Born Detroit, 1977 BFA, Bennington College; MFA, Columbia University Lives in Hamtramck, Michigan
“I am trying the least-hard to be an artist of anyone you’ve met,” says Ben Hall, by way of contextualizing art in the diverse constellation of his interests and responsibilities. Like most things Hall says, there are varying degrees of truth to this complicated matter. Fanatical about language, obsessive about details, and meticulous in his planning, Hall is clearly moving toward something with great determination—and that something includes receiving an MFA from one of the country’s most prestigious universities. But a deeper look at the projects and lifestyle infrastructure that Hall has constructed indicate that he is not, as he says, trying to “be an artist,” and especially not trying to make things that “look like art.” Rather, art is just one of a number of mechanisms—one with which, it must be noted, he manipulates with dexterity—that he’s using to drive toward bigger priorities.
What, then, are these aims? Hall is concerned with ideas, first and foremost, but also placemaking, efficiency, generative curatorial models, and especially social mobility. “My people are neither learned not educated,” Hall is quick to offer, “they are Wal-Marters, through and through.” (“Wal-martyrs?” he ponders, finding a new linguistic layer in his own rhetoric, mid-conversation) While Hall places no apparent judgment on various levels of social strata, he is keenly aware of them and cites their signifiers as a kind of shorthand—both conversationally, but also in the deployment of materials in various iterations of his art practice.
This practice, which is developed and executed in close conjunction with his “primary interlocutors” Andrew Mehall (with whom he administrates the Detroit gallery space Young World) and Jason Murphy (who is his partner in the popular Eastern Market eatery, Russell St. Deli), involves a kind of creative generalism that allows all materials and mechanisms to be in play for any given piece, performance, or installation. These materials might include shopping carts, soda cans, and a puffy jacket, as they did in She Shells, part of a 2013 showing of largely sculptural works at 2739 Edwin; or ceramic Buddha heads, live plants, and bulletproof glass, as with Dollar Show, the giant terrarium-like installation he and Mehall created for “Zookeepers,” their 2014 collaborative show at Popps Packing. This last, which also features a 14-minute looping video, Screen Tests for the Life of the Buddha & His Cousin Ananda, Mi Primo. is an excellent example of Hall’s driving obsession with the relationship between material details and viewer experience. “We talked a lot about how deep the mulch in this piece needed to be to create a degree of verisimilitude in making the viewer feel like they’d entered a completely new space,” Hall says. “We discovered that’s about 18 inches.”
Verisimilitude—that is, the appearance or semblance of truth—is a useful concept, when it comes to reckoning with Hall. He is concerned, always, with the mindset of the consumer as a reflection of his ability to curate an experience. This might be a “die-in,” like his 2015 Art X performance piece, Windbag for Thirty-Six Sets of Lungs, which laid out rows of volunteers beneath disco balls and hanging ferns on felted mats, in- and exhaling through pitch pipes to generate an approximately half-hour passive breathing symphony that leaves viewers acutely aware of their own, limited breath. It might involve his role as curator for Young World, an unfinished ex-industrial space lacking running water or an electric hookup, which favors immersive exhibits that fill the space with oversized and dislocating displays. In terms of his curatorial vision, Hall describes an awareness developed over time spent in a touring band, emphasizing the importance of working with people he enjoys. Spending time hanging out with the people he likes the most is as ardent a goal for Hall as “being an artist.”
On the short list of these, of course, are Mehall and Murphy, with whom Hall has generated a kind of symbiotic system that manifests in creative exchange, but also in literal terms as a kind of time-banking that allows them to martial their collective resources in support of each other’s projects. One suspects that access to the deepest layers of truth in Hall’s verisimilitudinous existence is likewise reserved for those within his closest circle, but whether or not he is, in the end, trying to be an artist, Hall has at least achieved the requisite layer of depth to create a pretty good impression of one.
Rosie Sharp, October 2015
Copyright Essay’d 2015