MAstars 2013: Page Benkowski, MFA Contemporary Art

MAstars 2013: Page Benkowski, MFA Contemporary Art Page Benkowski, A Slow Deflation, 2013. Video, helium, balloon, digital print. 155cm x 124cm

Kirsten Lloyd selects Page Benkowski from Edinburgh College of Art for MAstars

There’s no doubt about it: failure is hot these days. Entrepreneurs and famous authors insist that it must be embraced as a vital step on the path to success and happiness. While The Antidote, an alternative self-help guide for those who ‘can’t stand positive thinking’, devotes a fascinating chapter to a secretive archive in North America nicknamed the ‘museum of failed products’. Housing what must surely be one of the world’s most fascinating collections, its curators welcome a steady stream of paying chief executives anxious to learn lessons from the catastrophic flops of the past.

In the field of contemporary art, the connection between creativity and failure has been reflected upon at length. Often, the focus has been artists’ special prerogative to occupy failure’s rich negative space to create risky works with lighthearted impunity (think of Roman Signer’s squadron of toy helicopters ascending together in a confined space only to collide and crash to the floor). Institutions have been quick to follow suit, publishing anthologies and producing exhibitions of unrealised projects or incomplete artworks. Recently however, the enduring wake of 2008’s spectacular financial crash has lent such playful interventions a more disquieting edge as the rhetoric of doubt, precarity and crisis is relentlessly pushed to the fore of public debate.

Page Benkowski’s stand-out presentation A Slow Deflation documents her attempts to levitate with the aid of a 17 foot white weather balloon. Post-conceptual art’s ‘as-if’ approach (so eloquently described by Martha Rosler) which has seen generations of artists cross over into other disciplines, is delivered here with a wonderful lightness of touch and a good measure of dry wit. Speaking directly to camera, Benkowski narrates the story of her absurd investigations via three flat screen monitors positioned on top of a regular office desk. The existential artist’s diary has been replaced by the video log. Brief entries record her initial perky optimism, the set backs (when the balloon exploded giving her ‘a big ol latex slap in the face’) and her final deflation when she recognises the project’s failure. Behind the desk, a longer film shows her slowly filling the balloon in an enclosed space using a large canister of helium while a large photograph depicts her holding it, semi-inflated, and looking dolefully at the camera.

Page Benkowski, Confessional 3, 2013. Video. 2 mins 39 secs

Levitation is used here as a metaphor for the creative process itself. In her ‘confessions’ Benkowski talks of feeling stuck and lost, describing her desperation for that elusive moment everything just comes together and works. This precious state of ‘flow’ is sought after by elite sportsmen, artists and management gurus alike. A point of maximum productivity, those that have experienced it describe extended periods of complete absorption when a sense of time, self and even physical pain are transcended. At a point in history when the artist operates as a privileged yet highly precarious creative entrepreneur, Benkowski’s frustration at her own failure to attain such a state is inevitably framed within a broader context wherein the pressure to constantly – and consistently – perform is overwhelming.

Her conciseness of means and deft performance skills call to mind Kai Kaljo’s short video Loser (1997) in which she recites the numbers that sum her up as a social failure to a soundtrack of canned laughter. The Estonian artist drolly states that, despite holding a position as a lecturer at an art school, she can only afford to live with her parents. Benkowski’s similarly autobiographical work is carefully and clearly sited as a project undertaken by a postgraduate student for her final degree show. The question of what awaits her at the other side hangs in the air. Looking across Europe today, with rocketing unemployment rates amongst a highly-educated youth, taking risks doesn’t look quite so interesting or amusing as it perhaps once did. When the stakes are so high, who can truly afford to fail?

Selected by Kirsten Lloyd
Published July, 2013

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About Kirsten Lloyd

Kirsten Lloyd is Associate Curator at Stills, Edinburgh, where she is currently curating a three-year programme of exhibitions, research workshops, public lectures and residencies entitled Social Documents. Intended to examine artists’ mediation of social, political and economic realities The Ethics of Encounter launched the project in 2010 with an interrogation of the complex interfaces which have emerged between aesthetics, politics and ethics in art’s most recent ‘social turn’. This was followed in 2011/12 with a public programme centred around the documentarist Allan Sekula’s rigorous photographic and filmic mapping of the economic mechanisms and spaces of globalisation. The trilogy concludes 2013 with the group exhibition ECONOMY, co-curated with Angela Dimitrakaki. Investigating the production of subjectivity through a capitalist economy in the 21st century, the project is a collaboration between CCA Glasgow, The University of Edinburgh and Stills. Previous projects have included Nicky Bird’s Beneath the Surface/Hidden Place (2006-10), charting the effects of economic change and regeneration in Scotland and the Martha Rosler Library with Anton Vidokle (2008).

Lloyd is also an AHRC-funded PhD candidate in the History of Art Department at the University of Edinburgh. Her doctoral research examines the turn towards documentary modes in contemporary art, linking it to the demand for the circulation of social knowledge and the increasingly urgent questions of representation and realism in the 21st century.

Recent publications include ‘Endgame? Reconfiguring the Artwork’ (Third Text, 2012), ‘Projection Space’ in Elin Jakobsdottir’s exhibition catalogue Hinges Between Days, ‘The Caress: Intimate Transactions in the Video Art of Dani Marti’ in the artist’s monograph (Hatje Cantz, 2012) and 'The Ethics of Encounter' published in Artpulse Summer 2011

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