James Benning and Peter Hutton
by Ben Mendelsohn
NATURE IS A DISCIPLINE
It is difficult to overstate the influence of Peter Hutton and James Benning, two towering figures in American avant-garde cinema and the standard bearers for a deeply attentive approach to landscape. Putting their work side by side in a gallery, as curator Ed Halter has done at Miguel Abreu’s two locations on the Lower East Side, is sure to turn a few heads. Yet while pairing these two lions of experimental cinema may seem faintly gimmicky, Halter convincingly presents them as filmmakers with a similar story. Not only do they share a deep commitment to blurring the lines between natural and industrial landscapes, but both have also moved cautiously in recent years from 16mm to digital formats.
The exhibition presents three multi-channel video installations, two by Hutton and one by Benning. The latter’s Tulare Road (2010), the only piece with sound, consists of three similarly framed images of a stretch of highway in California’s Central Valley: in dense fog, in thick cloud cover, and in mostly blue skies. We observe the comings and goings of cars and trucks while looking for subtle differences in the landscape—the quality of the light, but also the patterns of tire tracks on the side of the road or the clarity of the mountains silhouetted along the horizon.
In a compact 18 minutes, Tulare Road demonstrates how a single place can look and feel entirely different. Yet seeing all three images side by side also emphasizes some minor asymmetries in Benning’s framings—the side of the road meets the lower left corner of the frame differently in each take. Presumably, this subtle difference could have been corrected in post-production, but Benning leaves it intact, underscoring his willingness to be imprecise. It’s a reminder that while Benning often sets strict rules for himself, he also feels free to break them.
Next door, Hutton’s 2007 film At Sea, a portrait of global cargo shipping, is transformed from three sequential chapters into three adjacent channels. Whereas the theatrical version tells a linear story, the installation emphasizes simultaneity: ship assembly in South Korea, the passage of cargo across the North Atlantic, and shipbreaking on a beach in Bangladesh proceed all at once.
The installation’s multiplying effect, however, is not merely temporal. It also emphasizes At Sea’s iconographic dimensions, breaking the film into photographic tropes that cross-reference a range of related films. The voyage at sea and its colorful containers photographed from the ship’s bridge, for example, invoke Allan Sekula and Noël Burch’s The Forgotten Space (2010). The shipbreaking recalls Michael Glawogger’s strikingly similar scene in Workingman’s Death (2005). And the shipbuilding passage invokes Kelvin Kyung Kun Park’s A Dream of Iron (2014), which was perhaps an explicit homage to Hutton (and Benning and Sekula) to begin with. In the cinema, At Sea emphasizes atmosphere and wonderment, downplaying these intertextual notes. But in three channels, the film becomes ripe for typologizing. We contemplate not just the circulation of cargo, but the circulation of cargo shipping’s cinematic representations as well.
In reference to Benning, Hutton, and others, Scott MacDonald famously wrote that their use of long duration and clinically precise framings seeks to “retrain perception” of space, time, and the environment. Surely, these filmmakers have inspired legions of like-minded artists to slow down and look exhaustively at one thing at a time. So what does it mean to take such a concentrated, deliberative focus and to split it up? Does Nature is a Discipline mark an acquiescence by the filmmakers, a reluctant embrace of digitally-fueled divided attention?
The most convincing argument against such a reading is Hutton’s Three Landscapes (2013). Here,repeating structures and rhyming visual elements draw the viewer into the three screens as a kind of aggregate landscape. Salt mining in Ethiopia is combined with farmworkers in New York’s Hudson Valley and bridge repairmen in Detroit. During much of the 47-minute loop, the landscapes are contrasted—the bridge repairmen are abstracted as faceless, silhouetted lemmings while the salt miners and their camels are depicted in intimate bodily proximity. At other times, however, all three scenes line up perfectly, with workers traversing the horizon in a kind of cosmic unison. The images often repeat and move from screen to screen. Hutton’s orchestration is precise, imaginative, and revealing.
Benning and Hutton often traffic in bits of American iconography that can feel decidedly nostalgic—nondescript roads, agricultural fields, smokestacks—and this show is no exception. This makes it all the more jarring to see their work at Abreu Gallery, where the bookshelves are lined with the “non-philosophy” of François Laruelle and manifestos on “accelerationist aesthetics,” emphatic signifiers of stylish avant-garde leftism. Perhaps this collision was the point all along. If the distracted viewing of the gallery has the effect of speeding up Benning and Hutton’s work, perhaps the accelerationists are also forced to spend more time staring at the surrounding landscape in return. Halter seems to imply that any leftist discourse investigating planetary industrialization or the material traces of global capitalism should include Benning, Hutton, and the tradition of observational landscape cinema. Here, there can be no argument.
BEN MENDELSOHN is a PhD student in Media, Culture, and Communication at New York University where he focuses on environment, infrastructure, and experimental film. He is currently developing a dissertation project and series of video essays about human earthmoving and the Anthropocene.