It is said of God that he fashioned the first man out of clay, thus using the material of the earth.
Of course, he might also have preferred marble or granite, but he chose clay, the earth. Perhaps he wanted to remind us of earth, then they also remind us of the body and of death. Not the beautiful body, not Antiquity’s noble goddesses and complacent heroes in impeccable marble, but rather the living, perishable flesh whose firm attachment to the bones slackens as we grow
older. As if gravity makes it strive towards the earth, which patiently awaits the day, when it can begin to digest it.
Clay is a changeable material. It is tough but yet flexible, as long as its content of water has not yet evaporated. Eli. Benveniste refers to the Italian proverb, which says that weight never sleeps. It is in the nature of the vertical forms that they only obey gravity and tend to collapse if they are off balance. The clay is alert and working with it is both a balancing trick and an act of metamorphosis.
It may be viscous or supple; it has no definite, unchangeable form and may undergo countless metamorphoses in the process. If time is inconceivable without change – and visa versa – we might also say that clay, as opposed to
stone holds a temporal dimension.
The transformation of stone is irrevocable; it is a result of sharp fractures, cuts and other assaults by weapons adapted for the purpose. Clay, on the other hand, transforms itself through more gradual passing stages, as a more flexible interaction between the mind and the hands, between the hand and the material, between the resistance and compliance of the material. Somehow, a stone sculpture exists outside of time, maintaining the state which the sculptor left it in. From now on only the gradual disintegration brought on by the centuries and the weather can change it.
The sculpture stands as a fact, too monumental to ignore, and with a persistent authority in its presence. More than anything else, it is a result, and there is thus something definite about it, as a decision that cannot be hanged. And that is the way it is. Once a corner has been cut off, it can
never be put back on.
Clay figures are different. Of course, they cannot be remodeled either, once they are in the kiln, but still they seem more temporary and inconclusive. As opposed to stone sculptures, they do not appear to be invariable, indisputable
results. Maybe it is because the burnt body of the clay figure reveals traces of the creative process in the shape of countless surface marks left by busily modelling hands and fingers.
In a clay figure, the progressive stages of creation reveal themselves to the eye as a spatial development. The figure comes into being – again – as contemplate it. And in reading the prints left by the working hands, the eye participates in the sequence of choices where the modeling might have taken a different turn and the figure itself might have become a different figure.
Whereas stone solidly and firmly fills its form, clay displays traces of the metamorphoses it has passed through. You cannot help imagining that the process might have continued. And as the eyes proceeds, the eye expands on the clay’s changeable narrative from the point where the working hands left it, and that it is how the material unfolds towards the inconclusive, the suggestions, half-pursued thoughts and diffuse notions.
Looking is ambiguous affair: It is to receive, but also to penetrate, to let oneself be formed, but also to give form. We discover ourselves by looking at the world. We civilize nature by retelling it with the eye, we create the world by looking at it.
We arrange ourselves in it by arranging it as we would arrange a home: pleasing to the eye – and above all recognizable. Finite. Controllable. But at the same time, the eye is constantly flooded by the world’s infinite, shadowy and glimmering, wonderful and terrifying whirlpool of irrelevant, nameless, entangled details. The world never completes its process of going under and reappearing.
Just as we never complete the process before it is suddenly over. The world itself does not distinguish between nature and culture and therefore it still remains alien to the eye in all its excess, its enigmatic presence, which makes all forms and concepts overflow.
Eli. Benveniste’s clay women stand on their heads, their legs pointing upwards. But are they standing at all? Does it not rather seem as if they are falling? Or have they been erected from lying positions? Is this how they sleep, like the herring, head down? There is something indeterminate and precipitate about them. They seem to submerge themselves in the very clay from which they have emerged. A luxuriant, light-headed, playful submersion.
Then, sometimes, men and women emerge from the clay in quaintly twisted, ironic and pornographic postures.
Faces appear from the puddle substance, distorted like infused death masks, chapped and blackened bog finds, or they have been coarsely and brutally rearranged, with a nose where an ear should have been and a mouth smeared. We are invariably reminded of Picasso’s contorted heads, of Dubuffet’s wrinkled and scurfy barbarians, of Giacometti’s plastic croquis, of the both rigid and fragile virginity of medieval crucifixes, of the acrobatic confidence tricks of the baroque period, of the mannerist agonizing lechery, of
African and pre-Columbian archetypes: Animals, gods and their mythological cloning, reduced to the archaic stylization’s alphabet of basic forms
However, these references do not appear as ideals but rather as lingering retinal impressions, memories, associations, quotations, and kind regards that are easily worked into the curious encounter with the moist, image-breeding fatness.
