September 11th - October 24th, 2014
Heather Benning, Work hard, be nice (detail), plastic, enamel, oil paint, wood, 2014. Photograph courtesy of the artist.
SEEN, NOT HEARD
by Alex King
With downcast eyes and clasped hands, a group of girls populate Heather Benning’s quiet installation. They wear faded seafoam dresses of modest length and wheat-coloured hair falls over their shoulders. These still, obedient girls conduct a haunted tone of the prairie gothic. Seven white boys with hands in their pockets look down on them atop slender white pillars. Cut from the same cloth, only the children’s hand painted facial features display subtle individualities, and their identical outfits suggest uniforms – or uniformity – and situate them in another time.
Work hard, be nice is the latest in an oeuvre characterized by two avenues of work: Benning’s large, site-specific outdoor interventions, and smaller, gallery-based installations. Happen upon a giantess emerging from a farmhouse, a life-sized dollhouse in the middle of nowhere, or a 16 foot abandoned soft toy1, and you’ve caught her work. These sculptures may be indiscreet in size, but are modestly located; prizes for either those with the luck to stumble on them, or roadtrippers equipped with scribbled directions. In her gallery-based work, more figures appear: a boy, a girl and a dog in All Safety Gone (2010); a murderous marital diorama in a gothic altarpiece in The Altar (2013); and now thirty four girls and seven boys lined up on the floor.
Though trained as far afield as Nova Scotia and Edinburgh, Scotland, Benning’s works retain a commitment to the place where she was raised and lives. Her stories are very often bound to a rural prairie sensibility, existing in a very literal sense in prairie architecture and on the plains, but also in the prairies’ more intangible cultural, social and historical roots. So, large or small, they act as monuments to contemporary or historical Saskatchewan concerns. To experience Benning’s work is to be invited to reflect on this place, on the decay of the exposed structures that pepper a landscape that consumes them. They mark the spaces that were built by settlers from the West, maintained by hard work and later abandoned when life changed again. Benning observes that “there are so many skeletons in the prairies”2, and one wonders if this interest extends beyond the skeletal architecture she often works with. Benning continually reimagines and reconstructs in her works personal and communal narratives and experiences, and in this case two that have imprinted her prairie experience – religion and childhood.
In age and gesture, the strange congregation in Work hard, be nice calls to mind thoughts (and perhaps memories) of school days and religious practices. The repeated actions of praying and attending class (or both at the same time) become ritual in nature, fixing these events in the child-to-adult mind. An institution – in part - of behavioural governance, schools work to establish normalcy, and like religion, provide a script for living. These spaces aim to maintain safety, orderliness and to prepare for living obediently, within the sphere of the law, with respect to civic duties, to mind our churches and our bosses. We all need to learn how to ‘get along’, no doubt, but tension is suggested in the rule of conformity that fails to allow for individuality to thrive. In the highly regulated period of childhood, some standards can become constraints. Perhaps, also, in the prairie days of yesteryear, children were a generation central to maintaining and advancing a developing area. If so, these formative years were loaded with expectation. This might not be our modern concept of childhood, but some of it still rings true: particularly in the social separation of gender and the gendered behaviour of girls and boys.
More than living within external social structures, these female bodies reflect the ideal interiority for a girl of her era. Moreover, they represent a time in a girl’s life where she is learning how to be a girl according to the social structures (for example, school, church and family) that teach her3. For example, their light-coloured frocks (trousers for the boys) warn against rough-and-tumble play in favour of gender-appropriate pursuits, cleanliness and the preservation of innocence. Their poses are acquiescent and espouse piety and the maintenance of hierarchy. In this way, Benning’s figurines seem to consider the public life of girls. In school and in the allegorical space of the gallery, they are “on view” and expected to behave largely homogenously, throwing the private selfhood and diversity we know to exist within real girls into sharp relief. And an inability to exercise agency over ones own body fits into Benning’s larger concern with female corporeality.
Heather Benning, Work hard, be nice,Plastic, enamel, oil paint, wood, Dimensions variable, 2014.
