(Above) Benjamin Langford, pictured left, and John Belknap, right.
“I definitely consider the things I have around me as all part of my art practice.”
The following is an interview between Benjamin Langford and John Belknap, facilitated by Wen-You Cai and conducted in 2018. Langford and Belknap are Brooklyn-based artists who were a part of SPF, a group exhibition at Special Special that transformed the storefront into a conceptual “swimming pool” throughout the hot months of May through August. Belknap curated Overflow, a group exhibition at Special Special that followed Hibiscus, the third part of SPF by Langford.
This interview is published on the occasion of Late Summer, Langford’s second collaboration with Special Special, and has been edited for length and clarity.
J: John Belknap
B: Benjamin Langford
WY: Wen-You Cai
J: Is any of it going to be edited? What’s off limits? Like we can go into anything?
B: Where do we start? Do you listen to music when you make work? If so, what type of music do you listen to?
B: I don’t listen to that much music when I’m working. I do sometimes put on ambient things if I’m specifically cutting the flowers out. That’s kind of the only part of my process where I listen to music. For some reason, I don’t like listening to music when I’m on the computer, but when I’m doing anything that’s kind of meditative, where I’m just slowly cutting, that’s when I like it.
J: Wow, that’s interesting.
B: When do you listen to music?
J: If I’m making, like sketches. Or if I’m writing. I’m always listening to music. I’m always on it. But I feel like I’m one of those people that always listens to really happy, really pop saturated music. So I can try to be happy. (laughs)
B: By force; you try to force it.
J: Right. Yeah, a lot of Charli XCX has been happening the last couple weeks. I get both ways of listening to music. I feel like the majority of the time, I’m listening to something that makes me feel sinister. I like things that feel very ominous. I don’t know why.
J: Are you listening to classical music when you are doing cutouts?
B: No, it’s more like ambient, electronic beats. Things like that, that are just like little soundscapes. But also, you know, I’m not opposed to pop music, while walking through streets or something like that.
WY: So how was your experience working on the SPF show, seeing as both of your experiences are quite different? We approached you, Ben, to make a Hawaiian shirt and create a new hibiscus installation.
And then with John, before you worked on this show, we worked with you on a show here last year, The Bathroom Interiors show. And then this time, we kind of talked about a different approach for a collaboration, and your approach was curating twenty-two artists to overflow our space.
So, I’m just curious to hear what your thoughts were on working with Special Special.
(Above) Benjamin Langford, Hibiscus, 2018, Special Special, New York.
B: I think that it was an interesting experience for me in that I’ve never made a product before, or prioritized that in any kind of way. I think I went into it thinking that it wouldn’t be quite as actually labor intensive as it is to make like an edition of 50 shirts and the concerns that come with something that isn’t a one-off art piece, and that also requires packaging, and all the other things that come along with what’s sort of expected from a product.
And I think the shirt’s interesting in that it kind of has certain qualities that are not product-like. Like the fact that the second batch of dyed shirts has a pretty drastically different color than the first batch and certain other unpredictable elements from the process.
(Above) Benjamin Langford,Hibiscus, 2018, Special Special, New York.
J: You’re dyeing them in hibiscus tea?
B: Yea I’m dyeing them in flowers, in hibiscus flowers specifically. But it was important to me to have something that still feels unpredictable and kind of loose about the process of making something, even if it is slightly more regimented, product-like objects.
And then, the installation I felt like went really smoothly as I expected, because it kind of like comes naturally to me to sort of weirdly treat them as decorative objects, beyond their life as an image. I’ve actually had this [hibiscus flowers] in my living room for most of the time since the (first) show. Just because like I like living with it and sort of having it around.
J: Have you ever done a rose?
B: I have done a rose. I have a couple roses.
J: Would you ever do a Venus flytrap?
B: I haven’t done a carnivorous flower. That would be a whole other thing.
J: What about those big smelly ones?
B: Amorphophallus, the “corpse flower”? Yeah, I make a pilgrimage for the corpus flower everytime it blooms.
J: Really? Where is it?
B: It’s in the Bronx Botanical Garden. They only bloom once every fifteen years.
J: I didn’t know that. Oh my god, I love it. Are there any flowers that are off limits that you would never do?
B: I like flowers that work for the effect that I would like to achieve, which would only make sense for flatter flowers. Anything that’s more like a clustered flower or something that’s too delicate, in a way, it becomes less easy to deal with. However, I’m starting to push the limits of this with some of my newer pieces. I think that my former mentality started when I was trying to be more minimal about the shapes. I’m starting to do some slightly smaller pieces that have more intricate cutting, that are more precise, with little dangling edges and things like that. With those, it’s less about initial impact and more about these light airy pieces.
J: So, do you have a garden?
B: It’s hard in New York City to grow anything too substantial, but I do have a little personal garden project, which is a pretty big wooden planter that I built. I have a couple of different climbing vines in it. They are a couple of aggressive climbing vines, like Wisteria and Trumpet vine. They take intense training, but you can kind of train them in any shape you want. If you are really involved, you can make it look like a little tree if you work at it. Or it can take over an entire building. I’m kind of in the early phases of dealing with it.
J: Did you grow up with a garden as well?
B: Yeah, my mom essentially is a gardener. My earliest life is in Connecticut, where my mom has a really nice garden out there, to this day. But also spending six years in London as a kid, where there is also a big garden culture, and also living in Singapore for a few years in high school—I feel like all of these places have such an emphasis on garden culture. And they are in such different climates. I feel like I have all this subconscious of nature built in my mind, that is definitely an influence to me.
