Benni Efrat, Tailgate, 1973, single-channel film, 16 mm (converted to digital), black-and-white, 7:47 mins, still frame
"I do not see myself as a filmmaker…
My total activity in films and other work is confined to what I call concrete art.
Existence, means of instant, a philosophy of structures, and total social involvement; and not the bourgeois spirit of individual seperateness or point of view!"
Benni Efrat, quotes from the catalogue of his 1977 exhibition at the Internationaal Cultureel Centrum (ICC), Antwerp
About the Project Adi Englman
“Benni Efrat: Experimental Films from the 1970s” is the third in a series of art publications by the Marcel Art Projects nonprofit, “Masterpieces of Israeli Modern Art,” each looking into a seminal work or body of work from the legacy of modernism and experimental art in Israel. At the heart of this current project is an anthology compiling six of the art films created by Efrat between 1968–1975, works of experimental cinema that are emblematic of his mode of thinking and creative process at that time. Efrat, then a conceptual artist, began creating his experimental films with no prior background in filmmaking, working from a standpoint that sought to foreground a concept, an idea or an action over the medium or form in which they are conveyed. Much in the spirit of the “concrete art” he had been making then in other media, the workings of the camera – as the actions performed to it – are made explicitly present. Moreover, Efrat dispenses with editing or any manipulations done in retrospect, in the aim of representing truth in art rather than illusion.
As works of experimental cinema, these films are at odds with the logic and conventions of narrative cinema, norms that they in fact depart from and challenge. These are abstract films, devoid of a story or plotline, whose main protagonists are such notions as action, duration and process; the celluloid on which they were shot; the cinematic frame, together with its inherent tension between flatness, illusion and depth; and light itself, as the fundamental condition for both the making of a film its viewing. In other words, it is cinema about cinema. These are films that, while considering both the artistic action and its product – in this case, the process of filmmaking and the cinematic output, respectively – break the film down to its elements, to unravel its truth. The temporal dimension to those films is crisp and measureable. The film base – sensitive and perishable. The space represented is a derivative of the camera’s field of vision and its technical capabilities. And so on. However, even in the absence of a plotline, these films certainly manage to capture our attention, generating a sharp and palpable sense of cinematic drama.
Benni Efrat, a Lebanese-born Israeli artist (1940, Beirut), is among the forerunners of conceptual art in Israel. His work in recent years has centered on society and environment, issues he looks at from a futuristic standpoint that criticizes human conduct in the present. In retrospect, his early works included here have already contained the ideological seed to his later, more mature work. The actions that unfold in them may seem trivial and monotonous, yet by looking attentively at these occurrences, along with their consequences, they open up a wider, more universal field of questioning regarding physical phenomena and the interconnectedness of things in the world, as well as the dynamics of man and environment. On another level, the films address questions related to human epistemology and knowledge, to the ontological status of the artwork and to viewership. The paired-down simplicity of these films, the slow and measured pace of the action and the focus on man and environment lends them a humanistic aura in the spirit of the pre-digital era.
To me, these films are like Haiku poems made in accordance with the medium of cinema. In their concise, minimalist language they call attention to the beauty found in nature and among the things of the world – to proportions, relations and states – as well as to the charm and emotive power of cinema. All these are delivered by Efrat with a gentle hand and an admiring eye. If you stretch a rubber band, it rips. When exposed to light, celluloid burns. Darkness conceals things, and light reveals. Simply put, what we see is what has been captured on film, and all one needs to do is direct the gaze and observe attentively. Or, in Efrat’s own words: “Close your eyes, open your mind, listen to the image”. In my view, these films also bear a reminder to a fundamental ethical value: All of our actions, just as the occurrences and states in nature, have their ramifications and continue to reverberate further in the concrete world around us. We live in a world of cause and effect. And, as beings that are active in the world, the responsibility for the state of things lies, to a great extent, in each and every one of us.
