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Interview With Barbara Benish

The Driving Force Behind the Dialogue Between Two Countries for the Purpose of Creation

Escaping existentialism in pursuit of the seemingly better times of yesteryear is a common motif among artistic communities. Even when history speaks of travesty and trauma, as in the case of the Velvet Revolution, artists tend to romanticise previous generations. They attach themselves to the past as a way of understanding the present and, perhaps, creating a better future – or at the very least, not repeating mistakes. Barbara Benish expresses her opinion, “One does not want to idealise those dark times before the revolution, but instead try to study history and continue to envision a world that is interconnected and open to all cultures and societies.” 

Through close observation, staring into the dark past sheds light, bringing us together rather than tearing us apart. “I think artists form groups and alliances, like all social beings, for protection, but also fertilisation. The rise of the individual artist, with the other modernist tropes, is possibly coming to an end, as with the traditional art market. Not to say that galleries will go out of business, but the way art is viewed, sold, and marketed will come to change with the trends in how it is made. We probably do not know yet what this will look like.” Benish is an expert eyewitness from the heart of change. She has seen states rise and fall and allowed her own art to be part of the flux. She has watched art markets transform against the backdrop of a country divided. She has been the viewer and the viewed. And finally, she went underground for art’s sake. 

Benish is the director of ArtMill and ArtDialog, an advocate for burgeoning artistic communities, and an artist herself. “We can never have too much art or too many artists, as long as we are able to have support from the culture we live in and have respect, in that the work is embedded in change.” But before that she was part of an artistic movement during the Velvet Revolution, an exchange between former Czechoslovakia and the US called “Dialogue: Prague/Los Angeles.” Citing the opening of the show at Lidový Dům in July 1989, as the most memorable moment, where they were “flooded with visitors and literally thousands of people came from all over the country,” Benish recalls that even “the STB film crews and all the secret police at the venue were outnumbered psychologically, it was a tangible tipping point that we all felt, but would not be understood until a few weeks later, when the Berlin Wall came down and the borders were opened for the first time in over 50 years.” Amidst the changing world, the falling and fallen walls, Benish was building her own community. 

What she developed in the former Czechoslovakia during the totalitarian era was a parallel structure running alongside social structures in order to disrupt them. The profits point to compassion, collaboration, and rebellion. “Activities at ArtMill are parallel to another more formal ‘official’ culture, and maybe at the same time can undermine it.” Benish strives to go beyond notions of art, galleries, and collections, focusing more on “collectives and strong community work which can challenge the status quo as we are small, limber, and strong, with a certain chaotic presence in the society.” And the results can be seen and felt almost immediately. “We are not big bureaucracies or institutions that take a long time to make something happen.” 

Artists speak directly to tragedy and trauma in real time.  A world without artists is not much of a world at all. And a world without artists responding to the world around them feels nihilistic and just ordinary. Artists “can respond immediately, because there is hardly a budget in place anyway, so there is freedom there!” Creatives like Benish can be grateful for the immediacy with which they can respond to the wound. 

Installation view at Pomona College Museum of Art by B. Benish

 

When discussing the artistic process, Benish believes it “is an interior one; the other part is exterior.” Again, supporting the idea that artists speak to the wound. “The work itself is an excavation into deep and dark labyrinths every time one goes into the studio, and yes, that is just hard work.” Benish speaks of her own process, “When I am at my studio at the mill, in the deep of winter, alone, it is an isolation chamber. All the other stuff: the exhibitions, the hustle and bustle of deadlines and grants, et cetera, is just about being focused and organised and having a very tough skin.”  

Artists have played an integral role in society throughout the centuries. Their role is vital, producing invaluable experiences and spaces for the public. They open dialogue, allow pain and suffering to be seen, felt, and heard. They paint a larger picture, one that often goes beyond the canvas, one that builds between, among, and around. Artists are community innovators. In the same way a diamond is formed from pressure bearing down on carbon, “when larger governmental or political bodies begin applying pressure to certain social groups, these types of organised reactions begin to occur: witness the Women’s Movement, civil rights in the US, the Pride movement, or even recent demonstrations in Prague, Moscow, or Hong Kong. If artists are shut out of the gallery system, they will naturally form their own places and systems to show and articulate their work in public.”  Artists are powerful entities during difficult times, shining bright like a diamond. 

Benish knows all too well that change is inevitable. “Transitions are always difficult, but that is the definition of art: to transform and connect our spirits.” Creatives foster change, transitions that might not have seemed possible before. Offering a place to witness change, to embrace the temporal, artists unlock our spirits which seek solutions and whisper secrets.  

In a world where art is everywhere and everyone wants to be an artist, Benish describes the pre-1989 period, “without an art market to speak of during the totaž days, there was a focus on the work itself, the art community, and just fighting the regime in whatever way possible.” In comparison to the current state where “younger artists today have pressure to produce, sell, market themselves, and perhaps not allow themselves the time and space to envision a larger picture of creativity.” Young artists today connect and commercialise easily, with a few clicks, even within a few seconds. 

But that was not always the case, especially for artists in pre-1989 Czechoslovakia. Artists had to remove themselves from their homes, their homelands, and “travel, cross-fertilise, and communicate with other artists around the globe.” Dangerous, to say the least. Benish recalls “the memories are stressful: of the secret police, the wire-tapping, the clandestine meetings, and constant surveillance.” Memories pile up like bricks in a wall, but this wall is not to divide states, countries, or people, this wall is to fortify the community that fought vigilantly. “I was in a lot of the street demonstrations in the late 1980s as things were beginning to open up and the public got braver and more organised with Havel’s international support. One never forgets having a water cannon pointed at you, or riot police beating up protestors next to you, or running as fast as you can to avoid the same fate.”

Benish has run towards her own fate and run into some obstacles, especially as a female artist. “Being a professional artist, especially a female artist, includes being able to handle a lot of rejection, invisibility and/or ignorance. But when you are around long enough, and don’t give up, eventually there is an echo to the work in the world and it makes it all seem okay. I just found out for example that a body of work I did in the early 1980s will be featured at the United Nations headquarters in New York City this September during the climate conference. It is work on the indigenous patterns and processes of Hawaiian tapa, bark cloth, that was part of my senior thesis at the University of Hawai‘i. It has not been shown in 35 years, and now will be featured at this very prestigious venue with a wonderful audience of international climate activists and global leaders. When things like this happen then one is encouraged to believe that the years of working alone, in silence, are somehow worthwhile.” 

She is proof that running towards something, even a wall, offers promise. After all, walls are not forever. They can be torn down or fall on their own, but rarely do they stand the test of time. In Benish’s case, she has scaled walls and moved forever forward, towards the horizon. She moves towards a cycle, towards a horizon that is the home of the rising and setting sun. In her movement, she becomes a process. And in moving, she inspires us to chase our own suns, to fight for another day to exist, to create, to be artists.

 

This article was written for Oko! Magazine edition 6, for more interesting and FREE articles from this edition you can find it and our other editions under the Magazine section of our website.

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