Guy Ben-Ner: Soundtrack

25 January – 8 March 2014, Postmasters, New York

By Orit Gat

Soundtrack, 2013 (film still). Courtesy Postmasters, New York Soundtrack, 2013. Courtesy Postmasters, New York

Guy Ben-Ner is a master of one-liners. Case in point: in his new work Soundtrack (2013) he superimposes the soundtrack of minutes 22:00–33:00 of Steven Spielberg’s movie War of the Worlds (2005) onto a family drama that takes place in his Tel Aviv kitchen. It’s a simple premise developed into an 11-minute video.

Already a loose adaptation of the famous H.G. Wells novel, Spielberg’s film follows Tom Cruise as he attempts to protect his children when aliens attack the planet. Ben-Ner’s film also includes a couple of familiar actors – two of his own children, who have starred in many of his previous works, such as the memorable Stealing Beauty (2007), which was shot in various IKEA branches and analyses the family as an economic unit, and Moby Dick (2000), an unhinged reenactment of the great American novel using Ben-Ner’s kitchen as a set and himself as a clumsy combination of Ishmael and Captain Ahab.

In Soundtrack, the artist and his three children (Ben-Ner’s newest progeny makes her first appearance here) perform the movie in a way that is reminiscent of scenes that expose how Foley artists created sound effects in old radio plays and so highlight the gap between the family’s domestic activities and the dramatic soundtrack: the sound of an aeroplane taking off is coupled with footage of a blender used to make a breakfast shake, a series of explosions with plates falling off a shelf.

The pathos of this kitchen-sink drama is charming and amusing

The pathos of this kitchen-sink drama is charming and amusing. Ben-Ner’s hallmark reflection on the structure of family and a man’s role therein is always nuanced, but in this particular work, when in the midst of the mayhem he shouts to the kids, “Get out! We’re under attack!” there are images from Palestine and Lebanon streaming on the laptop placed on the kitchen table. It’s a weak allusion to the world beyond the artist’s personal upper middle-class woes.

An emphasis on speech is the link to the other work on view, Foreign Names (2012). Shot in different branches of Aroma, the ‘Israeli Starbucks’, it weaves together candid shots of the café workers speaking into the store’s point-of-sale microphone in order to generate a new text. Presumably the workers are calling out the names of clients whose orders are ready (the names are actually inventions of the artist). In Ben-Ner’s hands, their words morph into a Mad Libs-style ode to their own social and economic situation. “Jobs please for our comrade waiters”, say the employees of a self-service style café, the kind that put waiters out of work. This co-optation gives the disenfranchised workers a voice, physically and metaphorically, in the face of an exploitative service economy.

It’s clear that Soundtrack is the centre-piece of the show, but it’s Foreign Names that serves as a reminder that our lives are political. While Ben-Ner’s incessant examination of the family structure is always delightful (even if a bit repetitive and self-indulgent), the inclusion of a work that goes beyond the domestic proves that Ben-Ner is at his best when what’s at stake for him is more than his personal situation.

This article was first published in the May 2014 issue.