In Homo Ludens, the groundbreaking 1938 study on the importance of play in human culture, Dutch historian Johan Huizinga explains that the spoilsport is the most heinous traitor in the fragile world of play. Defecting from the temporary rules that delineate the play space, the spoilsport shatters the illusion for all. The play space is itinerant and flexible; it can be at "the arena, the card-table, the magic circle, the temple, the stage, the screen, the tennis court, the court of justice." There is a flip side to the opprobrium of spoilsports. These killjoys, Huizinga argues, are also called by other names. They are "apostates, heretics, innovators, prophets, conscientious objectors." All it takes is a shift in perception to label a traitor instead as a rebel.
French artist Julie Béna’s works deal with this threshold between one perception and another; between being a player or a spoilsport, participation or abstinence. In fact, Béna refers to the exhibition space her "playground," which she populates with performers, singers, sculptures, photos, videos and installations. Early in her life, Béna acted in a roving theatrical troupe in France, and the transient and artificial staging of play resurface in her practice. Béna’s works are often disguised as everyday objects, and the viewer sees them twice: once as banal, and again as an object animated by its proposal to exist an artwork.
In addition to seeing exhibition venues as playgrounds for interaction, Béna borrows from the visual language of games. The installation Let’s Play, Pleasure Is In Illusion (2012), is a work inspired by Bagh-Chal, a Nepalese board game. A network of thin brass lines wedged between marble floor slabs are camouflaged as an architectural flourish, and the viewer walks unwittingly into a life-size game, with vaguely humanoid sculptures standing in as pawns on the playing field.
The window and the borders of the stage are important sites for Béna’s investigations. In the past, curtains, drapes, or blinds have appeared often in her practice. They serve not only as allusions to the rituals of theater but also as veils between two worlds. Gloves and pointing hands turn up as well, as symbols of costume, and stage magic. In Elizabeth II (2009), ordinary and vaguely corporate blinds, now motorized, turn back and forth in their window. Although successfully anthropomorphized—the blinds are "waving"—they fall comically short of being as regal as their title suggests.
As part of Performa 13, Béna will present The Song of the Hands for her U.S. debut. At 100% Transparent, Béna’s contribution will be twofold: multiple layers of printed, semi-transparent blinds will be installed in the venue’s storefront windows for the duration of the exhibition, which will serve as a backdrop to Béna’s one-night performance with Adrien Vescovi. The pair will act out two types of gestures, creating parallel languages and infusing the otherwise ordinary space with conjecture and movement.
Julie Béna (b. 1982) studied fine arts the Villa Arson in Nice, France, and at the Royal Academy of Arts in Brussels, Belgium. She has exhibited at the Palais de Tokyo, Fondation Calouste Gulbenkian and Display Art Projects in Paris, Song Eun Art Space in Seoul, Korea, at Nettie Horn in London, Fonderie Darling in Montréal, and was a resident at Le Pavillon at the Palais de Tokyo in 2012–2013.
Images, from top: Julie Béna, Card Game, 2013. Detail. Julie Béna, Let’s Play, Pleasure is an Illusion, 2012. Images courtesy of 100% Transparent.