To get a feel for Meriem Bennani‘s work, it’s best to look up @meriembennani on Instagram. After scrolling through the photoshopped weirdness and absurd takes on everything from Drake videos to the avant-garde hijabs of Fardaous Funjab, you’ll find that Bennani is really good at the internet. So good, that the Times was moved to highlight her, qualifying her as a representative “Millennial Artist” fluent in the language of post-Internet. Millennial accusations aside, she’s one of those people who makes the internet weird/smart and not just weird/depressing. In other words, Bennani’s work actually deserves that happy-tears cat emoji.
Gradual Kingdom is the artist’s most significant solo-installation presence yet; now on view at Signal Gallery, it offers an opportunity for people to see Meriem Bennani, for once, in slow motion.
From what we can see of Bennani’s work online, there are common themes– underlying currents, and connective tissue that are easy to write off as sweeping generalizations like “Islam” or “the Arab world” or “pop culture.” The initial impulse might be to assume that whatever she’s concerned with is tougher to isolate for Westerners or whatever– people who aren’t necessarily familiar with her world. It’s true: Bennani’s artistic concerns result from a hyper-critique of her own experiences between two very different worlds (both of which she’s been sufficiently steeped in enough to call home) and placing them in stark contrast to one another, revealing all the silliness in the extremes on both ends.
Yet Bennani’s work, by speaking the lingua franca of LOLz, remains approachable. She’s partial to the wacky-parody side of things, something the internet relays supremely well. In this realm, everything happens at the speed of light or, at the most, however long it takes to upload. Add that thick, glittery coat of internet sparkle and absurdist humor and there you have it: no matter how complex her artistic output, the ideas in them remain synapse-flickers, flashes of right-on brilliance that are all-consuming for a moment before they’re swallowed up by the onslaught of sheer noise and relegated to the realm of “K, seen it.” Such is life on the internet.
Bennani grew up in Morocco and moved to New York City where she completed her BFA at Cooper Union. She left the city for Paris, where she earned her MFA at l’Ecole Supérieure des Arts Décoratifs. These days, Bennani returns to Morocco a few times a year. “That’s where I come up with most of my work and make most of my work, like the ideas and the narrative of it. Morocco is my home in a visceral way, and New York is my home in an ideal, choosing-where-you-want-to-live way,” she explained. “France is my home culturally because I was French educated, I went to college in France.”
One of her major projects is a faux reality show about the private life of Fardaous Funjab, “the famous avant-garde Moroccan Hijab designer” who creates masterpieces of piety including a hijab that holds tennis balls, and a zipper-pocket vanity hijab for the girl on the go. So far, there’s only a teaser (see below) and a few clips for us net lurkers to contend with, but she’s screened the two existing episodes at various galleries in the past year. Occasional Instagram updates revealed that Bennani spent her summer filming new episodes: in one, Fardaous grins maniacally with globs of makeup on (or maybe it’s just that creepy photo retouching app).
The fictional character represents the bizarre collision between the constructs of East and West, and the absurdities that arise when two basically incompatible extremes come together over shopping, iPads, and other trappings of consumerist, “Western imported lifestyle” (as the press release for her Signal show reads). Bennani is tapping into both the past and nascent apparitions of a globalized world. She’s on one end of the culture-clash spectrum (the productive, enjoyable one) whereas alarmist conceptions like “Eurabia” are on the other, ugly side of things.
Still, Bennani is not all bubble tea and puppy tears– paradoxes are kind of her bread and butter. Most often we’ll see Bennani at home with completely bonkers situations, but Bennani also loves mapping netty silliness over otherwise banal presentations of real life (see below)– probably the first thing you’ll notice at Gradual Kingdom.
Halloween #fardaousfunjab A video posted by Meriem Bennani (@meriembennani) on
When I arrived at Signal, Bennani was preoccupied with another interviewee. It was some art bitch– literally, a pug named Miss Pickle who happens to have her own Instagram, something that apparently qualifies her to get in with Jeffrey Deitch and Refinery29. Waiting patiently for the pug to putz around and pout at her owner’s high-pitched commands and trying not to think about how art coverage
has gone to the dogs is in the toilet, I let myself get sucked into the installation.
The focal points of the room are two identical videos projected opposite one another. One lags just slightly behind the other. And while the first is displayed over an inverted pyramid, the second dances over a stacked pyramid building toward you. The effect is something like watching a trippy travelogue through bug-eye vision. Watch one on its own, then try going stereo on it and watch both at the same time.
“I was thinking about when you’re on your computer and you have all those windows open and how we’re so used to seeing different images,” Bennani explained. “And sometimes when you’re working, everything seems really clear and you realize how many screens you’re looking at at the same time. So it’s definitely a reference to living in an era where we look at images this way.”
