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While many artists struggle to juggle life and art, Guy Ben-Ner has built a successful career by integrating the two. In his early retrospective exhibit, "Self-Portrait of a Family Man," at the Center for Contemporary Art in Tel Aviv, Ben-Ner demonstrates how his domestic life functions as fertile ground for art. The Tel Aviv show includes seven of the 37-year-old's award-winning videos, including the video and sculpture "Treehouse Kit" that represented Israel at the 2005 Venice Biennale.
Ben-Ner is considered the ultimate do-it-yourself man. While the Ramat Gan-born artist has lived in New York since 2001, there's something distinctly Israeli about his joy in using whatever resources are at hand.
Ben-Ner's videos look - and are - literally homemade, but there are deeper issues beneath the low-tech special effects.
Two of his works, "Berkley's Island" (1999) and "Moby Dick" (2000), were filmed entirely within the artist's modest kitchen. They rely on his then six-year-old daughter Elia's ebullient participation. On screen, she's "not acting," says the artist. In "Moby Dick," the ship's mast soars out of the kitchen sink and the crew - Elia and her Dad - climb out of the ship's hull through the kitchen cabinets. While Ben-Ner's improvised set and decision to work with his daughter was partially a result of the family's economic situation, the combination highlights the contrast between the make-believe world of cinema and the more authentic one of a child's imagination. In "Berkeley's Island," the sunrise feels real even though it's clear that Ben-Ner simulates dawn by slowly opening the refrigerator door.
Ben-Ner's later videos "House Hold" (2001), "Elia - A Story of an Ostrich Chick" (2003) and "Wild Boy" (2004) deal with the challenges of parenting in a more overt manner. In "House Hold," Ben-Ner finds himself trapped beneath his son Amir's crib, where the artist must abstract materials from his own body to create the tools he needs to free himself. While the narrative is a metaphor for the self-sacrifice of parenthood, the artist's imagination is his ticket out of the banalities of everyday life. In "Elia," Ben-Ner takes his whole family to work; Guy, Elia, toddler Amir and his wife Nava star as a family of ostriches roaming Riverside Park in search of safer pasture. Even though the costumes are quite silly - the artist used vacuum cleaner hoses for their long, undulating ostrich necks - the Discovery Channel-style voiceover makes the video resemble a serious wildlife documentary.
In "Wild Boy," father and son return to fantasyland - the one inside the apartment as well as references to the history of cinema, particularly Francois Truffaut's 1970 film L'Enfant sauvage and Buster Keaton's vaudeville family. Ben-Ner plays a researcher who captures and attempts to civilize a wild boy, Amir. There's a delightful scene toward the end where scientist and subject play matching sets of pots and pans to the accompaniment of The Door's "Break on Through to the Other Side."
Ben-Ner chose not to use his family in "Treehouse Kit," his piece for the Israeli Pavilion of the Venice Biennale this past June. There, Ben-Ner presented a giant tree made of wooden furniture fragments along with an "instructional video" demonstrating how the tree can be deconstructed into a rocking chair, tables, chairs and a bed using one simple tool. In the video, Ben-Ner appears shirtless but wearing a long prosthetic beard reminiscent of Theodore Herzl. Since Ben-Ner re-assembles the artistic tree into banal IKEA-style furniture, "Treehouse Kit" can be viewed as a critique of the heroic myth of the pioneer and settler, or conversely, as a celebration of Israeli resourcefulness.
The Center for Contemporary Art, Rachel and Israel Pollock Gallery, 5 Kalisher Street, Tel Aviv. Hours: Monday through Thursday 2-7, Fri-Sat. 10 a.m. - 2 p.m. Tel: (03) 510-6111. The website www.cca.org.il has excellent essays in English from the exhibition catalogue.