Konstantin Benkovich appears to me to be the most fitting and fit-for success media artist of the late 2010s. Mediality as a term is quite volatile, but it has been gaining more and more semantic weight and become indispensable for analytical perception of modern art. Of
modern art and even more so individual artworks where authors, deliberately or intuitively, focus on the meanings in the realization of art itself, in media and material.
What would my definition of “mediality” be? Mindful aesthetic treatment of media and material has been a hallmark of grand masters of all eras. Say, in the early 20th century, cubists prioritized the subject of material realization: many things, the pro collage thinking and natural textures. I think that Picasso’s drawings of the Ingres cycle reflect the information-related, mass-media components too. The trace drawing of Stravinsky was, naturally, informed by the aesthetics, as a “return to order” and such. But it does also emphasize the recognition value of the composer’s image—replicated by mass media, the trace technique employed by Picasso has a predisposition to news-making. That is, the image is pretreated for mass consumption through media, for better ease of digestion. (Not surprisingly, Alexander Calder used it as a means for connectivity in his works.) The dialectical opposition of recognition vs surprise is thus also a part of mediality.
Pop art went even further; it relied on the psychoanalytics of Gaston Bachelard who introduced the concept of material intimacy. He reduced the “breadth of experience of reality as materiality” to major elements: water, fire, and others. Pop art “intimasized” industrial materials; recall Wesselmann’s remakes of Matisse drawings as metal plot cuts. Kabakov and folklore pop artists (mainly Leonid Sokov) revealed the material intimacy of the Sovietness, with all the stencil lettering, notorious blue, text annotations, mass-produced consumer arts. Mediality encompasses not just the visual but other modalities as well. I remember well the impression I got when I saw 200 Strokes Per Minute at MMOMA—old typewriters, faded typed sheets with editor’s mark-up and notes, censure redactions, an audio track—all together embodied the Soviet mediality!
I think that Benkovich was somehow able to nurture his sense of mediality, something they do not teach at Saint Petersburg Stieglitz State Academy of Art and Design or anywhere else for that matter. The artist also honed in on his own technique: thick rebar and welding. He also found his module: the relation between height and width of the matrix quadrants to the thickness of rebar. Coloring came in its due time too. The structural solutions varied as well: turning away from the grid support, gaps/ redactions in composition, etc. Apparently, Benkovich originally chose sparring partners from among iconic art that occupy the interface of relevant arts and glamorous establishment. His remake of Koons’ dog comes to mind. Even this minimalistic object had some room for additional reduction down to a silhouette grid-based structure. The original involved an element of play: where Koons played with the general public by forming an image of a dog from flower pots, to double down on the cuteness factor. Benkovich, in turn, plays with Koons—he simplifies the artwork to the limit, eliminates the glamorousness, faces the audience with rusty bars instead of flowers. Koons also had this quality of a fighter’s resilience: steel-strong compositions, openness to interchangeability (where he himself changed the physicality of the body for flowers, so he would have no reservations about further change of his material).
In some years, Benkovich taps classical art again, now through The Scream by Munch. The original expressionist gesture is reduced to a metal (see-through) mask. The mediality is reinforced by the memorial component—the mask was mounted by the artist on the bridge where the Russian politician Boris Nemtsov was killed. (We see here another instance of news-making, a calculation in hopes of going viral through the media outlets.) In other words, the artist has learned to graft several layers of mediality onto the conceptual framework of an idea. The material intimacy, of course, comes primarily from the appeal to the mind. Our minds involuntarily generate connotations to metal, welding, grid of bars. And Benkovich employs the motifs of defense and offense with confidence—hoodies, masks, riot police protective gear, CCTV cameras, Molotovs, etc. The image of a grid of bars, reminiscent of incarceration themes in criminal romance songs, is imprinted in our consciousness... Comparable to a new urban eidos, we follow a semantic linkage between form and content, a tangible manifestation of essential meaning... A distant imprint in the subconscious is actualized and revealed when presented with a fitting occasion. Something is imprinted onto our retinas. Benkovich’s works dealing with 9/11 are pushing the envelope of reduction. However, these are true urban eidoses and their structural metal is decimated by the metal of the aircraft, this leaves a solid imprint in our minds as a new visual archetype... The artist makes curious forays beyond the repressive manifestations, beyond the eidos of bars.
I think it all started with his work The Gates, where the regular connotations are overthrown by architectural form followed by objects Cylinder, Shower, Lamp. They are, at first glance, emblematic images. The source and a pictogram for its useful work. A cone of light, scent, a cone of water. The “materiality” is reduced to an arbitrary emblem. The formulation, though, seems to be denied by the selected material of the materiality (the bars) and the 3D arrangement (the cone). The physical is opposed to the meta-physical, and vice versa. There is something similar in the drawing by Ilya Kabakov Shower, something conspicuously mundane and down to earth opposing the spiritual. In Joseph Beuys’ CapriBatterie, a real light bulb connects to an organic lemon, which is presented as a source of energy—a simple metaphor to trump the laws of physics. Hopefully, Benkovich is going to elevate onto a new level of mediality. And also content.
Looking forward to it.