Eyeteeth interview: Zack Bent on rites of passage, family tribes and the Boy Scouts

Zack Bent, Conquerors, 2009

That I was just downstairs as an auspicious event occurred in the family of Seattle-based artists Zack and Gala Bent -- the home-birth of their third son, Caspar, in May -- was only fitting: A day earlier my friend, playwright Jim Bovino (who shares a house with the Bents), and I toured Buffalo Trace, an exhibition of Zack's sculptures and photographs, which features a very pregnant Gala and sons Solomon and Ezra. The inseparability of family and art -- as both theme and medium -- has marked much of Zack's work, both as an MFA student at the University of Washington and since.

In 2008, the family lived for four days (and Zack for a full week) as "contemporary frontiersmen" in Seattle's Crawl Space Gallery.
Buffalo Trace at Seattle's 4Culture this spring continued the theme, presenting the real Bent family -- including an awkward Zack, scaling a climbing wall in spit-shined shoes and a scout leader's uniform -- in rugged, vaguely mythic settings. The exhibition included a dozen or so mid- and large-scale color photographs, plus a few sculptures, on themes related to outdoor survival, the fatherly instruction of sons, and rites of passage. Zack's photos often have a painterly quality, appearing at times as heroic tableaux, but always with subtle details: a glint of light on the heel of a vigorous scoutmaster, a bunched first-aid bandage supporting a pregnant belly, a burgundy neckerchief paralleling the outstretched finger of a boy's splinted arm. The sculptures are both more simple and more enigmatic: an unexplained jar of dead bees; a camp hatchet in a cast, its sharpened blade exposed; a barkless tree trunk comically overloaded with birdhouses.

Over several weeks, Bent and I had an email discussion about his work. Here's part one of the exchange.

Zack Bent, Contusion, 2009

Paul Schmelzer: The Boy Scouts of America is an organization fraught with baggage for artists who reference it, thanks to high-profile news about homophobia, allegations of sexual abuse of minors and, as critic Regina Hackett put it, in reference to your work, "anti-eco greed." Your artist's statement is quite clear about these issues: you acknowledge that the scouts have at times failed in preserving values like conservation and social responsibility. In your artist's statement you write, "I have not sought to directly comment on contemporary controversies. Instead my aim has been to reference scouting traditions (honor, merit, first aid etc) while allowing my family to become a tribe of scouts that aims to understand its own limitations in relating to each other, to the natural world, and to the divine." But in Hackett's case, the general topic of scouting carried too much baggage to see beyond. Did you underestimate how volatile the topic can be? Or are you working to present an alternative narrative to those prevalent about scouts and, say, homophobia?

Zack Bent: While meeting with Regina in January to do a feature piece for the [Seattle Post-Intelligencer], I told her about my project. She wasn’t too keen on the idea as you can tell from her review! I left that meeting realizing how volatile the project was. In fact, I was sort of paralyzed for a month or so. I met with several confidants to get their opinions on whether I should proceed. They all resounded emphatically – yes. I decided to proceed with trepidation. I sunk my teeth into a great piece of writing by Jay Mechling On My Honor: Boy Scouts and the Making of American Youth. Mechling is an Eagle Scout who teaches American Studies at UC Davis. In his book he presents an engaged and rich cultural narrative of a BSA troop he shadowed while weaving in a study on the court cases in recent years concerning the 3 G’s -- girls, gays, and God. It is a spirited work that shows BSA’s historical evolution that became distinctively conservative in the 50’s.

Zack Bent, Spasms, 2009

I think someone could address the issue of homophobia in the institution of BSA more directly. What is perhaps most important is that I didn't set out to make a show about the Boy Scouts of America. I was hoping to focus on the essence of survival skills and relational teachings that make up the essential educational form that scouting dictates. Specifically, taking young people out into nature to teach them rather adult skills. While focusing on this, my effort was to present a type of vulnerability wrapped up in existential dilemma that isn’t present in the do-good codebook of the contemporary institution of BSA. This was my attempt at an alternative narrative.

PS: Something Regina seemed not to notice: your scouts aren't Boy Scouts. Their uniforms are of the style, but aren't official BSA uniforms, and -- more importantly -- this troop includes young children and a woman... and a pregnant one at that. Is this a critique of BSA, or simply a product of available casting: your family?

ZB: The driving force in all of my work surrounds the tense space between seeming dichotomies. This work both contains my real experience with scouting and simultaneously attempts to conjure up an imaginary scout tribe. The casting is deliberate -- and it breaks from BSA and American scouting traditions consciously. The break is less a critique and more my re-situating the context and dialog inside my family experience.

Zack Bent, Stress Fracture, 2009

PS: Did I hear you sewed the uniforms yourself? What did you learn in the (probably grueling) process of doing that? Did you get a sewing merit badge as a scout?

ZB: Actually, I didn’t make them from scratch. I spent a long time gathering clothing components that would match; unfortunately the boys' were much too big, and Gala's had to accommodate her belly. So indeed they required quite a bit of alteration to function. I didn’t receive a sewing merit badge as a scout… but my mother was a high school home economics teacher which came in handy for learning certain "domestic" skills. I do like to sew though, and having several items that are made in the show breaks form with the typical hands-off quality of photography.

PS: In mainstream culture, rites of passage, especially for boys, seem to take revolve around unhealthy things: first sex, first time getting drunk, etc. Boy Scouting seems geared toward having some positive rites of passage into manhood. Beyond scouting, is your work addressing that need for alternative rites of passage?

Zack Bent, Swiss Family Pocket Knife, 2009

ZB: Scouting contains a multi-tiered system of rites of passage, from learning social code, to simple tools and skills, moving upwards to lifesaving and independent leadership, and even onwards to Order of the Arrow which is comparable to a spiritual coming of age rite. Selecting scouting as a tribal play frame for my family was at points an exercise in examining my ability to instruct and lead through fathering. Maybe the scrutiny of legacy is aptly applied here, which is inherent in the dogma of scouting. The viewpoint I offer is more vulnerable than didactic and was directed at a presentation of weakness, teeming failure, obsession etc. A reliance on community seems to be the binding principle between the two.

PS: Your work, at least as a grad student at the University of Washington, frequently involved your family: you lived in a gallery with them for a week (in what you've described as a Daniel Boone-like experience), and you've included them in your photos and videos. Do you plan to continue using your family as one of your media, and, if so, do you see Buffalo Trace as a jumping off point for a new, related series that involves them?

ZB: I continue to imagine new tribal forms that we as a family can "become." I envision us as a troop of sports mascots, and cavemen with dinosaurs. I also see us jumping back to domestic scientists, and contemporary pioneers. They all serve as different studies. This project has a trail of unfinished works that I hope to exhibit, a few large sculptures and videos. Buffalo Trace left a media fire behind it so I am still reeling a bit from such a wide array of response.

See Part 2.


gala bent said...

...if you'd like to round out the Regina Hackett part of the story, here's a follow-up post: http://www.artsjournal.com/anotherbb/2009/05/zack-bent-defends-his-show.html

Thanks, Paul!

Paul Schmelzer said...

Good point, Gala. Regina was great to give Zack the space to have his say. I should've included that link.

Emily said...

Great interview. Except...sex as a rite of passage is an "unhealthy thing"?!! Attitudes about sexuality can be unhealthy, but sex by itself is just about the healthiest thing in the world, no?

Paul Schmelzer said...

Thanks, Emily. I'm not sure I see a lot of rituals around sex as a passage into man- or womanhood (except, maybe the honeymoon tradition). I was thinking more about the lockerroom bravado I witnessed in high school where sex was about conquest rather than respect or even affection.