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>> Portrait: Monica Bonvicini
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As is so often the case with Bonvicini’s work, there was a catch to it all: the leather hammocks are the kind used in S&M clubs for hardcore sexual practices. Transferred to the exhibition context, the message seemed clear enough – art is nothing more than a fetish, a symbol of power, if not hegemony, in the hands of rich collectors. This also goes for Hamburger Bahnhof, which among other things shows the Friedrich Christian Flick Collection. A decision surrounded by controversy that clearly posed a challenge to Bonvicini while working on her Never Again installation.

Preises der Neuen Nationalgalerie für junge Kunst,
f.l.t.r.: Anri Sala, John Bock, Monica Bonvicini, Angela Bulloch, Peter-Klaus Schuster, September 2005

Ultimately, Bonvicini moved to the forefront with her malicious commentary on the status quo, or at least ahead of the other three candidates: the nostalgic free jazz saxophone video by Anri Sala , Angela Bulloch’s dense electro-sound installation, and the new economy puppet theater by the performance artist John Bock. The 50,000 Euro prize went to her installation because, as the jury decision explained, it demonstratively placed the otherwise isolated language of S&M culture in the public arena. What’s more, Bonvicini’s work invites the viewer not only to take part in it, but practically demands that he or she “investigate the still-relevant subcultural processes of the sixties.” Not the slightest trace of sex and power here, but – in safe distance to history – a reference to the rebellious power of an earlier day. The press grew suspicious and wrote that Bonvicini had merely proved with her work that she’s long since been courted by the art establishment – despite her rebellious pose. But perhaps some critics were merely annoyed that she accepted the prize without hesitation, exclaiming gleefully, “Let’s have a party!”

Monica Bonvicini, Stairway to Hell, 2003,
Installation for "Poetic Justice"
at the Istanbul Bienale, (c)VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2005

Resistance looks a little different, even Bonvicini knows that. At the same time, she doesn’t want to be perpetually relegated to the role of the outlaw: “There are a lot of people that expect only aggressive and provocative work from me. To my mind, though, the only thing that counts is the desire to occupy spaces. But I resist it when people identify me with my works.”

What remains is the question of fetish postulated by the art itself. It’s no accident that Bonvicini’s oeuvre, with its reduced forms and industrially manufactured, standardized materials, belongs to the minimalist tradition: Robert Morris’ Felt Pieces or the Cells of Louise Bourgeois work similarly as a connection between Eros and abstraction. Despite all their destructive joy, Bonvicini’s works are always objects of desire – not only for museums like the MOCA in Los Angeles or the Migros Museum in Zurich, which have acquired extensive installations of Bonvicini’s; an older hammock work even entered the private collection of a Berlin collector.

Monica Bonvicini, Untitled, 2004, (c)VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2005

But perhaps it’s precisely this contradiction – that the signs of protest are simultaneously luxury articles – that’s always been part of the logic of the contemporary art establishment. Bonvicini is well aware of the problem; she addressed it in the work Untitled from 2004, a chain saw completely covered in black leather. The second skin stretches tightly over the saw blade, like a perfect sex toy. The tool would be completely useless for lumberjacks, yet in the world of art it’s a stimulating symbol of macho identity, a celebration of violence, and a masquerade.

Indeed, Bonvicini’s installations and objects are usually both: a “dirty joke,” as Jörg Heiser wrote, yet in spite of this it’s also a ponderous cerebral game she’s playing, suggestive and conceptual at one and the same time. In 2003, she erected a toilet facility titled Don’t miss a sec across from the Tate Museum in London. The cabin consisted of semi-transparent mirrors such that while one could not see from the outside in, the surrounding area could be clearly seen from the inside. While intimate hygiene was being placed on public view, the scandalous cube was also an ironic imitation of Dan Graham’s glass pavilions. Then again, for this year’s opening of the Venice Biennale, Bonvicini placed a four by four-meter block of Ytong rock in the middle of the Giardini which workers proceeded to labor over with jackhammers until the monstrous thing finally took on the form of an ice landscape by Casper David Friedrich. There was resistance again, of course – this time from the representatives of Spain and Belgium, who were disturbed by the action, taking place as it did directly in front of their pavilions.

Monica Bonvicini, Don't miss a sec., 2004,
Installation during Art Basel 2004, (c)VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2005

And so is the riot planned, is it always a hunt for attention? Bonvicini ponders for a moment and then digresses rather far: “When I look at a space for an exhibition, it’s not about breaking taboos. It’s about a spacial situation, in relation to which I think up an installation that addresses the character of the location. If this location has a political history, then I’m also going to involve myself with that in my work. But the quality of the walls, the height of the ceiling, and the way the light falls are every bit as important. Every space is different, and I have to orientate myself first, I have to walk up and down every wall, like in a Thomas Bernhard story, and let the material work on me. Then it’s not about politics, but about rocks, cement, window niches, and sheetrock walls.” Or books, which often form the point of departure for Bonvicini’s new works. Freud, Marx, capitalism, and psychoanalysis, but also obscure studies, such as on the phenomenon of panic in closed spaces. Over the last two and a half years, a series of collages and drawings titled “Anxiety Attack” arose out of her involvement with the subject. Presumably, an installation will develop from this at some point. With lots of chains and leather, of course.

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