(This article first appeared on NeoAztlán in 2013.)
By Kate Green
Since the nineties, artist Monica Bonvicini has confronted audiences with drawings, installations, videos, and photographs that explore the construction of sexual identity through architecture. Her large-scale sculptural works provoke modernism with sheets of shattered glass and non-functional metal scaffolds and include feisty sexual references with strategic placement of riveted black leather.
Along with Bonvicini’s focus on the gendered nature of the built and building environment comes the notion of power. The force is arguably at work in all facets of our lives but weighs heavily on the ins and outs of the art world. Nowhere is power’s role in the art world more visible than during art fairs and large-scale openings.
Fresh from several art fairs and openings in Europe, Bonvicini shares thoughts about whether fairs are for artists; what she wore (or didn’t) at the 48th Venice Biennale; where modernism always fails; how politics led her to practice art; and how her art work decodes the language of architecture.
Kate Green: You have just returned from openings of the 52nd Venice Biennale in Italy, the 38th Art Basel Fair in Switzerland, the Münster Sculpture Project 2007 in Germany, and Documenta 12 in Kassel, Germany. I feel art world power relationships most palpably at such events – who is seated next to whom at dinners, which gallery is presented in which fair… Since your work is about power, are these events particularly stimulating for you?
Monica Bonvicini: When I am in a good mood and in good company these events are funny and enjoyable. In general, I do not find them very stimulating. They are not made for artists. I often feel out of place and I’m not the only artist to feel this way. I don’t care so much who is sitting next to whom. I have witnessed the organization of seating at a few dinners and there is often less to find out than you would think. I take good care not to sit next to boring people.
From time to time, I enjoy seeing the people from all over the world that you get to see only during these events. (The openings of the Biennale, Basel, Münster, and Documenta) last June were a little bit too much for everybody. You saw the same faces in different cities and could observe the mutual state of progressive degradation. Art events are a good time for sunglasses.
KG: One of your works, Don’t Miss A Sec (2004), was an outdoor toilet temporary installed on a crowded street adjacent to the Basel art fair. The one-way glass allowed users to continue seeing art and people while not being seen. It alluded to the compulsive seeing that such events foster and the power relationships inherent in looking and being looked at. Describe, in your own words, where this work was coming from.
MB: In 1998, when I started participating in biennials (Berlin Biennial, SITE Sante Fe Biennial, Biennale of Sydney), the social craziness around the events was new. I particularly remember the 1999 Venice Biennale. I had no money for the vaporetto. I had to run out of a very expensive hotel’s bar after a couple of dealers from New York I met left in a rage without paying the bill after I told them I would not show with them. I didn’t know many people. The morning we were to go on stage to receive the (Golden Lion prize for Best National Participation), I was alone. My dealers had left Venice. I didn’t know what to wear and I asked the cleaning lady of the hotel which of the two t-shirts I had was a better fit for the occasion. Neither was quite right.
The idea for Don’t Miss a Sec.’ came in 1999. I made the drawings for it on an airplane. It relates to the urge, during big art events where so much is about “see and be seen,” to not miss anything. At any big art event, everyone needs a bathroom at some point. If you use the work for it, you are still able to see the next art work, who is passing by, who is talking with whom, and who is wearing what. At the same time, you can literally show your ass to them.
Don’t Miss a Sec.’ is also an ironic comment on the idea of modernism, particularly through referencing the pavilion works of Dan Graham. Don’t Miss a Sec.’ is about the desire and failure to “see it all” which is a strong trait in modernism. This work absurdly pushes at the limits of what is public and what is private and offers a performative element in which inside and outside are blurred together.
KG: Did the recent art events provide anything memorable that you have continued to think about in relation to your work?
MB: I had a lot of fun in Venice. I was born there and I always feel at home in a city where to get lost is just part of finding your way. I was surprised by (curator Robert Storr’s) display of works at the Padiglione Italia. It was a replica of what (curator) Maria Corral did in 2005 – paintings right, videos left. (It was) not very inspiring. I was glad to see works by León Ferrari and Kim Jones and Charles Gaines’ beautifully silly model. My favorite (national pavilion was Germany’s) with artist Isa Genzken – finally, something real in there. I also rediscovered Franz West and met Louise Lawler. I am a big fan of hers.
I really enjoyed Münster. Bruce Nauman’s Square Depression is fantastic. I loved the light irony and humor of (Michael) Elmgreen and (Ingar) Dragset’s theater piece as well as (Mike Kelley’s petting zoo) that is so rich in layers of meanings, still very open to interpretations, and just enjoyable crazy. I couldn’t see all the works in Münster since I was busy installing works of mine in Düsseldorf, but I really appreciated being confronted with works independently from the curatorial umbrella that exists in (the Venice Biennale) and (Documenta).
KG: You have chosen to deal with issues of power through the visual art world rather than through the realms of architecture, law, or politics. Power plays a large role in the art world. Were you drawn to the visual arts and then came to focus on power as a subject or vice versa?
MB: I grew up during a very political period in Italy. In college, I was very much involved with political issues about really everything. I participated in strikes, public discussions, and different social activities. But just being an intellectual, studying politics or sociology (which I thought about), or writing books (I loved to write), would have been disgraceful at that time. I decided to try art because it was the only way to be a worker and an intellectual at the same time. It was very important to get dirty while thinking.
I think it was Foucault who said that, after 1968, there was no need for intellectuals. After 1977, the Italian intellectuals I cared for worked very closely with workers. This was extremely important for me growing up. I had no experience with art at all, but it offered a way to discuss issues without being authoritarian.
My interest in architecture came later. I have been always very sensitive toward space. I always preferred to be outside, on the streets, rather than inside. While studying at the California Institute of the Arts in the nineties I started rationalizing my interest in architecture. An aspect that was, and continues to be, important to me is the relationship between language and architecture – the idea of a structure and the social, political, and economic implications of architecture.
Architecture is a representation of power. In my works, I try to specify its grammar, deconstruct its sentences, and expose a codex of historical behaviors and assumptions. I don’t think I could have a language for what I do if I would have studied architecture.
KG: Several of your works expose the relative nature of exploitation. One can be on the receiving end one moment and then dish it out in the next. The billboard work These Days Only A Few Men Know What Work Really Means (1999) presents larger-than-life images of how construction workers are fetishized in gay porn. The questionnaire piece What Does Your Wife/Girlfriend Think of Your Rough and Dry Hands? (1999) draws attention to the builders while objectifying them.
In an interview with Frieze Magazine you mention leaving Italy partly because of sexual harassment from construction workers. Foucault would say that we constantly participate in both sides of power relationships. Do you think about the world along these lines?
MB: I like the Edna St. Vincent Millay quote, “My candle burns at both ends…”
I did the work These Days Only a Few Men Know What Work Really Means specifically for the Art Basel Fair in 1999. In the work, I am addressing art as a commodity (something I did on a different level later in the video work Hard Sell (2002) and with the installation The Fetishism of Commodity (2002)). I am making fun of the idea of masculinity which doesn’t really exist, but is well-represented in the cliché and absurd representations of the construction worker. The work has been difficult to show in other contexts because of its naked male bodies and crude graphic quality. I find that interesting and surprising. Funny enough, the best review on this work has been in a German gay magazine.
What Does Your Wife/Girlfriend Think of Your Rough and Dry Hands? is an ongoing project involving interviews with construction workers. The project is an homage to the workers about whom there is really little literature compared to architects, architectural critics and theoreticians. What is stunning to me as a result of the questionnaires (distributed in the United States, Europe, and, with limited success, Asia) is the picture of a strong national work ethic.
The installation NEVER AGAIN (2005) is another work that concerns your question about exploitation. It’s a playground for adults composed of double leather “love” swings. In this work, as in others, I directly use visual material from gay and sado-masochistic culture. This has earned me the title of “(dominatrix) of the art scene.” What I don’t like here is the identification of the artist with her or his own works, but this is a different point.
KG: Several other sculptural works, such as Caged Tools (2004) and The Fetishism of Commodity (2002), use leather to transform industrial material (scaffolding, chains, power tools). These gestures conjoin two seemingly contradictory realms: sensuality and the built environment. Do you see this duality as a suggestion of contradictions everywhere?
MB: I would like to add to your list the video installations: Wallfuckin’ (2005); Hausfrau Swinging (1997); Take one Square or two (2000); and Shotgun (2003); and the installations Black (2002), Blindshot (2004), and Bonded Eternmale (2001). I think it is every artist’s job to define situations as clearly as possible. Since the nineties, I have been interested in the construction of sexual identity though architecture. All these works are specifically about how architecture is involved in a process of construction behind its walls or because of its walls.
I do not see contradictions everywhere. That would be quite exhausting! I rarely use the word. To me, it has a cheap negative value and if something is not contradictory than what is it? Harmonious? Something like that does not exist in life.
I think more about questions of relationships. Do they work or not? Why? What does history say?
KG: Your recent Los Angeles project Not For You (2006) incorporated earlier works and seemed to deal site-specifically with Hollywood. Often parts from one of your projects resurface in another one. Do you approach each project site-specifically while giving yourself the freedom to include any past piece?
MB: Through the years, I have become more suspicious about site-specific work, but, because of the nature of many of my works, I can’t really avoid the confrontation with each space I deal with. The show in Los Angeles was in a mall context and didn’t actually deal with Hollywood. I have no interest in (Hollywood), but I know that many (Angelenos) find it impossible to see the world without thinking of Hollywood.
