New York

Guy Ben-Ner

The familiar figure of the camcorder-wielding dad might seem to be the unlikeliest of auteurs, but Israeli artist Guy Ben-Ner is one enviably cool father. For his video Moby Dick, 2000, shown at MoMA QNS last year, Ben-Ner enacted Melville’s seafaring epic in his kitchen with the aid of his then-six-year-old daughter, Elia, and an assortment of household props. The resulting silent movie was a brilliant piece of slapstick, linking the crustiest of narratives with the craftiest of cinematic devices. As they swing from the sink and hunt whales under the table, Ben-Ner and his daughter seem to be inventing the story from scratch, for their own amusement. In his first US solo show, Ben-Ner reprised his familial antics, taking on not merely a literary classic but the entire history of film. But while just as intimate, unpretentious, and enchanting as his earlier work, the two videos shown at Postmasters ultimately sag a little under the strain of too many contrivances.

In a series of fixed-camera shots, Wild Boy, 2004, relates the classic tale of an innocent savage becoming “civilized” and seems to be a loose allegory of cinema itself. At the video’s beginning, Ben-Ner’s three-year-old son, Amir, roams wild on a mountain of light-green-carpeted plywood not far from the artist’s galley kitchen; after succumbing to a trap, he is captured by a well-intentioned gentleman (played by his father), who shears his unruly mop of curly hair, names him Buster (one of numerous references to Keaton), assesses his intelligence, and eventually teaches him to read, write, and speak. By the end, they’re a father/son vaudeville duo, turning the dining set into a playground and (dressed in matching outfits) drumming on pots and pans to the Doors’ “Break on Through (To the Other Side).” The work is punctuated by sequences that evoke early cinema—most memorably, a lesson in which Ben-Ner demonstrates a flip book that conveys the illusion of an approaching train, leaving his sidekick as saucer-eyed with fear and delight as the Lumière brothers’ first audience. It’s unfortunate that, since Wild Boy as a whole is an often-funny, sometimes-touching, and fundamentally good-natured variation on a classic theme, Ben-Ner’s insistence on allegorizing his medium can seem ponderous by comparison.

Lest he be accused of favoritism, Ben-Ner trains the spotlight on his daughter in Eliaa story of an ostrich chick, 2003, a spoof on Disneyfied nature documentaries. Wearing homemade ostrich costumes ingeniously constructed from mop handles, vacuum hoses, and papier-mâché, the four members of the immediate Ben-Ner family prance around a wooded area that looks suspiciously like Manhattan’s Riverside Park. The Januslike outfits face in the opposite direction to their wearers, so that in the video, which runs in reverse, a forward step for a human appears as a forward step for an ostrich. A calm, Discovery Channel–style voice-over narrates Elia’s relationship with, and brief separation from, her family members. But while the goofy getups and back-to-front action are inventive and amusing at first, they ultimately risk detracting from an otherwise poignant tale of sibling rivalry.

Despite their flaws and dead ends, however, Wild Boy and Elia still make for an approachable and promising solo debut. As so many artists exhibit regressive tendencies, it’s nice to know that there’s at least one real grown-up in their midst.

Karen Rosenberg