A Means of Survival – A Lecture by Frank Benson

“The entire sculpture can fit on a flash drive.”

Frank Benson gave a lecture as part of the Leonard Hare Memorial Lecture Series at the University of Bristol. The Lectureship was established in 1946 in memory of George Hare Leonard, Professor of Modern History. Each year, a lecture is presented on fine arts. Benson discussed his practice as well as his sculpture, Castaway, which has recently been installed in Bristol’s Goldney Gardens.

Castaway (2019) (Photo: Ruby Salter)

Now on display in the expansive gardens of Goldney Hall, Bristol, is a life size bronze statue of Alexander Selkirk, the 18th century mariner who was allegedly the inspiration for Robinson Crusoe. Castaway depicts the mariner in a crouching position, eyes locked on a point ahead. The ship that eventually rescued Selkirk was funded by the Goldney family. As the title of the sculpture suggests, Benson imagines how a seaman may look if he had washed up ashore on a deserted island. Far from a simple portrait of Selkirk, the sculpture is more a representation of the fictional archetype of a ‘castaway’, the same figure portrayed by Tom Hanks in Cast Away or Matt Damon in The Martian. Benson’s depiction, topped with a strange shell-like hat and accompanied by a plastic detergent bottle, seems curious at first. Yet, as Benson outlined in his lecture, the sculpture is an amalgamation of ideas he has pursued throughout his artistic career.

The Martian 

Currently living and working in Brooklyn, Benson originally hails from Virginia, and was educated in Maryland. He notes the influence of growing up by the coast, and seeing objects wash up on the beach. Often these items were repurposed and transformed, given a new lease of life. This seems to be a continuous theme in Benson’s work. Perhaps it is also this early influence which has spurred him on his path to explore new effects that can be achieved by materials and finding new functions for quite normal substances.

Melted Beer Pitcher (2002) 

Photography was Benson’s initial exploration into experimental art. The first artwork he shows in the lecture is a photograph of a melted beer pitcher (2002). Benson talks passionately about the transformation that occurred when he placed a plastic pitcher in a microwave. The ‘found object’ underwent a metamorphosis, into another, unrecognisable object. He talks about how interested he is in the medium of photographing his sculptures. The very act of translating a 3D object into a 2D rendering changes how we understand it, there is an extra level of ambiguity, the object becomes far more mysterious.

Chocolate Fountain (2008) 

 This ambiguity of texture and material can be seen in his early experimental sculptures. Benson’s Chocolate Fountain (2008), is a fascinating play of function and substance. The ‘chocolate’ is in fact made from stainless steel and automotive paint. In some ways, it is similar to the art of the Surrealists, particularly Meret Oppenheim whose Breakfust in Fur is so alarmingly anti-function. In the same manner, even though it appears to be soft and mouth-wateringly liquid, the ‘chocolate’ s in fact hard and metallic. 

Meret Oppenheim, Breakfust in Fur, 1936

His MDF Piece (2008) is equally as engaging. Here, Benson replicates the motion of a piece of paper falling to the floor, humorously rendered using heavy, dense wood. Like the artwork of Claes Oldenburg, Benson’s art is at once impractical, intriguing and witty.

MDF Piece, (2008)

Claes Oldenburg, Giant Soft Fan (1966) 

Although Benson’s sculptures of people may seem to be of a different genre of art, they still engage with this fascination with material and transforming objects. A homage to street performers, Human Statue (2005) depicts a nude in silver paint. It is incredibly life like, helped by medical-grade glass eyes, and is often mistaken by gallery-goers as live performance art, rather than sculpture.

Human Statue (2005) 

For his Human Statue (Jesse), Benson produced a 3D scan and print of the model. He uses a digital sculpting programme called Z-Brush. It is often used in sci-fi films and video games, which makes Benson’s sculptures a captivating blend of industrial design, fine arts and special effects. The method allows him to create numerous versions of the sculpture, and in 2011, he created a version with a stone dress. The stone was sourced from a quarry in Carrara, Italy, which has been carving stone into sculpture for centuries. It is now done using robots, a fascinating interplay of ancient and contemporary techniques and resources.

Human Statue (Jesse), 2008 

Benson jokes that ‘the entire sculpture can fit on a flash-drive’. Although it is an off-the-cuff remark, it is an intriguing thought, as this really may represent the future for sculpting. Benson later tells me how, because he now has his sculptures saved in a 3D virtual format, the possibilities are endless, and he is in discussions with an AR (Augmented Reality) software producer about including his sculptures in a game. This really seems to be the ultimate metamorphosis: from one object into countless digital variations.