The six films included in the anthology all belong to Efrat’s first phase of cinematic experimentation. They were shot in London, a city he arrived at in 1966 for studies and continued to live in for the next ten years. Shot with a 16 mm camera, the films in this body of work were shown in the decade following their making throughout a number of shows Efrat has had at various art institutions and museums in Europe and the USA. True to the spirit of the conceptual art of the time, which privileged the idea behind a work over its formal or material manifestation, the films were either shown in their original format – as film projections in the exhibition space – or occasionally as series of film stills (as was the case with his solo show at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, in 1974). Efrat continued to work in film throughout the second half of the 1970s, but these works were typically integrated into larger installations or screened as part live performances of the artist’, also known as Efrat’s “film performances”. This later output is not part of this current research.
Efrat produced a total of 15 experimental films in the years 1968–1975. Among these, his very first filmic experimentations, dating from 1968–1969, failed to be located as of this current research, and it is possible they have been permanently lost amid the artist’s subsequent studio and residential relocations between Israel, Europe and the USA. In recent years, some of his experimental films from this phase were being shown again in museum shows in Israel and abroad, among them in the extensive survey exhibition on the history of the moving image in Israeli art, held at the Haifa Museum in 2004; in a show on Israeli post-minimalist art at the Herzliya Museum of Contemporary Art, in 2008; and as part of “Staring Back at the Sun,” a travelling video art exhibit organized by Artis, currently circulating between a number museums worldwide.
The initiative behind “Benni Efrat: Experimental Films from the 1970s” was born first and foremost in the aim of rescuing and preserving these historical films, which were kept in Efrat’s personal archive in the format of film reels. The celluloid film base is sensitive both to light and to touch, and generally given to deterioration over time. The films selected for the anthology were digitized and reworked in a manner as to approximate this new edition to the look and feel of the original film format. Indeed, converting a film into digital raises questions on how a work relates to the medium in which it was made originally, all the more so when art films are at issue. However, in talks with Benni held during the work on the project he stressed the importance of the idea underlining the work, asserting that the image and the message are what matters to him rather than the format in which they are transmitted to the viewer. He claims to have no sentimental attachment to celluloid as such, and was greatly supportive of the initiative to preserve those films by way of digitizing them.
This film anthology launches in conjunction with “Doom’s Path, Winter 2065,” a new exhibition of Efrat’s due to inaugurate the 2018 exhibition program at the Petach Tikva Museum of Art (curator: Drorit Gur-Arie). The anthology, available to the public through an unlimited DVD-edition, is accompanied by a publication in print that is likewise viewable on the Marcel website. While targeting the general public of art viewers, the project aims to be of interest to cinema, philosophy and science enthusiasts as well. And, as part of its presentation to the public, the video program and accompanied materials will be actively directed to high schools and other institutions of higher education that teach and research those fields.
“Benni Efrat: Experimental Films from the 1970s” is the third in a series of research-based publications by the Marcel nonprofit, “Masterpieces of Israeli Modern Art”. Previous installment in the series include “Dani Karavan: Pray For the Peace of Jerusalem,” a booklet on the artist’s 1966 wall relief at the Knesset, and “Dani Karavan: The Negev Monument,” a book presentation of the historic monument to the Negev Brigade, inaugurated in 1968. The series is an initiative of Marcel Art Projects, an independent nonprofit for curating and initiatives in art.
PDF of the complete catalogue
Project curator Adi Englman
Assistant curator Lihi Levie
Research and production assistants Elinore Darzi, Or Frish
Hebrew editing and English translation Hemda Rosenbaum
Arab translation Nawaf Atamnah
Arab editing Bagdad Translation
Graphic design Harel & Maayan Studio
Exhibition at the Petach Tikva Museum of Art
Chief curator Drorit Gur-Arie
Coordination Avshalom Suliman
Film restoration and digital editing Tseela Greenberg
Digitization Photo Linof
Print publication produced at A. R. Printing, Tel Aviv
“Benni Efrat: Experimental Films from the 1970s” is a projects in a series of research-based art publications, Masterpieces of Israeli Modern Art
© Marcel Art Projects, a non-profit organization
(registered association no. 58-056-900-2)
We extend our thank to Shachar Freddy Kislev, Nir Evron and the Department of Photography at the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design, Jerusalem, Hemdat Kislev, Lia Amitai, Livio Carmeli, and Chen Sheinberg.
Special thanks to Benni Efrat.
The project was made possible through the assistance of the Petach Tikva Museum of Art, the Pais Council for the Culture and Arts, the Israeli Ministry of Culture and Sport, and the Ostrovsky Family Fund.