J: Where is your favorite of the three?
B: I think I like my years in London the best. I like my memories of it. Whereas, my parents still live in my childhood home in Connecticut, and when I go back there, I kind of don’t have any contact with anyone other than that. It’s so close to the city. It's funny to have a place that is at once the childhood home, but also not feel like it. Versus London, I have more nostalgia and mythology around there.
J: How do you navigate exhibition openings? Let’s ask that question.
B: I guess I try not to give myself any expectations for openings and just let it be a celebration for whoever shows up. I have a tendency to have post-opening depression. Basically, every time I have an opening, I’ve never really felt satisfied afterwards. I usually feel depressed the next day, or the next few days. It’s not like you expect anything in particular to happen, but I think there is that buildup of working on something, and then the reward doesn’t happen at the opening. I usually find that the reward happens when you’re working on something—all the little surprises along the way. I think, more and more, I just don’t worry about the opening. I don’t let it be a mental weight for me at all. How did your opening go?
J: I don’t know. 22 people is a lot of artists.
B: Yeah, It was a busy afternoon.
J: It was weird. I have these stark things in my memory that were like, I’m going to do this, I’m going to make this show happen. And one of them was the last opening I worked at, at the last gallery I was at. And a friend of mine who comes to openings was like, “When are you going to be on the other side of this?” So I really wanted to do that, in the sense of making something happen. And then it’s really hard to both have the play and the work mode on at the same time, which was not what I was used to. I can go to this opening even if I’m fucked up and totally avoid everyone. And you can’t really see the art ever. Or it’s like, I’ve worked a bunch of openings and secretly got fucked up in the basement drinking wine. I don’t know. I was very happy with the opening. So many people came through. And seeing in real life, the degrees of separation were so much fewer. That was so great. So many people came through, which was important. And kind of refreshing. It was really hot, though. Everyone wound up not being in the gallery space, but in the outside spaces. Overflow.
WY: Dumpster overflow.
J: Gallery trash.
WY: It's funny you mention the depression. I get that a lot. It used to be worse, but it’s gotten better over time. Just the more that I've done, but I still feel restless at the end of the night. Like, I can’t sleep after opening a show at Special Special. I think there’s just a lot of work that has been built up to that deadline and then suddenly it’s done, but then there’s still a lot to do. The artist's work is mostly done at that point, but from the shop’s perspective, we still have a lot to do, or we have to organize everything and make sure the place is up to the standards of being visited, and organize photos, and do all this other stuff. And then prepare for the following project, too. So, there’s lots of shifting pieces. But that sort of extreme anticipation, and then suddenly welcoming a lot of people into the space, and a lot of them I don’t know. With every show, we bring in a different crowd because of the different types of work and different artists. I think the anxiety comes from welcoming people into a personal space. To me, it’s a fragile experience, like letting people into my home.
B: I don’t know if this is a good metaphor, but the idea of it being almost like you’re giving birth—your artwork, or the body of work, becomes a being. There’s a weird depression like, alright, now my child is out there, and you can’t control something that’s alive.
J: This is a very intimate conversation.
WY: How do you guys see your practice? Can you talk a little about your practice? One, the day-to-day of what you build, in terms of self discipline as an artist, like aspirations, and then the future.
B: I think that making a shirt, or making anything that’s a lifestyle object, is kind of an interesting extension of my practice. I definitely consider the things I have around me as all part of my art practice. I tend to collect a lot of things. I take care of a lot of plants. I try to create a mental space for myself.
It’s interesting to extend art to objects for living with, because it’s actually not that common in artists’ mental process these days. It's like, it’s more relegated to design, objects that are intended to be lived with rather than contemplated and seen once. So I feel that, not that that is creating a new direction in my work really, but it's an interesting tangent. I might actually be reacting against it in my more recent projects because I’m starting to make some pieces that have more of a serious tone. I’m trying to push the flower motif into as not-kitsch of a direction as you possibly can with flowers.
J: Do you get that reaction from a lot of people, “Oh that’s kitsch”?
B: No, I think the way I made them was always as kind of idiosyncratic. That’s not generally how people see them. But now I’m going further in the direction of it not being, as vis-à-vis, luscious of an experience to look at, in a way.
J: Yeah they feel very life-like. Real life in a strange way. Like Da Vinci’s...
B: Like the Vitruvian Man?
J: They’re very...maybe not human? But a very alive animal.
B: And the petals almost look chewy or something. They almost remind me of a scratch and sniff. It looks like, if you just scraped the surface…
J: Have you sprayed perfume?
B: No. I think that’s another reason why I was so quick to arrive at this decision on the shirts, which is to digitally print the hibiscus pattern but then subsequently dye them in the remains of hibiscus flowers. I’m always interested in this weird, surface, back-up material. I think it’s interesting how a digital representation, in a way, does actually make you arrive at a final point that is through it’s synthetic quality, closer to nature than a representation that’s less digitally perfected. The accuracy of this versus what a painting of a flower is, kind of intrigues me, that it’s this kind of objective cold way of viewing flowers, but then paired with either the physical remains of flowers or something that breathes some life into it. That’s my fascination.
J: Can people wear these flowers?
B: I have actually made a dress with these canvas flowers. But it’s not everyday wear. You can’t wash it.
J: Met Gala 2020.
B: Yeah, someday.
(Above) Benjamin Langford, Hibiscus, 2018, Special Special, New York.