The artist Monica Bonvicini examines interpersonal relationships in an uncompromising way. Her works move between resistance and outrage. They are now on view at Kunsthalle Bielefeld.
“Grab them by the balls” say the golden hands that are attached repeatedly at crotch height along the walls. They accompany visitors in an almost pressing manner round the impressive rooms at Kunsthalle Bielefeld. The wall sculptures by artist Monica Bonvicini allude to one of the many misogynous statements by the current US President: “I don't even wait. And when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything. ... Grab ‘em by the pussy. You can do anything.” Those were Donald Trump’s words when describing his way of manhandling (married) women.
The exhibition “Lover’s Material” is on show at Kunsthalle Bielefeld – where Bonvicini’s oeuvre engages in an intriguing manner with the gallery’s collection. Among the pieces are brand new works that are going on public display for the very first time. The exhibition title “Lover’s Material” is taken from an anecdote about the architect of the Kunsthalle, Philip Johnson and his lover at the time Jon Stroup. Johnson’s biographer Franz Schulze characterizes Jon Stroup as “comfortably passive and eternally grateful for [Johnson’s] material generosity.” In this way, Bonvicini links the place and its architecture to the private life of its creator.
Monica Bonvicini takes a critical look at dependencies
The title also takes us straight into one of the central issues that the exhibition addresses: the political, economic, and social dimension of interpersonal relationships. Bonvicini sheds light on dependencies by foregrounding the exhibition space as a place for artistic exploration. The works, some of them conceived specially for the exhibition, relate directly to the building and the viewers. Bonvicini has been addressing dependencies since the 1980s, highlighting how politics, gender, economics, natural disasters, let alone literature and architecture are interlinked. Her work is often bound up with the architecture, which she at times describes as the physical expression of society.
In the entrance hall on the first floor, the exhibition kicks off with an expansive floor-based piece: The carpet mosaic entitled “Breach of Décor” (2020) shows a composition consisting of more than 60 photographs of taken-off pants seemingly just slung to various different floors. Bonvicini spent more than 18 months photographing her own trousers this way – be it in her private apartment or hotel rooms. What is otherwise such an intimate act of undressing turns into a public act of defiance. Pants, which in the early days of the Feminist Movement became a symbol of self-determination, return into a private space. Although it is long since clear that the private is political. The worn pants strewn on the floor bring to mind archaic (male) territorial marking, they exude a thoughtless sense of dominance that now covers the entire floor of the entrance hall.
Undressing becomes a public act of defiance
This appropriation of patriarchal power structures runs through the exhibition like a red thread. In one hall stands an outsized print of the famous Marlboro Cowboy on aluminum, one of the great icons of masculinity in 20th-century consumer culture. Tongue in cheek, a second male icon is juxtaposed to the “Marlboro Man” (2019): THE Modernist artist, Marcel Duchamp. Three copies of Duchamp’s “Bottle Rack” (1914), one of his earliest readymades, stand on white plinths. Usually a group of flaccid glass penises hang from Bonvicini’s bottle racks, whereas this time they are attached to clothes hangers at several different places in the exhibition. Over the hangers she has placed aluminum tags saying “guilt”.
Monica Bonvicini is renowned for often using industrial, traditionally “male” materials such as aluminum, chains, steel or leather in her sculptures. In this context, aesthetic references are often drawn to the S/M scene. The linking of materials, fetish, and sexuality is something she connects to architecture, a domain that is still male dominated to this day and not only houses art, but also us as private individuals. For Bonvicini, architecture as material reality is always an expression of our society.
The tension between materials and reception is also apparent in her piece “Be Your Mirror” (2020). Aluminum panels sized 4x10 meter fill an entire wall, opposite them a glass façade with a view out across the museum garden. A strip along the aluminum wall was polished to a high gloss finish in advance and viewers can see their reflection in it. Over the course of the exhibition, Kunsthalle staff will regularly polish and expand the strip. Here, Bonvicini highlights the artisanal work process at the core of artworks.
In another exhibition room, a ball made of 300 Casio wristwatches rests on a reflective plinth – they peep in irregular intervals and, like a kind of concert, contribute to the exhibition’s soundtrack. In the next hall, we encounter the work chosen for the exhibition campaign: “Up in Arms” (2019). The almost radiant sculpture made of pink Murano glass consists of two interlocked hands and forearms. The title and pose allude to a willingness to rise up in protest: after all, “to be up in arms” implies both indignation and resorting to weapons. At the same time, the tenderness of the gesture and the material undermine this connotation. The sculptures of hands in “Lover‘s Material” emphasize for what our hands can stand: Care, protest, comfort, but also violence and oppression.
“Up in arms” is supplemented by a wall piece Monica Bonvicini made during the lockdown. Based on the aesthetic of protest posters, “Never Tire” (2020) presents a new series of drawings. She placed text fragmebts such as “TAKE YOUR ANGER TO WORK” or “POWER JOY HUMOR & RESISTANCE” on orange-and-pink backgrounds with chains and geometric structures. Many of the quotes come from Roland Barthes’ famous collection of citations “Fragments of a lover‘s discourse”, but also from the writings of Judith Butler, James Baldwin or Natalie Diaz. The drawings summarize Monica Bonvicini‘s concerns as a text collage: The uncompromising questioning of existing relationships, dependencies, and understanding of roles, be it on a social, personal, or even poetic level.
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