Eyeteeth interview: Zack Bent on mythology, Joseph Beuys and bottling tears

Zack Bent, Romantics, 2009

This is part two of an interview with Seattle-based photographer and sculptor Zack Bent about his recent exhibition at 4Culture, Buffalo Trace. Read part one.

Paul Schmelzer:
One of the more enigmatic pieces in your 4Culture show in May was Lachrymatory (below): a clear vial and medicine-dropper lid. As I understand it, you'd use the dropper to collect tears whenever your kids, you or Gala cried, but all that remained to see in the gallery was the residue of tears (seemingly) long dried up. Our mutual friend Jim tells me that after you installed the 4Culture show, one of your kids, when crying, asked where the dropper was -- as if he needed it to process his emotions. Kind of an Art 101 question, then: Is the "art" what's presented in the gallery or the act (performance?) of collecting the tears? It seems it became therapeutic for the family, but do you also run the risk of instrumentalizing grief in the name of art? (Does the public commemoration of tears through art elevate or diminish the real emotion that generated them?)

Zack Bent, Lachrymatory, 2009

Zack Bent:
I am interested in the mythology that can be established by having artifacts or fragments of a process that become works. My previous photographic works with my family were situated in our domestic environments. The line between the real and uncanny was of utmost concern for me. The goal was to locate photos that drifted between a tableau and a snapshot. There was often a curiosity that left the viewer with an unanswered question. The vial of tears is my attempt at sculptural version of that. In the case of the tears, the audience doesn’t know whose tears, what types of tears, or how many were collected. Tears fall often in our house. Collecting them in the vial became a similar ritual to kissing a bump on the head. It became an act of love. This is a case where my art practice heightened the quality of our inter-family relationships and made physically manifest our maternal and paternal care giving.

Zack Bent, Praxis, 2009

PS: Your dried tears are in that vial. Is there an element of commemorating a man's tears? Buffalo Trace includes some tough-guy imagery of hunting and fire and conquering, but is this also a way of instructing your three (now) sons in being a "whole" person?

ZB: The title Lachrymatory comes from the ancient tear catching vials that were often filled by grieving widows. The medicine bottle I used was recovered from a fallen and abandoned shack on my parent’s land in rural Indiana. There is a fair amount of collecting in scouting and a few merit badges focused in that arena. I collect a lot of tears as a father. The piece definitely memorializes mourning and weakness. The result of the collection is salt; an element of preservation. So yeah, I don't buy the tough-guy routine, I think it's a costume for a tear maker.
Zack Bent, Clean Break, 2009

PS: There's a celebration or playfulness in photos featuring your kids and wife, but I can't help also feeling some tension: between strength and vulnerability, between vivaciousness and death. Your red-cheeked boys on one wall, a rotting deer carcass on the other. The sharp edge of a hatchet, but taped up as if by Boy Scout medics. A presumably sharp-bladed Swiss Army knife that also has colorful plastic kids silverware. A scorching fire and your boys. One son's arm splinted with a coloring book. Can you talk about these tensions?

Zack Bent, St. Jerome Contemplates Preservation, 2009

ZB: The tension you sense is what is lurking beneath the surface of the whole exhibit. Some people find the images humorous…and they are to some extent. Yet for me the show was situated in tense place of unknowing and scrambling. Look toward the future, fearing the past. The deer carcass (St. Jerome Contemplates Preservation) was an arrangement, an effort to set something right, to face a type of wrong. For the Birds [a totem-like post bearing two dozen or more birdhouses] is a similar piece, an obsessive effort in achievement and resource management. I was hoping to be revealing about my own sense of failure and limitations while making visual the efforts to correct errors and cut off new ones at the pass. We live with "vivaciousness and death" on a day-to-day basis. I find it hard not to isolate these paradoxes we live with when I am working. Tensions seem to permeate everything; including the tradition of scouting along with American history.

Zack Bent, Family of Five, 2009

PS: Tell me about the placement at 4Culture of Family of Five, a small jam jar that contains five dead bees, and Lachrymatory. Is each a vanitas?

ZB: While the work was fresh, I titled the images of us tackling the climbing wall while Gala looks into the distance, Romantics (top of page) and Conquerors in reference to Caspar David Friedrich’s paintings. Our futile yet awestruck engagement with a faux natural setting seemed a fitting contemporary refiguring of his work. All that to say, many people have said the photographs are seem rather painterly which was a curious surprise. I didn’t imagine the two sculptures you mentioned as vanitas. But by definition, the suggestion is rather fitting as I do see them as encapsulating a sense of wonder for our natural state, while mourning its limitations.

PS: An obvious comparison for this series is Joseph Beuys: he dealt with themes of wounding and healing (his fat and felt are similar to the splints and tape in your work), and his was the realm of personal mythology. His story of being shot down as a World War II pilot in the Crimea, where he was rescued by nomadic Tartars, is now considered to be a bit of clever storytelling rather than bona fide biography. Likewise, the intrepid scout leader -- you -- in some of your photos blurs the real you (former scout, dad) with a fictive one.

Zack Bent, Something About Restraint 2009

ZB: Beuys' philosophical investment in social collective was beautifully earnest. That and his ability to mythologize his own life is something I completely resound with. Our lives are full of fabrication. In my work, I hope to super-fabricate my existence with my family so that we can entertain play and imagination as valuable. For me it gets back to photography’s fictive nature. Images are read so differently. People's real knowledge of me affects their perception of our myth making. A good portion of the press that surfaced from the exhibit was wrapped up in trying to figure "us" out. Some may think it all a sort of theater, and some may just think we are strange people. By playing these hands so similarly though, confusion is often created which I can’t just straighten out. I hope to be able to move freely between our real lives and our imagined lives, just as my children are able to. When I am called to answer for that it feels like such an overly rational approach to understanding the art process.

See Part I.

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