A short film and conversation with Robert Bingaman
Did you set out to make a video of your trip to Israel in 2014, or did you just find yourself filming once you got there?
I didn’t do a lot of planning beforehand. I’ve compiled “short films” from travel a handful of times, beginning with phone footage of a trip I took to Japan a few years ago. It’s usually just a little creative exercise that I’ll share with friends and family. At some point on the flight over, Molly asked me “are you going to make a video?”, and my response was that yes, this would be a great way to honor my parents — who had paid for our trip. I hadn’t really prepared for this trip, because I was under a new and rather epic painting deadline that overlapped with the trip’s dates. So I found myself buying extra memory for the camera at a premium over there, and sometimes struggling to get the still images I wanted. But I think this lack of preparation made both the trip and the film better.
Your family members are often in the foreground of the shot looking or moving forward, especially your father and wife. To what extent did you want the viewer to see the country through their eyes?
It’s funny — as a painter, I’ve operated at the other end of the spectrum from the painters that use important people in their lives as “muse,” in the classical romantic sense. And yet I realize that’s exactly what I tend to do with both video and photography. It’s a very intuitive process, and I learned a long time ago that the quality of experience can be expressed to the viewer more effectively with a figural marker for the experience that’s being had.
In paint, you see that with Caspar David Friedrich’s “Rückenfigur.” In film, you see that just about everywhere, perhaps most notably with Spielberg, as he repeatedly chooses to show you faces of wonder instead of the nature, treasures, wars, or aliens that are the object of that wonder. So those tricks have been kind of ingrained in my approach for a long time — enough so that I’m aware of it and make plans to use it.
I took a trip to the Smoky Mountains with my dad about 12 years ago, and that was the first time I remember thinking, “I’ll be able to get some great images of my dad.” From that point forward, that experience and others like it would be mediated to me through the process of photographing my Dad. The same is true of Molly, but I naturally tend to use her as a vessel for different elements. Whereas my Dad has a kind of exhausted visual charisma, a good person who has been there and seen things, Molly has a purity, a mystery, a fluidity. She is almost always a contrasting element to her surroundings.
Israel is a massively loaded place, however you approach it. While there may be some overlap in belief and temperament between these two people, I found that through their differences, they gave me a kind of third way to the subject. I’m lucky to have them, though — I’ve tried using others and it simply doesn’t work.
The film conveys a clear sense of respect — even reverence — for its subject and subjects. What technical decisions helped you accomplish this?
Early on, as I started taking footage, I found myself moving slowly and thoughtfully. At the end of the first few days, I’d stay up in my hotel room, playing back the footage on my camera. I remember it sort of hitting me all at once that no matter how the thing reads to an outsider — no matter how “dramatic” the finished product is — I’m going to have to be honest about how this place feels. That freed me up to get to a very exhilarating mental state, wherein I’m both experiencing and creating at once. For example, the music selection — a long passage from the Thin Red Line soundtrack — was all but made by the third day. I know that music well, and have wanted to use it for a long time. I would walk the grounds of whatever site we were visiting, humming it quietly as I moved.
When it came to the editing itself, my experience with generating obsessive taxonomies of source material for paintings came in handy. As I imported each clip, I just gave it a few descriptive tags, (e.g. walking, ascending, descending). Those came in handy as I let the “narrative” of the film just sort of write itself.
How did visiting Israel and Palestine change or shake up your perceptions of the region?
I always had a cursory knowledge of the political landscape in Israel, but every time I’ve tried to achieve a deeper understanding of the conflict, I’ve been warded off by what seems like insurmountable complexity. We were lucky to have incredibly experienced and intelligent guides with us everywhere we went, and they spoke to much of that in a way I could finally digest.
We had an American guide, a secular Jewish Israeli guide, a practicing Jewish guide, and a handful of Muslim guides at certain times. Our American guide, who has visited dozens of times, had a nearly constant refrain that each time he visits, he knows less—always referring back to his first visit, when he felt he had all the solutions. Now? He rhetorically asks, “just thoughts.” That humility is consistently present in the most experienced people we spent time with.
