Jane Benson

Jane Benson on displacement and collaboration

Jane Benson, A Place For Infinite Tuning III (detail), 2015, hand-cut cello and sarod, plywood, mirrored Plexiglas, Velcro, latex paint, steel, 52“ x 69” x 61". Installation view, Contemporary Arts Center, Cincinnati. Photo: Steven Probert.

Cutting, splitting, and reassembling, be it fake plants, national flags, musical instruments, or W.G. Sebald’s Rings of Saturn, Jane Benson engages with the experience of displacement, and a sense of loss and longing. Her series of sculptures titled “A Place For Infinite Tuning,” 2015, consists of fractured objects that are tentatively balanced—they look like they might fall at the pull of a thread. Her first monograph, which shares the same title, will be published next month by Skira and contains texts by Steven Matijcio, Sara Reisman, and Nico Israel. Here the artist speaks about the making of the book and her ongoing relationship to music and collaborations. A new piece, which excises the writing of British suffragette Mona Caird, will be on view at LMAKgallery in New York this May.

THE CATALYST FOR THE BOOK was my first survey exhibition, which was in 2017 at the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati. It was called “Half-Truths” and was curated by Steven Matijcio. We were thinking of the book as something that would not only extend the life of the exhibition but also increase its scope so we could introduce new ideas. And ideas are everything to me. So it made perfect sense to keep on pushing for the book when everything fell to pieces. It was interesting: There’s a lot of destruction in my process, disruption as a vehicle for remaking, and we lost everything that we had to fuel the book when my first publisher went bankrupt. 

The title of the book was originally going to be the same as the exhibition. But after my first publisher’s bankruptcy we had to leave the Half-Truths title behind and come up with a new identity. So we titled it A Place For Infinite Tuning—after my series of split instrument-sculptures of the same name. A concern that flows through my work is the relationship between division and connection. Through transcending the original form of an object or a situation, new convergences of objects appear. This redefines the identity of the object itself, and in so doing one introduces a whole new spectrum of being for the object, and for the viewer and their interpretation of this object. For example, my “A Place For Infinite Tuning” sculptures change each time they’re assembled.

The bifurcated instruments themselves demand infinite tuning, because they’re unstable. They’re all mass-produced, Chinese-made instruments that are considered fake by musicians, which I love. But, after splitting them, everything is reengineered in my works so that they play. If they didn’t perform there’d be no point. But it’s a fragile process and there’s fragility to their existence, in that everything has a different tension—the pegs have a different tension, the bridges no longer move. So the musicians have to tune them all the time; they are listening to every change of pitch and are acutely aware that they have to respond and adjust and perhaps even change an entire dialogue because of a slip in the tuning. 

I think my love of music goes back to growing up in Macclesfield, England. My first connection to music was through Joy Division. I was very young, and Ian Curtis had lived down the road from where I went swimming. At that time, under Thatcher, it was a small and depressed mill town in the north of England with a strong music culture. And as a young girl, I was silenced by how beautiful his music was. The melancholy was obviously paramount. The loss was there. And I don’t think that’s ever left me. I saw it more as poetry than as music. It was unknown, it was uncomfortable, and it confused a lot of people. It influenced the way I collaborate with musicians. For example, when I first started working with the instruments, I thought that I’d have to go back to school again—that I’d have to learn to play the instruments. But as the work evolved, I began noticing that there was something uncomfortable about my language limitations in talking about music with musicians and composers. What I was trying to achieve was being made more difficult by not having knowledge. I realized that was something in the creation of the work that I didn’t want to lose. There was something awkward; there was something that meant that it fell to pieces often. I didn’t want to lose how fragile that relationship was. 

Collaboration breathed a whole new life force into my work. It’s been ten years now that I’ve been collaborating. I think of the work with the writers as a continuation of the collaborations that I do. It provides an opportunity to examine the work further, outside of myself. It not only introduces the opportunity to gain critical distance, but also supports a philosophy of wanting to create places of renewed ideas, of plurality, and of a gathering. The destruction and dismantling in my work create absences, and collaborating with other people enables me to stitch things together across time and material.