Not For You (also the title of a work) was one of the biggest shows I have done. I presented many new and old works in a huge empty store, the name of which was still hanging outside. I had the sign, which read, “Organized Living,” lit at night. I thought it was a perfect sub-title for the show.
For the show I had Stonewall (2006) and DESIRE (2006) outside and drawings on broken safety glass in the windows. I covered the entire floor with Plastered (1998), which I normally present in group shows.
I also included the (two channel) video installation Destroy She Said (1998). The videos are like a collage of film clips from the fifties through the seventies by various directors from (Jean-Luc) Godard to (Michelangelo) Antonioni to (Rainer Werner) Fassbinder. In each clip, women are either walking or leaning on walls. The way these intellectual European filmmakers were representing female characters was, “Forget diamonds. If a woman does not have a man to lean on at least give her a wall.” This is odd considering this was the moment when feminism was being defined.
New works were the hanging sculpture Identify Protection (2006) and a series of large black and white drawings which were all on the subject of revolt with quotations by (Anaïs) Nin, (Ann) Sexton, and (Julia) Kristiva.
KG: DESIRE was also included in your recent solo project at Sculpture Center in New York, titled Never Missing a Line (2007). It was accompanied by another marquee – the sign reading “BUILTFORCRIME” in lights. Can you talk about those works, specifically the latter? What led you to present those two works in that context?
MB: The sculpture DESIRE is made out of polish stainless steel letters on an aluminum holding structure. The work in L.A. was to be read from the street and it played with all of the store logos on Lake Avenue in Pasadena where the show was located. In New York, I had the piece in the yard of Sculpture Center. It was much more sculptural there than in L.A. It reflected the brick wall of the yard as well as the city bank building and the viewers walking from the entrance going inside the show. I developed the piece together with the drawings I was just talking about, specifically around a quotation by Kristeva. It reads: “Desire, if it exists, is unalterable, infinite, absolute and destructive.”
I am uninterested in determining if desire is different for males and females (whatever this distinction means), but I wanted to deal with desire in the sense of the origin of revolt and examine it through the language and thoughts of three women writers.
When the door to Sculpture Center opened, the blinking lights of Built For Crime were reflected inDESIRE. The work is a large, fourteen-meter long sculpture hanging from the ceiling. The letters are made out of broken safety glass onto which light bulbs are mounted. The lights annoyingly blink. They turn off occasionally and leave the space dark. Then they start again like in a carnival, first with the letter B and then so on. There was a Ford commercial which said, “Built For Ride.” I always find Ford commercials quite aggressive – not necessarily in a negative way, but it is hard to watch a commercial of an enormous pickup in a desert without thinking about Iraq.
The work is also a comment on modern architecture’s desire for transparency and tricks to avoid it. The installation is glass, transparent, and beautiful, but it is difficult to read. The blinking lights make you dizzy and, by the time you understand the sentence, you have it tattooed on your retina. It is not a big step to see this work and to think about (modernist architect Adolf) Loos’s (1908) essay “Ornament and Crime” and to think about architecture as a crime.
KG: Are you drawn to white cubes as much as to architecturally unconventional art spaces, such as the Sculpture Center, that reveal their history?
MB: I do not think that conventional space exists at all, but to answer your question: I find white cubes, or let’s say modernistic sorts of situations, easier to handle than spaces with, let’s say, red bricks. Last year, I was invited to a talk in Basel about artists’ experiences in various spaces and how to build an exhibition space that is really made for art. This leads to the real question: What kind of art is going to be shown in a given space?
I remember visiting (the Contemporary Arts Center designed by architect Zaha Hadid) years ago in Cincinnati. Great space, but how can you use walls which are not straight and look like they are slowly falling to the floor?
Lots of new museums have glass as outside walls. Recently, I was invited to do shows in German and Swedish art institutions that both have the same problem. The two curators asked me to do something with the big windows, but it turned out that the glass was a new type that can’t be painted on or glued on or anything.
Spaces for art are complex, new or old.
KG: You are particularly informed about the history of various art threads and theories, and fluently discuss the relationship between such ideas and your work. With whom have you had some of your best discussions about your work? Who might you like to discuss your work with, living or dead, who you haven’t yet?
MB: I have had many good discussions with different people – colleagues, curators, critics. There are people I would like to talk to about my work and art in general with whom, thank God, I haven’t yet.
Kate Green holds an M.A. from the Center for Curatorial Studies at Bard College. From 2001-2003 she worked at P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center and Dia Art Foundation, both in New York. As a curator at Artpace San Antonio from 2003-2007 she developed single-artist shows with Trisha Donnelly, Kota Ezawa, Luis Gispert, and Frances Stark, among others, and group shows such as “City Maps,” “Power Play,” and “Spanglish.” She has contributed to publications such as Artlies, Art Papers, Modern Painters, and NeoAztlan.