No other sculpture deals with the interplay of technology and art as beautifully as Juliana (2015). Rendered in flawless plastic and covered in oily, iridescent blue automotive paint, the piece seems otherworldly. Benson later mentions that Jeff Koons owns a version of Juliana and it isn’t hard to see why. The beautiful play of texture and material, and pushing the boundaries of technology and art is reminiscent of many of Koons’ sculptures. But really, Juliana, a video game character come to life, would surely put some balloon dogs to shame.
Benson’s three figurative sculptures are currently on display in Oslo, and are undoubtedly captivating in person.

Juliana, (2015) 

Castaway seems to be the ultimate conclusion to Benson’s career of ideas (so far). Much like many of his earlier works inspired by ready-made or found pieces, Benson repurposes a horseshoe crab shell as the castaway’s hat. He says the shells would often wash up on shore during his childhood, and seem like alien creatures. Likewise, Tide detergent bottle swould also appear on beaches. Benson says he chose to use these items as the castaway’s hat and canteen, because he likes the idea that he would ‘repurpose found objects as a means of survival.’ Benson notes this is analogous with his position as an artist, finding objects, techniques and ideas to breathe new life into. The model himself, Joe, reflects the same mindset, posing in his own clothes, all sourced from thrift stores. Benson comments on his ‘scavenger-mentality’ and ‘resourcefulness’, creating an amazing outfit from found elements, making him the perfect castaway.

At a time when we search for ways to better reuse and recycle, whilst also pursuing ever more advanced technology, Benson’s works are entirely of the moment. Whilst being humorous, beautiful and accessible, they also comment on where we are as a species. Somewhere in the greenery of Goldney Gardens sits a bearded man, looking out from under a crab shell, at Bristol’s coast and wondering what might wash up next.  

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My People Theatre Review

Originally written for Epigram 

'Impeccable timing, well-crafted family dynamics and dramatic plot twists' - Hudi Charin reviews My People, an original tragi-comedy about Jewishness, family and coming of age.
Walking into The Pegg Theatre, you are transported from the SU to quite a different setting. A place with grape juice instead of wine, matzah instead of bread, and ham hidden sneakily in a Flora butter container. This is Passover, or, at least, Asha’s Passover, a night where she must endure her complex family.
(Spotlights / Olivia Younger)
My People, written and directed by Elliot Brett and produced by Jason Palmer, has been promoted as a 'dark, proudly-Jewish comedy centred around the relationship between Asha and her mother Debra.' As such, it could be expected that the play would be awkward, attempting to tread around uneasy cultural jokes and uncomfortable family dynamics. Instead, Brett manages within the first few minutes of the play, to perfectly introduce the key characters and their relationships to each other in such a way that the audience feels instantly acquainted with each person. Despite many uneasy moments, each situation is so masterfully managed that the play is never too awkward to enjoy. Every Jewish reference and joke is well-placed and never exclusionary.
In fact, it is actually surprising just how funny ‘My People’ is. Brett’s wit, combined with superb acting from every cast member, means that in many darker scenes, there are laugh-out-loud moments. Dan Sved as Toby was a particularly hilarious device throughout, whilst Bron Waugh’s appearance was short, but perfectly played, and a well-needed laugh in a bleak scene. The play is a rollercoaster of emotion, with the script and cast steering the journey perfectly. A particularly thought-provoking, poignant scene revolved around the traditional song ‘Dayenu’, or, ‘it would have been enough.’ The utilisation of the song’s message and application to the play’s characters was genius.
Spot-on casting meant every character was entirely believable. Eden Peppercorn embodied the troubled 17 year old Asha from her starting monologue and throughout. Likewise, from the moment Holly Cattle delivered her first cutting line -“don’t gender me, I may be a they-brew”- she embraced each quip and remark of snarky Rachel. Of course, Oskar House’s Dragon Den pitch as Eli would make anyone want to buy the naked popcorn flavour.
Spotlights / Olivia Younger
Despite each character being flawed and often troubled, they are written and played with such warmth that they are all likeable. Even Jacob Longstaff as James, perhaps the villain of the play, was portrayed sympathetically. Ella Margolin as Debra was particularly noteworthy. Despite Margolin being a second-year, after watching her attempt to marinade a salmon using a youtube tutorial, anyone would be convinced of her role as a middle-aged Jewish mother.
Little more can be said that would give the play justice. The impeccable timing, well-crafted family dynamics and dramatic plot twists can not be praised highly enough.
(Featured image credits: Spotlights / Olivia Younger)
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Helicon ROOTS Launch Review

Originally published on Epigram...

