by Daniel Palmer for Kaleidoscope

Mister Peanut, do you know the difference
between a roller blind and a roller shade?
No, but I can tell the untruth, and globally I agree. Opening is not the point.
And do you think we will be here, inside,
within, for a while?
A quite hard question Miss None.

The badinage in Julie Bena’s Miss None and Mister Peanut video trilogy is an absurd perversion of Abbott & Costello’s comedy routines, but it also seems to offer the profundity of a sphinxian riddle. This contradiction is made all the more fascinatingly complex and bizarre by seeing the exchange delivered by an animated duo comprised of a disembodied floating red wig and the iconic monocled advertising character.

In video works like these, as well as in other performances and installations, Bena invents a dream-like state that blends her freewheeling imagination with a vintage pop culture sensibility. Though the vibe she achieves seems to be void of direct references to a specific time or place, it is evocative and enchanting nonetheless. Indeed, the artist’s interests are diverse and varied, even if they never directly manifest in her art: one can learn as much about her practice from watching music videos by the 1980s French electro-pop group Elli et Jacno as from Surrealist paintings or academic texts about the role of the chorus in classical Greek drama.

Bena’s biography is so full of whimsy and fantasy that it seems as if it could have been an unfilmed screenplay. As a youth, she was part of a traveling theatrical troupe in France, her transient world full of imaginary characters and incoherent poetry long before she knew the limits of language. Indeed, Bena’s emphasis on irrationality remains one of the biggest strengths in her work. The dramaturgic delivery of her recent performances, such as Nail Tang (Galerie Joseph Tang, Paris, May 2015) and The Song of the Hands (Part 1:Dan and Nad—Performa, NY, November 2013; Part 2: La Bête—Musée de la Chasse, Paris, April 2014), is poetic in a way that borders on elegiac incoherence at times.

A dream-like state blends freewheeling imagination and pop culture sensibility
Her work always achieves a state of strangeness that is appealing in our current moment of on-demand hyper-connectivity, where answers and control come at the click of a button. Indeed, I welcome the mystery and doubt that Bena instigates. Her “T&T Consortium: You’re Already Elsewhere” (2014), an installation of an invented travel agency at The French Institute Alliance Française, could not have been more ideally situated. Its banal everyday items and architectural interventions subversively evoked the material culture of non-places such as Midtown Manhattan corporate offices, to the point that they could easily be mistaken for the real thing. The viewer is nudged toward a generative state of confusion, uncertain whether the evacuation sign on the wall or the button on the lapel of the receptionist at the front desk is Bena’s doing or outside the scope of the exhibition.

Bena herself is almost like an apparition, floating between New York, Paris, Prague and other places she is given the opportunity to create. Each time our paths have crossed, I’ve left feeling subtly changed in a way that is difficult to put into words. One evening, after she read excerpts of her newly composed poetry to me, she shared some stills from her upcoming film project, Have You Seen Pantopon Rose. They were absolutely stunning, as alluring as ever. But afterwards, I wondered: did I ever actually see them, or were they just a hallucination that appeared in a dream?