Despite being outnumbered, the boys stand elevated on smooth neo-classical pedestals, suggesting that by virtue of their gender they have ‘one-upped’ their female counterparts. Their cocky pose stands in sharp contrast to the weighted, obedient girls, implying that for them, life is easier and more carefree. Their altitude, dominance despite minority and pose relay an unnerving sexual power. As I recall being catcalled in my school uniform as a twelve year old, I’m reminded that part of being on view from girlhood is being subject to a sexual gaze, in the classroom and in the street.
The directive, Work hard, be nice was spotted by Benning on a sign outside a school. She identifies this as an advisory sentiment – childhood propaganda, if you will - often aimed at young women as a two-step route to success. Niceness is certainly a valuable trait, but is it necessary, or even fair to expect? Is the implied reward a realistic consequence? Benning infers that this may be bad advice, in its suggestion of service for the good others and discouragement of critical thinking. The phrase hints at a restrictive road ahead, with the girls’ personhood defined by their gender, in the expectation of hard work and geniality. It implies consequences, social punishments perhaps, for nonconformity.
The shrunken sculptures leave gallery visitors looming uncomfortably large, and an adult presence is certainly felt in the implied legacy imposed on these girls. Loren Lerner, curator of the exhibition Picturing Her: Images of Girlhood4, notes “…children have been both projections of society’s fondest desires and evidence of its worst failures”5. This complicated relationship between child and adult, and the way adults consider and construct child/girlhood becomes evident in a room where we are able to reflect on an arrangement of silent, seemingly identical children dwarfed by our presence. On this note, it’s worth heeding Lerner’s warning “…not to interpret these representations simply as illustrations of a verifiable external reality”6. They represent nothing but Benning’s own artistic concerns, an artist who herself foregrounds imagination and feeling over fact, historical detail, the reliance of her own memory or even the veracity of her assumptions.
In conversations I learn that the recurring theme of childhood reveals a navigation between two things. Firstly, a self-identified nostalgia for a simpler time and era, an interest evident in previous work. Secondly, acknowledging girlhood’s difficulties, particularly for those living prior to the advent of second-wave feminism. She recognizes the awkwardness and confusion present in both girl- and adulthood of any era. She notes that “feelings and experiences are more raw as a child, and one can feel stuck in an experience or feeling for what feels like eternity, even if it was only a day, or an hour… I think these girls are static remembrances to a particular moment”7.
I asked Benning if the girls’ resemblance to her was deliberate. She answered no, but in her sculpture process she looks to the faces most familiar to her. In this case, echoes of her mother’s childhood features from studying old photographs. Work hard, be nice isn’t the stuff of re-presentation, but laced with nostalgia and critique, imagination and lineage. Benning returns again to a pattern of pertinent themes. Prairie, place, femininity, religion and loss are threads in which her artwork, as an extension of herself, seems rooted. This suggests autobiographical excerpts that reveal part of a whole, like a family photograph that yields complex, clashing narratives that speak of fact, fiction and biography. Benning’s nostalgia is a complex one. Her ‘static remembrances’ extend past rosiness to the haunting realm of memorial, a commemoration that includes parts of her own and collective experience, and beyond both.
Heather Benning’s latest work considers gender politics and the mechanisms of power that relate to a real and imagined prairie girlhood. But the institutions and actors in her quiet drama can be recognized as operating in numerous eras and places. The installation is also reminiscent of another adage that dates back to the 1400s: “A mayde [maiden or young girl] schuld be seen, but not herd”8. Work hard, be nice makes this saying manifest. The loudest voices still belong to adults.
1 The Marysburg Project: Watching Woman (2004-11), The Dollhouse (2005-13), Field Doll (2009-13)
2 Ratuski, 2013
3 Benning identifies the girls as being around 8-10 years old (Benning email, 2014)
4 McCord Museum of Canadian History, 2005
5 Lerner, 2009, p. xviii
6 Lerner, 2009. p. xvi
7 Benning email, July 27th, 2014
8 Mitchell and Reid-Walsh, 2010, p.1