Since the beginning of the 1970s James Benning (1942) has been considered a key figure in the American avant-garde. He elaborates on elements from structural film, but at the same time he is perceived as a protagonist of the ‘new narrative’ movement during the 1980s. His rigorous structures and tightly composed images betray his mathematical background, whereas the often autobiographical subjects reflect his working-class roots and outspoken political activism. In 20 Cigarettes, Benning moves away from his usual subject matter of the environment and focuses on an entirely artificial setting. All of the twenty subjects are placed accordingly in the same position, allowing a fixed camera to document their every move, showing only their head and shoulders that interprets the study of the face. Subtly echoing Andy Warhol’s Screen Tests (1964-’65), this seductive and intimate piece can be described as a monologue rather then a dialogue, revealing what is to be seen as a sociable habit – the act of smoking a cigarette – in an unsociable environment.
20 Cigarettes - James Benning, 2011, video, colour, 99’, sound