With the exhibition “Soundtrack,” Israeli artist Guy Ben-Ner returned to New York with his first show since 2010’s “Second Nature.” Also at Postmasters, that show featured the eponymous video ostensibly retelling Aesop’s fable “The Fox and the Crow”; much of it, however, consists of watching handlers trying to cajole their animals into performing as Ben-Ner and his crew speak in rhyme. Similarly, Ben-Ner’s other films are DIY affairs, in which he often casts his family. In Stealing Beauty (2007), Ben-Ner shot a number of scenes of himself, his then-wife and their two children in IKEA showrooms around the world (without permission), lounging about as if they were at home. Edited together, the scenes form an anxious, unraveling family soap opera, with strangers wandering in and out of shots and Ben-Ner’s family spouting odd riffs on Marxist theory. The artist often staged earlier works in his apartment in Tel Aviv, filming scrappy takes on literary classics like Moby-Dick and Robinson Crusoe.
While continuing to explore corporate consumer spaces and recycle cultural artifacts, Ben-Ner focuses on sound in the two video works on view. Foreign Names (2012) takes place in multiple franchises of the Israeli espresso bar Aroma, which recently replaced their waiters with microphones used by employees to call out customers’ names when their orders are ready. Ben-Ner gives a variety of English words and phrases as his own name, forcing employees to yell out fragments of sentences. Shot discretely from a table-level vantage point, the snippets are stitched together to create an off-kilter, halting monologue out of the voices, lamenting in faux Marxist adages the waiters’ disappearance from Aroma. At one point various personnel stammer out that the “rights of the worker are an empty phrase”—as Ben-Ner walks up to grab his beverage, the employee who said the last two words looks at him confusedly, asking, “You’re Empty Phrase?”
Soundtrack (2013) revolves around an act of audio appropriation: 11 minutes of sound taken from a scene in Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds, featuring Tom Cruise as a divorced parent protecting his children from an alien invasion. Ben-Ner “dubs” over the clip’s visuals entirely, providing his own events to match the audio track in a reverse sort of Foley artistry. The piece begins with Ben-Ner and two assistants in a studio space, dropping a TV set and spreading gravel and sand across a table to sync up with the film’s sounds of destruction; Ben-Ner mouths along to the yelling of a crowd as a TV screen next to him plays recent scenes of Israeli conflict. Moving to Ben-Ner’s home, Soundtrack uses War‘s audio in a narrative manner, dictating a giddily chaotic chain of events. Surrounded by his children, Ben-Ner sees his attempts to do ordinary, domestic activities—cooking an egg or using a blender, for example—spin out of control. Plates and bottles are accidentally smashed and appliances catch fire as the family’s kitchen is progressively trashed, the children holding back smiles as they mime the movie’s lines. At one point, documentary filmmaker Avi Mograbi emerges from the refrigerator to embody the voice of an angry mechanic, and is summarily pushed back in by Ben-Ner. Again, clashes in the Middle East play on neighboring screens, signifying the ever-present narrative of regional conflict actually imposing on Ben-Ner’s domestic life. Still, Ben-Ner’s humor and craft give the work a Rube Goldberg-ian mix of complex orchestration and absurd slapstick, exceeding any singular interpretation of Soundtrack as a heavy-handed allegory for recent history.