View of “James Benning: Decoding Fear,” 2014. Foreground: After Gee’s Bend, 2013. Background, from left: Architectural Rendering (Two Cabins), 2014; Data Entry, 2014; May 22, 1942 (for Ted), 2013. Photo: UMJ/N. Lackner.

James Benning

Kunsthaus Graz

View of “James Benning: Decoding Fear,” 2014. Foreground: After Gee’s Bend, 2013. Background, from left: Architectural Rendering (Two Cabins), 2014; Data Entry, 2014; May 22, 1942 (for Ted), 2013. Photo: UMJ/N. Lackner.

“DECODING FEAR,” a compelling exhibition of James Benning’s work at the Kunsthaus Graz this past spring, was but the latest incarnation of the artist’s Two Cabins Project, an endeavor best understood as a group of interrelated works, shows, and a publication. Installed in Graz in its most expansive form since its 2011 inception, the project established a psychologically charged ambience in which viewers became implicated as they moved through the dark, cavernous gallery. Read literally, the show’s title might refer to Benning’s unpacking of the coded script that Theodore Kaczynski, aka the Unabomber, used in his journals. More loosely, it may allude to our attempts to grapple with the complex motivations and beliefs underpinning the distrust with which Kaczynski and Henry David Thoreau, the Two Cabins Project’s protagonists, viewed technology’s unbridled incursions into the natural world.

Sharing with Kaczinski and Thoreau a predilection for solitude coupled with a deep love of uncultivated nature, Benning occasionally retreats to a secluded woodland property he owns in Val Verde, California. There, he has duplicated both men’s rustic dwellings, which also served as models for two ghostly white-painted cabins built, on a one-to-one scale, expressly for this exhibition. Walden, Thoreau’s classic account of his sojourn in the Massachusetts woods, provides a reference point for Benning’s Stemple Pass, 2012, a long, unsettling film composed of four ravishing shots, taken with a static camera in four different seasons, of a cabin in mountainous terrain. In the voice-over, Benning reads extracts from Kaczynski’s writings in which the author’s nuanced appreciation for untouched wilderness morphs into abhorrent expressions of hatred as he ponders “how to get rid of the techno-industrial system before it gets rid of us.”

Elsewhere in the gallery, visitors encountered the 16-mm film RR, 2007, and the HD video BNSF, 2013, both, like Stemple Pass, shot with a static camera, and both showing a train crossing a rural locale. For this show (which was curated by Peter Pakesch), the works were presented as the composite RR/BNSF, 2014. While BNSF was virtually silent, RR, projected on the opposite wall, infiltrated the entire gallery, its sound track permeating the lugubrious spaces with insistent reminders of what Thoreau, even at Walden Pond, had not been able to escape. For him, the relentlessly reliable whistles became emblematic of the forces that would, in opening up the country and introducing standardized time zones, ultimately measure and control the landscape under the banner of progress.

The duo—or is it the trio?—of nonconformists at the center of the Two Cabins Project was joined in Graz by a diverse coterie of loners represented by a grouping of drawings and paintings (previously hung in the Val Verde cabins) that Benning has made after works by Black Hawk, Henry Darger, Martín Ramírez, and Bill Traylor, among other artists marginalized by such monikers as outsider, isolate, and visionary. Critical analyses of their remarkable oeuvres typically read them symptomatically, as so many manifestations of aberrant, antisocial, even pathological states. A similar fate has befallen the Unabomber’s manifesto and other texts, in that the validity and value of his critique of the “techno-industrial system” have rarely been seriously debated. Penned in an orthography that simulates Kaczynski’s, an enlarged and framed extract from those writings was installed adjacent to the contributions of the outlier artists.

Tellingly set apart from this ensemble of paintings, drawings, and text were the paired works After Gee’s Bend, 2013, a pieced quilt laid out on a plinth, and May 22, 1942 (For Ted), 2013, a pair of postcards displayed as inserts in a wall. Unexpectedly intimate, this tableau became the place where the issue of Kaczynski’s humanity could not be sidestepped. The handmade cards reveal a wryly humorous, even poignant, exchange in which Benning and the imprisoned Unabomber wish each other a happy birthday. The prototype for the quilt, which Benning sewed himself, comes from the exceptional body of work produced half a century ago by the gifted, tight-knit community of African American women who lived in the isolated hamlet of Gee’s Bend, Alabama. Made, like theirs, from used workingmen’s clothes, this artifact is the sole marker of domesticity, femininity, communality, and collectivity in “Decoding Fear.” In addition, it supplies another link to the multifaceted history of American civil-rights struggles that haunts this project. For when viewing this quilt, a third but absent cabin comes unavoidably to mind: the namesake of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s landmark 1852 novel. It is from this modest home, a fragile haven, and not from the plantation’s “big house,” that Tom is taken when his owner decides to sell him, separating him from his family forever. By the end of Stowe’s once wildly popular slavery narrative, Tom’s cabin has become a memorial, an emblem of the freedom for which he sacrifices his life. Ghosting the ghosts of Thoreau’s and Kaczynski’s two cabins, this revenant harnessed hitherto unremarked eddies within the political currents that propel Benning’s extraordinary project.

Lynne Cooke is senior curator at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC.