This text has been made possible due to the support of 1646
Thanks Hanne Hagenaars

ROSE PANTOPON AND THE WHEEL OF FORTUNE

An exhibition by Julie Béna in The Hague at 1646

The Goddess Fortuna spins the wheel. Sometimes forcefully and at other times her hand brings the wheel to a practical standstill. This is how she influences the lives of us mere mortals. Out of nowhere fate can have our hair fall out or see us receive an inheritance from a great-aunt we’d never heard of. The Wheel of Fortune in the exhibition space of 1646 carries the names of women: prostitutes; an anatomist who was world famous for her wax models; writers; film characters such as Log Lady, the woman who appears in the television series “Twin Peaks” and acts as a medium for a prophesizing log which she carries around with her. Nobody takes her seriously, she’s nuts! And there is Njinga Mbandi. Never heard of her? Neither had I. This 17th century queen of Ndongo and Mtamba dressed as a man and had her own harem filled with attractive guys. The Wheel of Fortune demonstrates that we are far from in control over the circumstances of our lives. The Wheel of Fortune is also a television gameshow that gives a lowbrow interpretation of its old meaning. All over the world candidates spin the wheel subsequently answering the quizmaster’s question.

The film begins. In a beautiful opening scene, three women enter the stage wearing elegant gold colored pants. Showtime! Each woman freezes in a pose before taking place behind a large wooden cloud from which we can only see their faces through oval-shaped cutouts. A hand holds a glass and silver name tags dangle from a necklace chain. As if in a Greek tragedy, these three women represent the chorus that introduce the arrival of Pantopon Rose and will later question and comment on her. Rose herself is silent like the ruin of an oracle.

Don’t be strangers, move closer. Please.
Today we will tell you a story. MMMM

A deluge of questions:
Have you ever been a fruit basket?
Have you ever thought to be a monkey?
Have you ever had the sensation of already being there?
Have you ever recognized the unknown?

Hands reach through a black curtain. They imitate the gestures of Buddha, Christ, a rapper, a know-it-all. All those beseeching and blessing gestures that refer to a different version of destiny. Systems of belief. Systems of thought.
Rose (played by Julie Béna) comes on accompanied by overly energetic music. She sits on a stool and answers each question with a frozen smile, the kind a stewardess might have when denying an economy class passenger in shorts and a Hawaii shirt a glass of champagne. The game, after all, must continue. The illusion of an airplane journey to a lovely exotic destination. No problems please. That plastic smile is meant to prevent and enable all of that. I get stuck on that smile. That fake smile of Pantopon Rose irritates me. Its disingenuous nature rubs me the wrong way. A smile like that is the ultimate deceit.
According to philosopher Henri Bergson, the moment a smile doesn’t feel right, it manifests friction in human behavior. According to Bergson, something is comical when a person takes on the qualities of a machine. The laughter subsequently shakes you from your slumber. But Pantopon Rose herself is the machine. It’s not comical, it’s highly uncomfortable. The idiotic laughter of Rose Pantopon fits perfectly in the intention of the scene and this takes a moment to get accustomed to. “Laughter is paired with a certain degree of insensitivity,” writes Maarten Doorman, “because those who identify too strongly with the other, can no longer laugh at that other.”
Alternating with the fake smile are images of the dreams of a property developer. Shiny real estate. In the subsequent dance, Rose extends her arms and legs outward like a mechanical human, like a resonance of a Kraftwerk performance - an exhausting, difficult to maintain dance. “It’s a mirage,” is the shimmering sound that can be heard in the background. This modern Rose is a robot version of the real, feeling person and that is why the fake smile is so irritating.
The fake smile remains when she lip syncs the Saturday Night Version of “More Than a Woman” by the Bee Gees and when she dances to “Raspberry Beret” wearing a long blond wig. A pole dance in the semi-darkness. The music is overbearing to the seduction. Each act is a contemplation of what Rose is not and what she could be.

Who is Pantopon Rose? In William S. Burroughs’ Naked Lunch she is mentioned in passing in a single sentence, as a shadow, a mirage, as a brain wave of an old junkie. It’s the kind of sentence that is picked up and then stews in your mind initiating a series of associations, enough to base a series on. She picks it up instinctively. Julie Béna must have thought, “yeah, who could she have been?”
Despite, or perhaps because of, this initial intuitive perception, Béna’s working process has similarities to the development of the book: Burroughs worked on Naked Lunch during many years of travel and it continuously changed and developed. His friends Ginsberg and Kerouac contributed to it also. It was a work that was never finished, that knew many temporary versions, until the publisher urgently asked for a definitive version. At that point it was finished in two weeks. This is the reason there are so many versions, each edition is different.
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Julie Béna’s “Have you seen Pantopon Rose?” is a continuing series of exhibitions (films, performances, animations, stagings, etc.) which, just like Naked Lunch is always adapting to place and time. She adds her version to an existing series of “Roses”: a song by the band Therapy (Troublegum, 1994); a documentary by Andrea di Castro; and a poem by William Burroughs.

Call Pantopon Rose
For a tingly doze
For a warm blanket of snows
For an end to your woes
For an up from your lows
Make friends from your foes
Calling Pantopon Rose+

The questions of the chorus continue but the world they question becomes increasingly empty.
Have you ever had a problem with your body? Yes maybe. Perhaps. And
What do you do to avoid bad luck?
I circle three times before going to bed. I’m gonna get some coffee
Do you know George Clooney?
He is a real starfish. He loves whisky. He is getting married, To Julia, No to Rose. No Julia. AAAAHHHH!

They are questions that might be picked up in a tram or a bus, fragments of conversations that have been woven into a script. But Rose doesn’t let you know her, she is unknowable. Béna uses her own version of Brion Gysin’s Cut-Up Method. “In the summer of 1959 Brion Gysin cut newspaper articles into sections and rearranged the sections at random. Minutes to Go resulted from this initial cut-up experiment. Minutes to Go contains unedited unchanged cut-ups emerging as quite coherent and meaningful prose,” noted his friend Burroughs.

William S. Burroughs writes in the sixties, a time of travel, mind altering drugs and searching for the meaning of life. Pantopon is a drug, a pure mix of opiates concocted by the pharmaceutical conglomerate Hoffman-La Roche.

Do you use drugs? Alcohol?
Have you ever tried Whiskey? Spirits? Wine?
Spirit, are you there? (…)
Do you know that that, o that can be deli deli delirious.

How do you know I am real?
I am not real, rose, I am just like you. (..)
You came from a dream.

While under the intoxication of psychedelic drugs, thoroughly novel ideas can emerge. Alternative visions can reveal themselves because outside of the common cognitive capabilities you can be carried away by the currents of existential experiences.

Rose Pantopon, in her always changing appearance, and in its modern staging of theater and revue, show that reality has many sides and that doubt is the method to keep yourself from being trapped by a system. You can’t be sure of the “truth” as every system has its own version of it. Challenge ideas: the teachings of Buddha; of Jesus with his enlightening gestures; the rapper; and, ask questions of the chorus that tries to govern your life.
We allow a whole host of superficialities - a dance, a game, a seduction - to blur our vision and keep us from finding depth.

What is the most beautiful thing that you have ever seen? A lightbulb.
Where does the salt go after death?
Tell me a joke, make me laugh!! Why Why Why?

Miss None, a floating wig, engages into conversation with an anthropomorphic peanut, Mr. Peanut. These two hosts are introduced based on what they are not. Not a bowl of soup, not an umbrella, not a walking stick. Airy images float across the screen.
The enchanting animation exudes insignificance. Mr. Peanut was the commercial icon of the American company Planters. Artist Vincent Trasov adopted him as his alter-ego and he performed - tap dance and all - in a peanut suit made of papier-mâché. At a later point he even attempted to become mayor of Vancouver, with the full support of Burroughs who happened to be in town.
The animation is a repeated announcement for an absent presentation. The guest, Rose, does not show up. The Chorus, cast in three carnivalesque eye masks, take her place, although it appears they have suddenly left for New York. nothing remains. The vacuum. For peanuts! The empty existence, the unsettling nothingness.
For a moment Rose does seem to be present only for it to become clear that: “Rose only appears in the questioning.”

Julie Béna enters wearing an elegant version of a robber’s costume with a black cape.

Do you remember? Bits of her life surface.
She sings lines from the Bohemian Rhapsody that she picked up as a child. She could hardly understand the words and there was no internet on which to find them. So touching, this awkward singing.
Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy?
Caught in a landslide, no escape from reality

After each memory Pantopon Rose gives us, the viewer, a droll laugh, something just between us. “Do you remember? Up to this point it is a true story, I promise.” An exaggerated wink, we both know better.
Pantopon Rose dances, sings and plays with the facts.
In his autobiographical Empire of the Sun, an account of his youth in Lunghua, JG Ballard wrote: “my life seen through the mirror of my fiction that is inspired by that life.”
This is not different.

Béna presents us with a strange mix. There is nonsense and there are profound questions. We believe we understand our past but the past is continuously shifting. Her performance plays with the boundaries of what is real, known and reliable. It investigates - in all its facets of theater - what is actually real and it is a proposition for a differing truth. That of questioning and the acceptance of uncertainty. And always without prejudice.
But the work is also charged by the fear of emptiness, a fear that is hidden in a flood of nonsense statements: who likes whiskey or tequila; who is gay; where you can eat the best tacos; and, who Rose actually is. This emptiness that openly connects to Miss None and Mr. Peanut.
Béna performance is delightful, in every smile, in the singing, the dancing, the telling, the reciting of the poem “water water cold cold.” How do you translate insecurity? How do you translate emptiness?
What is your story?
True as it can be fake.

(translation Edd Schouten)