So naturally, I find myself wary of trying to spell out the solutions to folks back home. I can say that the news doesn’t do it justice, and that naturally, I read everything with a different lens after having been there.
If there is one thing I would implore Americans to consider when they judge the actions of either party, it is proximity. The entire area in question is smaller than some of our “super cities.” Repeatedly, we would arrive in what the map told me was a different part of Israel or Palestine, and I would say, “but Jerusalem is just over there — I can still see it.” It felt as though we had been flown to small scale model of the nation. The stage is incredibly dense.
Even though the Israeli and Palestinians are locked in conflict, you described their day-to-day relationships as containing an underlying respect. How is that possible? In what ways do you see the two cultures as being alike?
I can’t speak for either party, so I don’t know if respect is truly there. And we certainly have seen evidence of the most inflammatory type of disrespect from both sides. But these people can’t fight to the death every day. They have lives to lead — and in Jerusalem, a city to share. And I suppose that’s where some of the strange similarities in culture actually come from. Their traditions come from the same land. Their food is cultivated from the same ground and air. In ways that are both overt and covert, they are living on top of one another. Reading about in the U.S., one gets the sense that both parties want destruction. But walking the market in Jerusalem gives the opposite impression. They must cooperate to deal with me, the tourist.
Your visit to Israel and editing of the video coincided with preparing your solo painting show, Night Pools, which opened in July at the Nerman Museum. Did these two projects overlap at all, and in what way are the finished products linked?
They are certainly linked in my mind, as I was finishing the paintings and editing the video in my studio, concurrently. I would paint, let the drying agent work (or simply let a decision sit, if I didn’t know what to do next), and then I would return to editing, where within 20-30 minutes my computer had enough rendering work assigned to its processors that I had no choice but to return to painting.
They are completely different projects, coming from different aesthetic frames of thinking altogether, but I didn’t have a problem moving back and forth between them. If there’s anything they share as a common denominator, it’s an attempt at staring down the deeper mystery. And, without question, the paintings became more located in time for me as a result of this overlap. I will always remember making those black paintings. I will always remember what I was thinking.
Has visiting the geography where so much scripture takes place changed your own relationship to religion in any lasting way?
My relationship to religion has always been distant. I grew up in the church, and it always bothered me. In fairness to other Christians, I am at fault for not forgiving them for what seems like a universally hamfisted attempt to give glory to the name of this all-powerful, deeply personal, deeply beautiful, utterly mysterious God at the center of our incredible existence. From childhood on, I’ve found my understanding of God to be in better shape without the intervention of people.
So it is to my own surprise that I experienced this trip as a kind of turning point in my understanding of religion’s place in the world. I feel less scorn for it in general, and instead find myself feeling appropriately smaller than I did before our visit. I have always found the scriptures to be true, but have also always seen American Evangelicals as such dense and fearful people. I wondered at how they could be the standard-bearers for any ultimate perfect truth. Honestly, how could they be? But taking this trip gave me the unexpected impression that their failings, those of the Catholic Church, and those of any people or person, are just small shards of a very large piece of broken glass. To see the setting for so much history, to be told the various interpretations, to experience the hundreds and hundreds of people that, like you, have come to see — one can’t help but see their entire life as a short visit. How arrogant for any of us to declare knowledge of the forces beneath it all, or the lack thereof.
If (or when) you return to the Middle East, what would you like to explore further and in greater depth?
Before our trip, I couldn’t have anticipated how strong the desire to return would be, but now I can’t imagine how I wasn’t as interested as I am now. One thing I repeatedly tried to ask our most qualified guide was something to the effect of, “OK, now tell me what the most knowledgeable and articulate detractor of what you just described would say in response.” Occasionally, he satisfied my request, but naturally I want more. I’ve always thought of myself as someone capable of offering such answers to an open-minded inquiry. These are always the people I am looking for, and they are hard to find.