How Deep is the Ocean?: Cosima von Bonin
by Francesco Tenaglia
Like small, propitiatory monuments, two anthropomorphic fish that resemble Mexican mariachis or Indonesian dancers face each other and welcome visitors both physically—the sculptures are placed at the entrance of the Israeli satellite of the Scandinavian institution Magasin III Jaffa in Tel Aviv, which is hosting a retrospective exhibition of the work of Cosima von Bonin—and metaphorically, as the fish statues introduce some distinctive elements of the German artist’s work.
The artist has enjoyed a new productive period in recent years: the marine imagery that also dominated What if it barks, her 2018 show at Petzel Gallery in New York; the ironic taste for characters with childlike and cartoonish qualities; the fondness for oblong objects—surfboards, rockets, and, here, the perfect explication represented by ITEM (2001), a canoe covered with a military-green exoskeleton that, while not concealing the nature and shape of the means of transportation, morphs it into a majestic minimal sculpture that, together with the enormous octopus of SEASON IN THE ABYSS (2006), leads the coup d’oeil on the exhibition. A last element that the two oceanic guardians make known to the spectator—both have a guitar chained to their necks—is love for music: von Bonin grew artistically in the Cologne of the 1990s, in which the subculture of visual art went arm in arm with that of music, which was about to express one of the most important techno club scenes in the world. This proximity of art and music has had striking outcomes, such as collaborations with artists of the German scene—in Tel Aviv, the legendary Moritz von Oswald has produced a soundtrack for von Bonin’s napping HERMIT CRAB IN FAKE ROYÈRE (2010). It has also produced more subtle effects: for example, the motif of the loop, the minimal unit of sound that in electronic music repeats itself in sequences that evolve into spirals of microvariations, which informs the imagination of this German artist who always works around thematic nuclei that develop into minor differentiated narratives; the taste for the queer disguise that she sometimes uses in performative actions but often translates to covering some of her sculptures with her textile painting (derived from the stitching of found materials or connected to the sculpture’s own individual history); and finally the idea of artistic production as collaboration. On the one hand, von Bonin’s production is often carried out through teamwork by artisans from different backgrounds; on the other, it is possible to refer to the idea of “shared authorship.” As suggested by the musician and sound engineer Rashad Becker—connected to the aforementioned Moritz von Oswald—to the English music magazine Fact, one of the greatest achievements of techno was the introduction into mass culture of a conception of the author that escaped the idea of the romantic genius, introducing artists who humbly participated in lines of creativity that they could follow with greater or lesser fidelity, offering a minimal, deferential, but recognizable contribution and sampling (the appropriation and reworking of a narrative universe). In a recent exhibition at House of Gaga gallery in Mexico City (May 2019), for example, the main theme was the figure of Daffy Duck—the irate, selfish character conceived by Warner Bros—who, in four consecutively mounted canvases, tries to fight the darkness that envelops him, a leitmotif of comic animation in which the main character, fruit of the creativity and of the illustrator’s handicraft, is crushed by the void, by the absence of figuration of the empty table, and rebels vehemently. As in fan fiction, an amateur subgenre in which fans of a series of comics or animations invent stories parallel to the canonical ones, von Bonin ironically tells of herself using recognizable characters. As is known, childhood imagery has served through the centuries as an object of curiosity for the artist and for the scholar of visual culture, both because of hope for a “pure” look—other and natural—at the world and because it is a vector of tenderness and nostalgia, although it is difficult to recognize these characteristics in the work of von Bonin: it establishes a relationship both of identification and of equal conversation with the vernacular images that populate its “universe”—not that we know from which actual past they arrive, but they are there also as an alter ego, as an object of ridicule or identification, funny, cheerful, or exhausted, on deck chairs or carpets. And at the same time, with a punk outfit, they become available for learned but playfully recognizable citations of minimalism, readymade, and performance traditions. The art of Cosima von Bonin has preserved the same vigor from the Cologne of Martin Kippenberger to Tel Aviv and Mexico City because it has maintained an umbilical connection with autobiography and with the world of childhood invention just as much as a careful, vital, sassy, and playful relationship with the history of contemporary art.
Cosima von Bonin (b. 1962 in Mombasa), lives and works in Cologne. She has exhibited internationally in both solo and group exhibitions. Her first major U.S. survey, Roger and Out, opened in 2007 at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles. Other institutional solo exhibitions took place at MUMOK, Vienna (2014); Artipelag, Gustavsberg (2013); Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum, St. Louis (2011); Museum Ludwig, Cologne (2011); Musée d’Art Moderne et Contemporain, Geneva (2011); Kölnischer Kunstverein, Cologne (2004); Kunstverein Hamburg (2001); Kunstverein Braunschweig (2000); and Kunsthalle St. Gallen (1999). She has participated in group exhibitions at the Museum of Modern Art, New York; Les Abbatoirs in Toulouse; and documenta XII, Kassel, among many others. Her work is currently on view at Magazine III Jaffa, Tel Aviv, and House of Gaga, Mexico City.