Working Class Man (Now Famous): Liam Benson
Daniel Mudie Cunningham
Even though Liam Benson and I first met in 2004, in all of our many conversations we have never broached the topic of jobs we had in our early years. When I tell him my first job during high school was a suburban butcher’s assistant— ‘butcher’s bitch’ to use the precise terminology—he lights up and tells me that male butchers in Ancient Egypt wore high heels to avoid stepping on offal. By contrast, for nearly a decade while Benson was an emerging artist, he was a toll collector on Sydney’s M2. He describes the experience as one where he was relatively still within a motorway coursing with movement. While taking change from motorists he would multitask by sewing, beading and embroidering his opulent costumes and headpieces. A high-vis vest wearing man making drag attire in a toll booth is not something you see every day. But if you know Benson, it is something you cannot imagine him ever having not done—sitting in high heels, as it were, on a highway of offal.
One time Benson went to an art opening straight from the toll booth. A (now famous) artist peer—who he knew of but had not previously met—came up to (now famous) Benson and barked: “Are you Liam Benson?” After confirming his identity, said (now famous) person looked Benson up and down and, clearly unimpressed with the working class man attire, turned around marched off in a snide snub.
Aside from its gossipy appeal, this encounter is ironic considering the common thread in Benson’s practice is the assumptions and social perceptions that underline gender, race and cultural identity. Through performance, photography and video, Benson responds to contemporary Australian attitudes to identity politics with great affection and pride, focused with a critically engaged lens. Since graduating from the now defunct art school at the University of Western Sydney in 2002, Benson has fashioned a body of work that begins with the body; his own body. Adorning that body is a language of drag that is important for the statements it makes about femininity, masculinity, and the in-between. As much as Benson is recognised for his use of female drag, what is often misunderstood is that his work is really about what it means to be male in Australia. By extension, the politics of gender intersects with race and class to present his own take on history and being as it relates to life in this country. In an artist statement for ‘Western Front: Art is a Social Space’, curated by Sophia Kouyoumdjian at Blacktown Arts Centre in 2005, Benson claimed his work addresses the “unspoken language of men”. Fast forward eleven years his conceptual focus retains this fixation on the complexities of how maleness is performed and understood.
"a high-vis vest wearing man making drag attire in a toll booth is not something you see every day"
Daniel Mudie Cunningham