James Benning

James Benning

Kunstverein in Hamburg

James Benning, Two Cabins, neugerriemschneider, Berlin, 2012. Photo: Jens Ziehe, Berlin. Courtesy neugerriemschneider, Berlin.

February 13, 2015

James Benning
Decoding Fear

February 14–May 10, 2015

Opening: February 13, 7pm 

Kunstverein in Hamburg
Klosterwall 23
20095 Hamburg
Hours: Tuesday–Sunday noon–6pm


With Decoding Fear, the Kunstverein in Hamburg presents the first institutional solo exhibition of the American artist James Benning (b. 1942) in Germany. In addition to his groundbreaking cinematic work, Benning deals with the conditions of technological developments and their social consequences. The ambivalence of the great American dream of (technological) progress, unlimited possibilities, freedom and independence, is reflected in his installations as well as in further works produced in a wide range of media.

Benning draws inspiration from the life and history of outlaws like the philosopher Henry David Thoreau (1817–62) or the mathematician Theodore Kaczynski (b. 1942), also known as the Unabomber. Thoreau’s 1849 essay “The Resistance to Civil Government,” about disobedience against the state, questions authoritarian structures and influenced the American protest movement of the 1960s, as well as Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi. Kaczynski terrorized the United States from 1978 to 1995 with his letter bomb assassinations and drafted a manifesto in favor of resistance against the increasing permeation of technology in society, while secluded in the mountains of Montana. Thoreau, too, was attracted by the solitude of the forest, and Benning addresses this proto-American moment of independent self-determination in his exhibition in Hamburg by presenting replications of the self-made houses of Thoreau and Kaczynski. Both cabins were originally signs of fear of the loss of freedom, which isn’t new but is currently being rekindled and, above all, revaluated.  

In film installations, Benning continues his ongoing process of empathizing and replicating, while confronting relic and replica and pushing the question of originality and autonomy to the extreme. By copying the paintings of the outsider artists Black Hawk, Bill Traylor, Martín Ramírez, Henry Darger, Jesse Howard, Joseph Yoakum, William Hawkins, and Moses Tolliver, and by linking them to an extract of Kaczynski’s diary, Benning interrogates further the myth of the autonomous artist who practices off the civilizing spectacle. Benning’s most recent work is a three-part installation consisting of a reproduction of a quilt by Missouri Pettway. She made the original patchwork quilt in 1941 out of pieces of clothing of her deceased husband. Benning expands his sample by the family history of the woman, who lived as a slave on a cotton plantation in Alabama—at one and the same time as Mondrian painted Broadway Boogie-Woogie, which is varied by Benning and translated into a glass work.

Benning lets the histories collide, not negotiating them in a documentary manner, but developing a geography of spirit. The emphatic atmosphere is created by the quality of Benning’s view, which is highly concentrated and directed by the obsession to exceed mere narration. 

The exhibition takes place in collaboration with Kunsthaus Graz. It is supported by the Ministry of Culture of the Free and Hanseatic City of Hamburg and NORD/LB Kulturstiftung. The exhibition catalog is published by Verlag der Buchhandlung Walther König, Cologne. The film program is presented in cooperation with Metropolis Kino Hamburg.  

Press contact: presse [​at​] kunstverein.de / T +49 40 322158


James Benning at Kunstverein in Hamburg
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February 13, 2015

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