improvised processes of make-believe, the alchemical transformation of the objects and spaces of everyday life into vehicles of fiction. Rather than attempting a creditable counterfeit, Ben-Ner’s kitchen sink version of Moby Dick captures the very process of play, adapting reality to the dictates of the imagination and vice versa. Rather than recapturing the experience of the original text (an impossibility in any case, I would claim) Ben-Ner clears a space between the source and his own realm of play—a space of imagination, a space of adaptation. This is the creative realm that Winnicott sees as the foundation for not only the development of every human child but all human culture and creativity. Even more than our homes and buildings, this space of imagination becomes the place we truly dwell in, our habitus as humans.

A critic whom I respect once dismissed Ben-Ner’s Wild Child as unbearably cute and sentimental. I cannot agree, although a superficial experience of Ben-Ner’s work may dismiss playfulness the same way that adults tend to dismiss children and their games as immature and silly. But Ben-Ner’s games with famous texts have a darker side. Winnicott not only sees play as essential to growing up, but also as a dangerous and potentially threatening zone. The line between play and madness lies within this intermediate zone of the imagination. Ben-Ner’s work may seem charming, but it also is freighted with horror of bodily maiming and of being eaten alive that provide gags and drama in Ben-Ner’s Moby Dick also invoke the horror and fears that inhabit children’s nightmares. The process of separation from a maternal nature that Truffaut explores in his Wild Child becomes in Ben-Ner’s version the essential and often painful process undergone in every family as father and son form a bond over a deeper separation.

Adaptation should not be a seamless process. It can never be simply the translation of a text from one medium to another. The work of Ben-Ner makes visible the process of adapting itself, rather than hiding it behind the curtain of special effects and believable simulation. He makes visible the process of play by which aspects of reality become cloaked in the shimmer of the imagination as he guides us into the space in which make-believe and necessity forge an often-uneasy truce. Playing is hard work. These amusing, charming, and often hilarious video works by Ben-Ner rehearse the process of adaptation between inner and outer worlds. The space for this adventure dwells within loft spaces and apartment kitchens as much as forests and oceans.

1D. W. Winnicott, Playing and Reality (New York: Brunner Routledge, 2002), 13.

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