Immersive experiences in nature have long had a special allure in the American tradition, offering the promise of freedom; a simpler, unfettered life; psychological invigoration and spiritual illumination. “In the woods, we return to reason and faith,” Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote in his 1836 essay “Nature,” which inspired Henry David Thoreau to famously live alone for two years in a cabin he built at Walden Pond. However, such flights into nature also have their dark side. Unabomber Ted Kaczynski built his deadly explosives and wrote his manifesto in a cabin he constructed in Montana.
Thoreau and Kaczynski—both eccentric nature lovers, authors, political rebels and reclusive cabin-dwellers—were the source for the noted American filmmaker James Benning’s excellent exhibition “Two Cabins,” which featured a film installation, two spare and evocative pedestal sculptures and, stacked on a shelf in the office, books from Benning’s library interspersed with books found in Kaczynski’s cabin after he was apprehended.
In 2003, Benning began his own immersive nature retreat, when he purchased a cabin and land in a remote section of the Sierra Nevada Mountains in California. After completing renovations to his cabin, Benning undertook a decidedly idiosyncratic landscaping project: he painstakingly constructed on his land replicas of Thoreau’s and Kaczynski’s cabins, creating a cross between historical simulations, architectural follies and a homemade movie set.
As a filmmaker, Benning is known for sustained shots taken with a stationary camera. Here, two large video projections on adjacent walls each offered a view, taken from inside the replica cabins, through the window to the outdoors. The Thoreau vista of a dense copse and sloping green hill, seen through an ample, wood-framed window, seems expansive and welcoming. The Kaczynski view of abundant green trees is more restricted, shot through a window cut out of a plywood wall. Eerily similar to that of a prison cell or a fort, the perspective suggests paranoid isolation and hostility. Benning recorded the soundtracks (including birds, crickets, occasional cars and, accompanying the Kaczynski footage, a strange ticking sound which makes everything seem vaguely ominous) at the actual sites of the original cabins. Thus Benning’s work sonically reaches out across an immense country to encompass Thoreau and Kaczynski, Massachusetts and Montana, 19th-century Transcendentalism and contemporary technologized society.
Across the room were the sculptures, each made from the same materials as the respective cabins: a dark wood version of Thoreau’s writing desk, complete with a 19th-century pencil, atop three plaster slabs, and on a plywood plinth the same kind of black Corona typewriter used by Kaczynski. In the darkened gallery, Benning’s elemental, contemplative and utterly apt exhibition explored how the American landscape can nurture both utopian inclinations and dystopian mayhem.
Photo: View of James Benning’s Two Cabins, 2011, 2-channel HD video, typewriter, wooden desk and pencils, two pedestals; at Neugerriemschneider.