Then the clay collapses and turns into dumb, shapeless things, almost self-effacing, placably peculiar and strange moving as with someone or something you feel a bit sorry for. Then the vertical and horizontal play expands into surfaces, walls, rooms: houses in uninhabitable scale, but still with doors, windows, and roofs above the wall’s and aperture’s distribution of light and shadow. Wry architectural signs, Asian or native American in outline, obscure temples for all the unfortunate, eccentric gods who have been sidetracked by the more business-like religions.
Or simply ordinary human shelter of the kind that has disappeared into the belly of the earth, where those who preceded us once sat scratching themselves poking the fire with a stick, watching the rain.
Eli. Benveniste´s most resent large, hanging sculptures refer directly to prehistoric man: the black mummies found in Danish bogs, complete with faces, hair and skin, and in a strange way reminiscent of clay. They are human sacrifices and thus the ancient, preserved corpses in more than one sense bear witness to the mortal fear which man has never overcome. However, Eli. Benveniste’s strongly formalized version conveys an antithetical process. Not the gradual disintegration of the dead, sacrificed body, but the gradual appearance of man from the clay.
Man becoming a reflection. A reflection of fundamental human experience, as, for example, fear of death, contained in the creation of the reflection, the finished sculpture’s interplay of recognition and abstraction, between the elaborately processed figure and the restless, aggressive or caressing traces of the surface.
They are rather awkward, sometimes almost clumsy, these faces, bodies, and houses of clay, imperfect, as if they never really succeed in surfacing, in escaping the clay they are made of. But these are types of works that one can never quite complete and whose results are characterized by temporariness and which should therefore be left incomplete. Eli. Benveniste has recognized this fact and she appreciates the paradox that the work must still be processed to the exact point where the incompleteness no longer appears to be shortcoming or a flaw, but rather a statement.
Her sculptures are delightfully unpretentious, inasmuch as art is far too often burdened with a vain dream of perpetuity. They are present in that manner which art can only be when it rather be something else. When it embraces time and thus also the half-forgotten dreams and still diffuse, unspoken longings. They do not exactly know what they want to be, these clay figures, and if they knew, it would all be ruined. Maybe they do not want to be something definite, once and for all. Maybe they articulate precisely a longing to escape all well-established identities, to escape this constant being, to be able to come into being over and over again.
Presence always meets us as a confrontation.
First and foremost a confrontation with our own limits, our limitation. We become present, when we suddenly encounter something unknown or when something familiar suddenly seems unfamiliar.
When it strikes us that a change has taken place that nothing will ever be like before.
Or when we forget for a moment, what things are called and what we are called. When words give out and we discover the things and the faces themselves beneath the names of the things and the faces. We are only truly present in those rare seconds when the eye and the mind can no longer freely shape reality in accordance with our conceptions and expectations, assumptions and hopes. When it is rather the unknown, strange reality that reaches us in the form of an unexpected touch, brutal or soft with a hitherto unknown pain or tenderness. Sometimes it happens in art.
When the artist manages to remain long enough in the elusive borderland of presence between knowledge and uncertainty, between being and becoming, between form and formlessness, memory and oblivion. But art is treacherous, it will eat itself up from within, if you let it. It is “artificial”, as opposed to natural. A language of abstract signs which cannot readily be mistaken for what they refer to. At the same time art, throughout its history, has been obsessed with copying nature, interpreting it, violating it, or peeping at it. Language closes on its object, and can only disclose it again, by revealing itself. In visual arts this takes place in the exchange between the designing process and the willfulness of the material, between the pattern of the narrative and the anarchy of the substance. The work is both a thing and an image, and it is in this duality that the original interaction between the imageproducing eye and blind nature is repeated. In Eli. Benveniste’s work, the apparent incompletion is a strategy, a cunning method of deceiving the enemy: The far too perfect, the far too closed and inflexible form’s control of the material and of the imagination that the processes it. To her there is no contradiction between the civilizing, structuralizing eye and the organic excesses of nature. To her it is all nature. That is the reason why her works appear as subtle little scandals.
Aesthetic obscenities. A body language, which is sometimes wildly gesticulating, sometimes casually playful, both obscene and innocent, which is propagated to the patient, shapeless clay, gaily or passionately, periodically or dreamily. She must have discovered that the eye, which is too self-conscious, penetrating and categorizing, carries its own blindness. And also, she must be haunted by those little revelations that strike us when we realize that we are not simply contemplating nature. That it contemplates us, too. With our own eyes. Eli. Benveniste hesitates before the definite form closes irrevocably on the rebellious matter. And thus reveals the hesitation of the matter to solidify in an irrevocable form. This is a contradiction. To pursue metamorphoses when creating something as robust and immovable as sculptures. How can that be? Because the working hands do not seek to stop, arrest or conquer what the eye has seen. Because, on the contrary, the hands give in to the mobility of the eye and the matter. Because the works do not present themselves as protests, vain ambitious insurrections against change, the incomplete movement, everything’s constant disappearance and reappearance.
Because on the contrary, they serve as traces of transformation itself.
Jens Christian Grøndahl