Artist Keren Benbenisty discusses her practice and observations on the current moment in this interview. Based in New York full-time, but living in Israel when this interview was conducted, Keren’s practice is project-based. She explores notions of loss and displacement through historical narratives and myths. Her work focuses on micro-events and their long-term ramifications within disciplines of archeology, biology, and linguistics. Keren writes to us from her temporary studio in Israel about her current research on a viral disease affecting citrus plants, and a new body of work that examines power relations between language, place, and land.
This interview was conducted in June 2020 as part of Artis’ series, From the Desk of…. In this series, we check in with artists, curators, and collectors about their recent projects, reflections on social distancing and quarantine, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as how they are practicing, experiencing, and engaging with art.
Tell us about a project you’re working on now. What kind of research are you doing to develop this project?
COVID-19 caught me in a moment of transition. For the past 8 years, I have been living and working in New York. But in the early Spring of 2020, I planned to split my time between Israel—where I would conduct research for new projects—and Brussels, Belgium, where I was invited to be an artist-in-residence at the Villa Empain. Due to the pandemic, the residency at Villa Empain was postponed, as was a planned solo exhibition at Art in General in Brooklyn, New York, which was slated to open in September 2020. Amidst these changes, I decided to proceed with my plan to travel and work in Israel, where I have been focusing on two new projects since mid-March. The first project is a film titled Blurange (Tapuchol), a portmanteau I coined that combines the words blue and orange. It is a continuation of my body of work, Fajja, which was exhibited at the Petah Tikva Museum of Art in Petah Tikva, Israel, in 2018. Fajja examines the relationship between topography and typography through the lens of the cultivation and production of Jaffa oranges, and uses the wrapping paper of the Jaffa orange brand as material. Semi-documentary and also surreal, my new film, Blurange, will juxtapose scientific facts about citrus greening disease, a disease found in citrus fruits that is threatening to the citrus industry, and research methods used by genetic engineers, with surreal ideas about producing new, imagined hybrid strains of blue oranges.
I often use the color blue in my work, unpacking how scientific contributions shape the relationships between people and places. The imagined blue orange variety in Blurange is a hybrid, a mutation of the orange fruit that we are familiar with. Its origin is placeless, evoking and questioning the social construct of Levantinism that was developed in the writing and thought of Jacquline Shohet Kahanov. Kahanov explores an identity that straddles different regions, particularly between the East and West, as a reassessment of Arab-Jewish relations and identity in the Middle East.
The second project is a video-collage that will be filmed in four adjacent locations at Apollonia Tel-Arsuf Sidna-Ali, an archeological site located in the northwestern part of the modern city of Herzliya, Israel (my hometown), overlooking the Mediterranean coast. The video will document daily life in the area as viewed from multiple perspectives, capturing complex histories, experiences, and cultures that inhabit this one place.
Parallel to this video, a text-based work will show the evolution of Apollonia’s changing place-names over time at different points in history, which are a result of Hebracized Arabic or Latin place-names. Through a multi-layered contemplation of a place and toponyms, the project will examine existing power-relations between language and land.
Has your practice shifted in response to social distancing and quarantine regulations?
Physically, artists are in quarantine most of the time while we work in our studio. Conceptually, COVID-19 has made me see new parallels between our current experience and the research I am doing for my new project. When COVID-19 surfaced in January in Wuhan, China, I had just started researching the greening disease in citrus trees, and I realized that the disease, caused by a vector-transmitted pathogen in plants, is similar to the outbreak we, humans, are now experiencing.
I often use organic material in my work, such as orange peels, fish-skin, silkworms, and stones, to show the process of metamorphosis, decay, or rebirth, and to emphasize our ambiguous and complex relationship to nature. Capitalism and globalization allow us to eat strawberries all year round, among other magnificent things, but they also account for the transmission of diseases, such as the greening disease in oranges, threatening not only the crops but an entire international citrus industry.
The project I’m now working on expands on my research into the relationship between globalization, transport-related environmental decay, ecology, and economics. The onset of COVID-19 is, coincidentally, relevant to my practice, but the issues have been present prior to the outbreak.
Is there anything, in particular, that you miss from life before social distancing?
Intimacy, my studio, swimming…
How are you staying connected to friends, family, and colleagues? What does community and solidarity mean to you nowadays?
Living and working in Israel, away from my studio in New York, and following news about the pandemic online, reminds me of the 90’s—the years I was still living here, before moving to Europe and eventually New York—and the pre-internet, pre-smartphone, pre-smart TV eras. I am re-watching films by Krzysztof Kieślowski, which shaped my adolescence. Looking at banal, daily activities, like our use of the telephone to connect with one another, Kieślowski’s films deal with themes of communication and technology, and reveal dark ideas, like the telephone as an invasion of privacy, a gadget of power that keeps us at a distance. “The telephone embodies synchronous intimacy and distance, the voice without the body, the word without the vision/image, and the symbol (words) without their immediate context in the lifeworld.” (The Films of Krzysztof Kieslowski: The Liminal Image by Joseph Kickasola)
Today, our body is the threat, and distance is the solution. We communicate through screens, participate in public events, lectures, talks, dance-parties and happy-hours by video call, but it accentuates the absence of our human, in person interactions.
It is a challenge to understand what community means and looks like today, in a capitalist society and in big cities like New York. Does capitalism allow for community, or support the idea of community? Is the idea of community based on solidarity or on capital? To me, the idea of community in a capitalist society is a contradiction, and I have more questions than answers at this point. I think, and I hope, that communities will be more valued now.
In her book, A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities that Arise in Disaster, Rebecca Solnit argues that disasters bring out the best in us and provide us with a common purpose. In situations like these, everyday concerns and societal structures vanish. A strange kind of liberation fills the air. People rise to the occasion. Social alienation seems to vanish. I am not in the U.S. right now and, unfortunately, am unable to physically participate in the current Black Lives Matter movement and demonstrations, but from afar, it feels like Solnit’s words, written 10 years ago, are revived and more accurate than ever.
I hope that we are moving towards a new reality where people take actions (rather than using words) to achieve a goal. Since I’m currently living in between two continents, I’m not sure which community I belong to, and the frustration of not taking an action that will make a difference is bothersome to me. I arrived in the midst of political turmoil in Israel, which seems to be the norm here. To what extent do I get involved, and how? Is it my place right now to change my approach and be more politically active in this country, and take action? On May 30, 2020, an unarmed 32-year-old student, Iyad al-Halak, was shot and killed by Israeli border police in East Jerusalem. This raises personal questions and inner debates of what further actions are needed by the local community to bring a deeper societal change.
Keren Benbenisty was born in Israel and moved to Paris in 1998. She graduated from the Ecole Nationale Superieure des Beaux-Arts de Paris in 2004, and attended California Institute of the Arts (CalArts) as an international exchange scholar. She was an artist-in-residence at Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture (2009); The International Studio & Curatorial Program, Brooklyn (2011); Residency Unlimited, New York (2016); Arts Maebashi, Japan (2017); and the Open Sessions Program at the Drawing Center, New York. Her work has been exhibited at the Drawing Center; A.I.R Gallery, Brooklyn; Soloway Gallery, Brooklyn; Mishkan Ein Harod, Israel; Petach Tikva Museum, Israel; Ulterior Gallery, NY; The CUNY Graduate Center, New York; Tel-Aviv Museum of Modern Art; The University Gallery, Tel Aviv; The Artist House in Jerusalem; and Human Resources in Los Angeles. www.kerenbenbenisty.com