Julie Béna29.09.21 - 06.11.21
The work of Julie Béna is made up of an eclectic set of references, often drawing motifs from theatre, literature and mythology to create enigmatic environments that redistribute the coordinates of class and gender relationships. Spanning sculpture, installation, film and performance, Béna’s artistic practice navigates a territory at the confluence of illusion and reality, addressing the power relations shaping our societies through fictional characters and extravagant scenarios that seek to stimulate our political imagination.
The Den, Béna’s first solo show at NıCOLETTı, London, is conceived as a narrative inspired by the mythical figure of the ogre, which the artist takes as a metaphor to analyze the tensions between identity formation, mythological beliefs and sexual repression in contemporary politics. Consisting of a new series of sculptures made with various techniques such as metal forging, handmade lacework and glass blowing, the exhibition invites viewers to explore a simultaneously threatening and enticing environment, composed of objects and creatures reminiscent of the ogre’s attributes in literary traditions. A set of enormous beer jugs, for instance, a blood-stained apron, and a lineup of twisted figures hanging upside-down provide evidence of the ogre’s evil activities, including his infinite appetite for human flesh – especially that of young girls and infants.
The other elements in the show nuance the ominousness of Béna’s narrative – a spider web adorned with jewels, a birdcage containing a mini-jester (a wink to one of her previous cycles of work, in which she was impersonating this character), and an assortment of anthropomorphic pieces of furniture, rather evoke the fantastical, childlike dimension of the ogre myth. Here and there, the artist also brings a touch of acerbic humour to the display, for example by showing two pairs of women’s shoes hastily escaping the gallery space, or through a group of weeping plush figures that include a bald mermaid named after her daughter Gala, as well as a series of eyeless medieval buffoons. Subverting the codes of fairy-tales, horror movies and comedy, Béna’s work plays with the ambiguity of human emotions, conflating feelings of anxiety and brutality with exuberance and lightness.
Béna emphasizes the ambivalence of the display through the aesthetic refinement and unapologetic waggishness of the artworks, which radically contrast with the exhibition’s narrative, rather inspired by the ogre as the personification of violence, transgression and abjection. In so doing, the artist evokes the multiple facets of the ogre mythology, torn between its popularity as an innocent children story – such as its Hollywoodian version Shrek (a Yiddish word meaning ‘fear’ or ‘fright’) – and its multifarious interpretations in literary criticism, psychoanalysis and politics.
Indeed, from the Greek Cronus, who ate his own children by fear of loosing his power, to Bichou – a monster born out of the French Marechal Bugeaud, whose name was used by Algerian mothers to scare their children during colonization –, the ogre emerged in geographically and historically disparate contexts as a symbol of monstrosity, repulsion and repression, used to conjure our deepest fears and the violence ingrained in all human beings. By extension, it became an adjective employed to designate the almighty Father in patriarchal societies, as well as political tyrants and dictators – from the Jewish King Herode, who orchestrated the massacre of the innocents (Matthew, 2: 16–18), to Napoleon (nicknamed the ‘Corsican Ogre’) and Bokassa, who partly inspired Sony Labou Tansi’s satirical novel Life and a Half (1979), in which the Congolese writer refers to the ogre to describe the cannibalistic and orgiastic practices of a fictional African tyrant.
If Béna never explicitly refers to these stories, she alludes to the ideas and mechanisms which, in today’s world, continues to resonate with the ogre myth. Indeed, the ‘overwhelmingly bleak’ metaphor of the ogre, as the American professor Jonathan F. Krell observes, remains extremely compelling ‘because ogres are a part of us as much as they are the monstrous Other. Like the Titan Cronus, they incarnate the ambiguity of humanity, capable of both immense good and immeasurable evil’. In The Den, Béna appropriates the means of parody and satire to explore the psychic, erotic and aesthetic processes informing contemporary politics, in which the ogre expands beyond the confine of a singular entity to represent the broader societal structures that ‘consume and digest’ their children. Alternatively taken as an epitome of monstrosity, fabulation and despotism, Béna’s ogre seeks to conjure the way in which conservative movements, for instance, exploit human fear and draw their power from repressed libidinal forces, subjugating their audience through origin myths that assert identities and class hierarchies. The illusive glamour and unconcealed playfulness of Béna’s work, in this sense, becomes a means to eschew a type of militant affirmation that mirror the tactics employed by reactionary forces, replacing instead the sensible at the centre of a reflection on the ‘fascism in us all’, to borrow a phrase by Michel Foucault, which in relation to the ogre myth ultimately leaves us with the following question: what, in humans, triggers or impeach their inner monsters to express their most profound ignominy?