Bennani describes the video as “documentary style.” It was shot while she was in Morocco over the summer, and offers vignettes of everyday life. She was running out of time, so just capturing what was happening around her was something of a compromise. “I thought that actually, I would film moments whenever I had time– just moments here and there, just moments of life,” she recalled. “I had an idea already, what was going to happen with these clips. I started focusing more on moments outside. I feel like I film more the inside, family and people that I’m intimate with. But here, I just wanted to capture moments in the street, moments of leisure or labor.”
We see fruit stands, men idling around a construction yard, markets, sizzling street food, women laughing and smiling at one another, squinting from the sun. A group of women walk toward a park bench at dusk while kids rollerblade and bike around them. The camera zooms in a car past neon-lit cityscapes. It’s all quiet and serene, until it’s not.
For brief moments, Bennani steps in and reality is suddenly skewed. You’re throttled headfirst into a surreal landscape, one vaguely resembling Bennani’s Instagram world. Emoji-sized bits of the internet, with its glitchy effects and gif animations, rain down on this three-dimensional world. Heads quietly burst into tiny, animated flames, a cheesy ’80s ballad singer warbles in the background, and loud pops of cartoony sounds shatter whatever calm had taken hold.
I asked Bennani about these effects, wondering what they were doing here. She described it as a “push-and-pull game” between being simply entertaining and engaging, but also alienating. “The effects, they kind of push you out. You’re pushed out of the frame because they’re so cartoony- and the sound is as well. You can’t identify it and they don’t become human anymore,” she said.
The rest of the room at Gradual Kingdom is filled with supporting actors. Follow the perimeter of sand around the room and you’ll end up at a big pile of the stuff in the corner. A strange, elongated smartphone-like contraption is carefully stuck in the mound. It’s a dad joke in installation form, based on the prediction that the iPhone will continue to grow until it’s about a foot long, and even that will become a piece of garbage left for dead in a pile of sand.
In this way, Bennani is user-friendly. Sand is a pretty obvious metaphor, something she readily admits. “The sand is a good symbol of leisure, you think about the beach, which is a big part of Moroccan tourism. But sand is also what’s used for construction, and construction is at the center of Morocco’s development plan— extending highways between different cities that are not connected by highway yet, expanding cities,” she explained. “Aesthetically, I respond to it a lot. I grew up with it. It’s also a very big trope of the Arab world, and an interesting material to work with.”
Sand frequently appears in the video, too, and another piece of the installation– a staircase leading to nowhere along the wall– appears to be made entirely of sand, or at least we’d like to believe it is. Suspending disbelief is all part of Gradual Kingdom. Believe in a perfect future, believe in perfect progress. Believe in what’s inside those three black light-boxes. They’re elevated so the viewer can easily peer into them, and focus privately on a beautifully lit, gleaming new product, or in this case Bennani’s kitschy screen-saver animations.
“These are hollow cubes— which is a system that is used a lot at any time of fair to present new products that you want to make very sellable and presentable,” Bennani explained. “Like in the future, if you go to a fair you’ll see Nikes in there.”
All of this gets you thinking about so-called progress and development coupled with timelessness and tradition. There’s a potent feeling here of happily running in place while consumerist culture bits rain down, but dribble of the back just as easily. This is all very strange to think about in the context of a “net artist” or even a post-internet artist who embraces technology and relies on it for a whole lot, actually — not only as a means of disseminating her output, but as a source for her ideas, and even as the baseline of reality. Then again, you’d basically have to buy a pair of aviators and move to a cabin in Montana in order to opt out of such things these days.
The most striking thing, then, was for Bennani to emphasize that none of this was overly about the internet. “For me, it’s important to say this is not about the internet. I get bored by everyone just making work about the internet,” she explained. “Although it is relevant, but not even intentionally. It’s just such a big part of how we look at things, that naturally it comes through when you make an installation or art work. The frequency and intensity of things have changed, compared to what we used to look at, and this is a little bit of a comment on that. But I don’t want it to be super important either.”
While her answer is as post-Internet as it gets, one begins to wonder if everything isn’t upside down here. Sure, we Millennials on down to Digital Natives or whoever accept the internet’s existence and importance in our day-to-day lives as a immutable fact, but reality is creeping into the internet too, where IRL takes on new meaning within a strange, new context. Not everything is translatable here, but on the other hand some nuances that are majorly difficult to capture in volumes and volumes of thousand-page books can be sussed out in a 30-second video loop.
By engaging with issues like globalization, Neo-Imperialism, “progress,” technology, and culture misunderstanding by way of the internet and, in the case of Gradual Kingdom, through traditionally “netty” aesthetics, these big problems begin to acquire new facets, humor, even a sense of humanity. And suddenly common ground doesn’t seem at all hard to come by.
Meriem Bennani’s Gradual Kingdom is on view at Signal Gallery, 260 Johnson Avenue in Bushwick from now until Dec. 20.
Bennani’s work is also on display at the Jewish Museum, part of Unorthodox.