Paul Carey-Kent Interviews Rising Art Star Helen Carmel Benigson
Benigson’s new solo show, to be followed soon by a retrospective at the James Hockey Gallery in Farnham, is a multi-media case of excess all areas: performance, video, photographs, monotypes, prints, videos on top of video, video on the pavement outside, stickers in the window, a tie-in to Helen’s TV… Themes and identities weave their way between the works, and it all builds towards one increasingly complex – and assertively pink, young and female – view of the world. With all the layering, immersion and sexualisation going on, it’s not surprising that Benigson has been called the Pipilotti Rist for a media-savvy generation: there’s naturalness to her use of digital media, social networking and video sharing sites which suggests a sense in which the screen might take over from the body. And yet she’s in the current issue of Vogue…
You’ve just finished an MA at the Slade. What next?
I’ve just got onto the one year Lux Associate Artist programme, which provides mentoring and support for eight artists to make films, and sponsors a concluding show.
There seem to be a lot of you. How many identities have you got?
Versions of me include my cousin, girl hip hop dancers, an avatar princess, Princess Belsize Dollar, my online profile
Is all the work here by Helen?
Yes, Princess is only for performance, though she does feed in to Helen’s work, and sometimes Helen features Princess as a subject. The rapper is part a different person who is a character I play but who is part of me…
You’re rapping as Princess Belsize Dollar at your opening, but there will also be a game of poker. Why?
I’m interested in both performance and games. I examine the screen as a virtual space which is also an architectural space which can stimulate image and performance – and poker is the ultimate game which uses performance as a device, through tells, bluffing and concealment. I’m not looking to control the poker in the way I’ve previously controlled male rappers by making them use my words to seduce me. This is purely about performance. Poker is also one of those things I love – along with roses, sushi, rappers, palm trees, the beach, soldiers, footballers and boys who play Fantasy Football – all of which appear in my work. My friends say looking at my work is like seeing inside my brain.
The film ‘The Future Queen of the Screen’ features avatars. Where are they from?
They’re dueling dancers from a video game. I played it so as to make the characters do what I wanted them to, and then intervened in the film as well. They stand in for the real hip hop dancers, who also appear in the film. I’ve performed with them and so they stand in for me.
What’s the story of the film?
There are two narratives: one is an imaginary space set in the Dead Sea, exploring the subconscious – it is a space of thought and reflection, it is a much slower space, using the idea of the landscape as a metaphor for body. I was also thinking of the girl as a metaphor for Israel. In the other narrative two dancers upload their video to YouTube and have a dance battle with another girl online. They start a relationship with fantasy footballers who persuade them to upload the videos to YouPorn. They then have to escape YouPorn, so they escape to a different universe, to an imaginary dry space represented by the Dead Sea. I might have called it ‘Duels and Dualities’ if David Blandy hadn’t got there first!
The longest film, ‘Clara’ (9 minutes) collages and revisits footage from previous films. There’s hyper-saturated colour and sexual fireworks in-cell-like interjections. The explosions mutate into darkly violent patterns. There are recurring images of you in a swimming pool and a woman disappearing down a waterslide like a plug-hole. What pulls all that together for you?
Immersion, infection and infestation are important. My various selves are multiplied. And I’m obsessed with manipulating and challenging borderlines: much of the content does that, and there’s also a literal border on the video, made from more doubled images. I’m breaking down any borders between my works.
‘Cellular’ seems to move in a new direction, as it looks like one straight unedited 6 minute shot which moves around the women’s section of a maximum security prison in Cape Town…
It is one continuous shot from a car, all taken within the prison complex. But we did have to get security clearance, and then drive round taking that one shot several times!
So it’s the sound, rather than the images, which is layered here?
Yes, the women, inside their cells, call out to me and as I travel deeper in, and their voices become more visceral as I layer and intensify their calls.
And this becomes another way to build cells into the work?
Yes, the prison cell works as both a political container and a biological space. I can identify with the prisoners on a corporeal level, occupying a cell, negotiating power, sexuality, identity.
|Pink Beach (Lightbox), 2011|
‘Cellular’ is the first in another duality: of women-only spaces, the second being the women’s beach in Tel Aviv, which appears in several works including the films ‘Fireworks on a Blue Beach’ and ‘Superwet’. It turns out be a surprisingly pink place, though perhaps not so surprisingly so among your works…
For all of these spaces it’s about viscerally which is manifest via colour, sound and performance.
The superficial beauty and rather sexual-style of consumption of sushi by your cousin in an overlaid close-up draws us in to contrasts…
Yes, there are explosions, made even more sinister by its being Israel. And my cousin seems to be eating the people on the beach. Then the beach, spread across her face, becomes a veil. You can interpret that as political. The people are green, becoming viral in the pink sea, and suggesting the avatars in other works.
Why is wet and dry one of your favourite contrasts?
There’s an analogy for me with my use of the macro – micro, between the excitement of the screen being switched on, turned on – wet. And yet the disappointment if you zoom in on an image until it’s just a single pixel – because when this happens, you’ve reached the inside of the image and it becomes just a code. That’s dry.
Are you aiming at a young person’s sensibility, and asserting a young person’s identity?
That’s more a by-product of its being centered round my world. My practice is exploring identity, and being young is just part of that.
So what kind of artist are you? One of your monotypes says, ‘This is my life, not a soap opera’.
I don’t consider myself an artist, just a girl. But I am addicted to making art.
Paul Carey-Kent talks to young multimedia artist and performer Helen Carmel Benigson ahead of her new London solo show at Rollo Contemporary, which runs from 11 November – 13 January. You can also get a taste of her distinctive world at Helen TV: http://www.helenbenigson.com/