To celebrate the release of their newest issue, UoB arts publication Helicon throw an arty party in Stokes Croft. With performance poetry, interactive and hanging art, and live music, the launch party impressed just as much as their issue. Hudi Charin reviews.
Epigram / Hudi Charin
The theme for this issue is ‘ROOTS’, an exploration of the shifting meanings of identity and where we come from. Their last printed magazine was in April 2016, so Roots marks a particularly special event in the timeline of Helicon. At a cost of £5 a copy, you would expect a quality magazine, and you won’t be disappointed. Boasting 120 pages of original artwork, printed on quality paper, it is a slick final product. From photography to poetry, from prints to sketches, the magazine is no run-of-the-mill student zine, but a serious artistic publication. It isn’t light reading, but definitely thought provoking and complex, dwelling on compelling issues such as identity at university, moving away from home, and one night stands.
If the tone of the magazine’s greyscale pages seem a bit sombre, the launch party was quite the opposite. The BYOB event was upbeat, sociable, and different. Set across multiple spaces in the Elemental Bakery on Cheltenham Road, the venue was ideal, with a large room for live music and a bright gallery-space for the display of artworks. With smaller rooms for live poetry and an interactive DIY art space, the launch party was more than just a gig, with activities and ideas to explore throughout. It clearly demanded a lot of organisation and planning, and the Helicon team- Euan Dawtrey, Hannah Green, Suzie Beckley, Isabel Mitchelson and Luke Unger- pulled it off flawlessly.
Epigrma / Hudi Charin
The artworks, created by participants in Helicon’s weekly art classes, were hugely impressive, ranging from photographs to nude sketches to large canvas paintings. Steph Garratt’s geometric block colour portraits were particularly enthralling whilst Luke Batchelor’s photographs perfectly captured the chaotic rhythm of a night out in Bristol. The four well-selected live music acts, Nick Peter, HANAH, JAMBI and McGregor, played throughout the night, drawing in crowds to watch.
The poetry readings were, if anything, undervalued, resigned to a far too small room for the number of people who wanted to listen, piling in to hear their fellow students read poetry aloud. It was perhaps the most unusual part of the night, as seeing our peers stand up to reveal such vulnerability is something we do not experience often. Caitlin Thomson’s ‘Northern Roots’, a poem entirely in Geordie jargon, sums up the whole event. It was poignant, creative and funny, whilst also opening up our eyes to our fellow students, and where they have come from.
Epigram / Hudi Charin
Helicon are intending to publish another magazine, ‘Icons’ in May. Here’s hoping that their next launch party is as creative and enjoyable as their first.

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Art Galleries, I Love You

Sorry about the selfies. 

Dear Art Galleries,
Happy Valentines. I love you.

I know you’re not a big talker, and I tend to whisper a lot when I visit, but I felt it was about time to really tell you how it is. It’s time you heard how great you are.

Thank you for being there. With your huge pillars, marble staircases, winding corridors, intricate ceilings and shining floors, you’re quite a sight to behold - even when people got a bit weird about your architecture and made some of you brutalist back in the ‘60s, but we’ll move on from that- and it’s always comforting to see you in our cities, beaming down at us.

Thank you for being the place we inevitably go when we’re travelling, even if most people in our group hate art, so that we can say we didn’t just visit beaches. Thank you for being an alternative to the cinema on a rainy day. Thank you for being there for school trips, even when most of us would have preferred the zoo so we could get a pencil with a furry elephant on the end. Thank you for being there for dates, when we want to pretend we’re deep, and think of something other than a dinner or bowling. Thank you on behalf of grandparents everywhere who dragged us there when we were too small to cope with all that walking and moaned the entire visit.

All that time we knew you’d just be sitting there, waiting for us to pop by. Thanks for all that.

I guess it’s also time that we all apologised as well. I’m sorry about the selfies. You thought the cameras were bad, and then we got phones and then we got selfie-sticks. But thank you for always providing a good backdrop when we need to add some intellect to our instagram feeds. And we also know you hate the flash, but probably at least once a day, someone will forget to turn theirs off and you get blinded just a bit. Sorry, that must suck.

And sorry about all the abuse. I know you manage to keep your cool when you hear ‘but what is the point?’ ‘why did I pay to come see this?’ ‘I could have done that!’ and ‘…what so is this fire extinguisher art, then?’ about a million times a day. But I know it hurts you a little as well. Thank you for keeping quiet whilst everyone voices their opinions about you, it’s what you do best.

I hope you remember that whilst others might come to just use the free toilets, (and use a cool snapchat geofilter), there are some of us who are really glad you’re here.

Lots of love from your not-so-secret admirer.

P.S: If I could just make one request, it would be fab if you could have a few more squishy sofas dotted around when our feet get tired. Thanks!

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