PRINT September 2022



The 1986 feature film Landscape Suicide by James Benning was streaming on Criterion last year, and I became mesmerized by it all over again, having seen it only once, many years earlier, in a theater. The title comes from Michael Ondaatje’s novel Coming Through Slaughter and suggests a casual and reckless obliter-ation of history. Benning’s film takes as its subject two people and two landscapes: the depressed high-school student Bernadette Protti, who in 1984 stabbed to death a popular cheerleader in Orinda, an affluent suburb in the Bay Area, and Ed Gein, who committed two notorious murders and a series of grave robberies involving “human taxidermy” in Benning’s home state of Wisconsin. The landscapes in this film are chilling and beautiful: Orinda is ranch-style midcentury homes seen through a rainy windshield as we hear Jerry Falwell Sr. preach on AM radio; Wisconsin is a man (the filmmaker’s brother) dressing a bloody deer in snowy woods.

“This film achieves the opposite of landscape suicide: It’s an indelible requiem, though for what I’m not exactly sure.” —Rachel Kushner

The film script is taken verbatim from trial transcripts and recorded police interviews. The performances by Rhonda Bell, who plays Bernadette Protti, and Elion Sacker, who is Ed Gein, feel somehow more devastating and “genuine” than watching the “real” trials might have been. As I revisited Landscape Suicide last year, it began to seem as if the official testimonies of these two real people were somehow the copy and Benning’s re-creation, his actors, the original. This film achieves the opposite of landscape suicide: It’s an indelible requiem, though for what I’m not exactly sure. It’s not a reducible or simple film. The subjects share an inability to face what they have done. Even as they speak candidly, they each talk around an aporia. Benning shows us Bernadette’s victim, the cheerleader Kirsten Costas, in her bedroom on a white Princess phone, while “Memory” from Cats plays. Ed Gein’s final victim, Bernice Worden, is portrayed as a woman dancing to Patti Page’s “Tennessee Waltz” on an old-fashioned radio. These two, girl and woman, are each swept up in cheesy song, as if Benning has given them their frivolity as homage, and also sentenced them to frivolity as terminus. A person is gone, murdered, but a trite melody, as a container for haunted mystery, can be repeated forever.

Rachel Kushner is a Los Angeles–based author whose books include the novels The Mars Room, The Flamethrowers, and Telex From Cuba and the collection The Hard Crowd: Essays 2000–2020.

Wolfgang Tillmans, Toi tu nous aimes / Dans nos obscurités (You you love us / Within our darkest nights), 2022, color laser photocopy, 11 3⁄4 × 8 1⁄4".


Taizé is an ecumenical community in Burgundy, France. I got to know Taizé music in my liberal Protestant church youth club when I was thirteen. While I have grown very skeptical of organized religion over the years, my love for these chants has stayed with me.

Wolfgang Tillmans is an artist based in Berlin.

Jean Vigo, Zéro de conduite (Zero for Conduct), 1933, 35 mm, black-and-white, sound, 44 minutes.


I would point to one of my favorite films, Jean Vigo’s Zero for Conduct (1933), which I saw in my late teens. The dream scene, which is projected in my latest dance (Hellzapoppin’: What about the bees?), displays a slow-motion pillow fight in an oppressive boys’ school in France. At its climax, the boys hoist the sleeping guardian aloft and parade him around—a lovely metaphor for rebellion against dictatorships everywhere.

Yvonne Rainer is a choreographer, a writer, and an erstwhile filmmaker.

Édouard Manet, Olympia, 1863, oil on canvas, 51 3⁄8 × 75 1⁄4".


What I want most when I read about art is writing that convinces by showing something that is already plainly visible. Probably the first time I experienced this magic trick was when I was assigned “Olympia’s Choice” by T. J. Clark in the first art-history course I ever enrolled in. Toward the essay’s end, Clark reveals a sort of rabbit-duck illusion: how the face of Manet’s nude oscillates in and out of virtual baldheadedness, with her long auburn hair fading almost totally into a folding screen’s background beige and the whole ambience of her expression changing if or when the hair registers to vision. This hiding-in-sight detail condenses with ultra-gratifying concreteness the entirety of Clark’s elaborate argument about Olympia’s reception and the hysterical blindnesses of 1860s Parisian audiences confronted by the sexualized figure of a working-class woman. One can agree or disagree with “Olympia’s Choice” for its methods or conclusions. By now, nearly forty years after it was written, Clark’s much-taught essay is a pedagogical Exhibit A for other forms of blindness, as the author has long since acknowledged and as I’ve discussed in Artforum’s pages. But would that all art-historical arguments resolved their complexities into these kinds of visual concretions. Without them, art history is just a circuitous means of communicating ideas, archives, and concepts that could be digested more efficiently in the languages of other disciplines. But maybe some inefficiency is necessary if one wants to experience the special gratification that derives from visual evidence. That is why, for me, another lodestar has become a charming how-to book by Patricia Highsmith, Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction (1966). In homage to a beloved magazine now in its sixtieth year, and a beloved bench of editors whom I grew up with, I quote her closing salutation: “Like boxers, we may start to flag after thirty, that is, not be able to do on four hours’ sleep any longer, and then we begin to grumble about taxes, and to feel that the aim of society is to put us all out of business. It is then good to remember that artists have existed and persisted, like the snail and the coelacanth and other unchanging forms of organic life, since long before governments were dreamed of.” Happy birthday, Artforum!

Emmelyn Butterfield-Rosen is acting director of the Williams Graduate Program in the History of Art at the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, MA. Her first book, Modern Art and the Remaking of Human Disposition, was published last November by University of Chicago Press.