Berlin-based Italian artist Monica Bonvicini’s sculptures, drawings, video/photography and performances are all based on themes such as power and control, surveillance, authority and freedom which are mixed together and rendered in a ‘sexual fetishism’ style. She’s not an easy artist to understand, partly because of some of the ironic contradictions and paradoxes surrounding her works, which might not be as paradoxical upon deeper inspection.
The ‘sexual fetishism’ style may have its roots in the time spent frequenting sado-masochistic clubs during her youth, which she found ‘liberating’; probably because the mentality this sub-culture is so contrarian to mainstream values, and she obviously enjoys a good party. But then again she has been quoted to like spaces more than people.
In any event, the mainstream, normal interpretation of a word takes on a different meaning in Bonvicini’s world, such as the word ‘fetish’ which is used to describe consumer products (by Marx) and architecture (by architects). But Bonvicini’s fetishes, are somewhat ‘bent’ as in the case of Never Again (2005).
Initially, the materiality of the chains and black leather hammocks would bring up the usual connotations of power, domination and submission, but hammocks are rather difficult to fetishize, less so than say a pair of glossy black leather pants. And, the arrangement of rows and columns here is reminiscent of hospital beds in a ward, or a graveyard of tombstones, not the usual sexy, shiny, luxurious power situations one would expect.
The other area of interest is architecture, as opposed to buildings which she considers a barrier and a nuisance that the world should be rid of, until one realizes that one needs shelter to sustain life. But this is part of the conundrum. For buildings sustain physical life, but they are (95% of the time) a barrier to metaphysical life.
Perhaps this desire to be rid of buildings forms the basis for the Hurricane And Other Catastrophes Series of drawings of destroyed buildings, modern-day ruins of natural catastrophes, but in #11 one can also sense the reference to Gordon Matta-Clark’s Splitting (1974) in which he chopped an old wooden ‘tract’ house in half with a chain-saw, imposing a new slit of light into the otherwise old dark spaces.
As to the origins, the references for this work, one might think of another architect, the ‘master’ of slits and light, but then 1974 was before his time, so I don’t know who Matta-Clark was thinking of when he did this. But it is this raw imposition of geometric form in old ‘pre-fabricated’ buildings that is a critique on the state of things. Even if that house was hand made, it was however pre-fabricated in design.
Which leads us to Hurricanes And Other Catastrophes #15 (2008) showing a collapsed house, and She Lies (2010) a sculpture of a pile of ‘collapsing’ glass and metal panels, reminiscent of the glass facades of office buildings, set on a concrete platform that’s floating on water. Just who is lying to who is a mystery though. It might have something to do with the promises of modernity, the sprinkling of euphoric, glittering optimism, that didn’t quite pan out in the end, producing a skewed vision.
In possibly her most famous work, Breathing (2017) a huge 30 foot high steel framed contraption dangles and mechanically swirls around a rope and ‘tail’ made of a bundle of black leather belts. A dangling black leather belt signifies, in the context of visual culture, a type of dominated violence, whether it be sexual or racial, between a dominant party and a submissive one. What it all means has possibly, something to do with the feeling derived at the moment just before being whipped, or with the image of a giant 30 foot monster with a dangling tail.
In I Believe in the Skin of Things as in that of Women (1999), the title of which is literally a quote by Le Corbusier describing the materiality of the surface of certain building materials as producing a sensual experience when one touches it, goes back to Marx’s view of architecture as a fetish for architects and makes total sense, for men that is. Like when one touches a fair-faced concrete wall that’s so smooth its reflective or a sealed copper wall. But what about women? What do they feel when they touch another woman’s skin?
And in Bonvicini’s I Believe in the Skin of Things as in that of Women (1999), this notion is turned around, offering her take on what the ‘skin of things’ might mean. Here the gypsum board ‘skin’ of the wall is violently punctured and as the insides are covered with sexual graffiti, the punctures symbolize a violence and a violation that occurs during these sex acts, where there is ‘breakage’ and a ‘breaking in’ of the body. Ultimately it points to the imbalance of power relations between the sexes and offers a critique of the modernist male establishment. It also offers an alternate view of what another work Wallfuckin’ (1996) might mean.
Waiting (2017) might be the epidemy of the paradoxical nature of Bonvicini’s work; it appears that she has yet again contradicted herself by using something as ubiquitous and mundane as a disabled guard rail. For if buildings are a barrier to metaphysical life, the corridor and the guardrail must be its embodiment. High on symbolism, the guardrail and handcuffs is being used to illustrate how the things that are supposed to help us are in fact restricting us, like we’re being chained to it.
But why one of those legs has to be bent and not all of them, maybe progessively, is unclear. Perhaps it is the point where the piece transforms from a ‘ready-made’ walking aid to an act of the poetic; a deterioration of the controlling power of the regulated and regulating structure towards the subliminal. In any case her works rarely create situations one can consider ‘normal’.
At the end of the day, all the chains, ruins, men’s leather belts, twisted and broken structures actually points towards something. For by highlighting the deprivaty of the mind-bending, restrictive structures, one might derive an inclination of what she wants; a kind of boundless utopia, a space with in which one is free to ‘run’ with no limits or hinderance in the front or from behind.