PRINT November 2007

Yilmaz Dziewior

“MANY PEOPLE JUST PLAY THE CHANGES; I like to change the play.” This statement—wry, gnomic, a touch haughty, and evincing a nonchalant economy of terms—seems like a good starting point for any discussion of the art of Cosima von Bonin. True enough, the words are not actually hers; they belong to Mayo Thompson, front man for the band Red Krayola. Yet the aphorism nevertheless aptly describes von Bonin’s modus operandi, which is to make work that examines and intervenes in the rules of the game—the game being art as a cultural and social practice. Moreover, to enlist Thompson here—he’s a friend of the artist’s—is a gesture very much in keeping with von Bonin’s approach. For her, a key aspect of changing the play is “interlacing,” as she once dubbed the mutual influence that takes place over time between her and the musicians, theorists, and fellow artists with whom she habitually works. The process is meant to push beyond the typical parameters of collaboration, as one early case in point may demonstrate: For a 1991 exhibition at Andrea Rosen Gallery in New York, von Bonin’s American debut, the Cologne-based artist transformed what was supposed to be a solo effort into a group show of sorts, presenting contributions from friends and colleagues including Thompson, Martin Kippenberger, Diedrich Diederichsen, Isabelle Graw, and Jutta Koether. At the center of it all was her film Die fröhliche Wallfahrt (The Merry Pilgrimage), 1991, a bit of absurdist rural Bavarian folk theater in which von Bonin’s hometown gallerist, Christian Nagel, played the role of a priest. Rounding out the cast were other members of Nagel’s stable, including Michael Clegg, Christian Philipp Müller, Josef Zehrer, and Michael Krebber. Placing this most collaborative of media, cinema, at the heart of her “one-woman” exhibition, and surrounding it with works by other artists, von Bonin suggested that the identity “Cosima von Bonin,” and by extension artistic identity in general, is not a fixed quantity—that it is, rather, an unstable compound intermittently generated by the energies that travel across social and professional networks.

This penchant for complicating notions of authorship and attribution is undoubtedly one reason von Bonin has not previously garnered the kind of recognition that has accrued to some of her fellow Cologners. For many of those who have followed her work since the early 1990s, von Bonin has seemed, in an odd way, a perpetually potential artist. She is often seen as someone who has not yet produced a body of clearly defined work and who is thus a tabula rasa, or better, a mirror capable of reflecting virtually any critical trope: appropriation, institutional critique, relational art. One wonders, however, if this dynamic is about to change. Quite abruptly, von Bonin is no longer a shared secret within a select coterie. Like John McCracken, Kerry James Marshall, and Charlotte Posenenske, she is an artist whose work appeared at multiple locations throughout Documenta 12 this past summer—an ennoblement closely followed by her first solo exhibition in an American museum, currently on view at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles. With this bicontinental one-two punch of institutional affirmation, she would seem poised to move once and for all out of the “artist’s artist” category and into a larger arena.

Von Bonin, in other words, is entering a new context, and for her, context is everything. Indeed, she is associated with a group of artists—Müller, Andrea Fraser, and Fareed Armaly among them—who in the ’90s, and largely in Cologne, attempted to establish an analytical, reflexive approach to artmaking, and whose collective production is sometimes called Context art. The term came into common parlance (at least in German art circles) in 1993, when curator Peter Weibel used it as the title of a group exhibition that brought together the aforementioned practitioners and fellow travelers at the Neue Galerie in Graz, Austria—attempting to establish an -ism for younger artists who, as he saw it, were following in the footsteps of first-generation institutional critics like Michael Asher and Hans Haacke. While the label is a disputed one, since not all those to whom it has been applied accept the genealogy it suggests, it is still useful shorthand. And it is perhaps particularly useful to consider where von Bonin is concerned, since its introduction here only highlights the degree to which her practice both yields to and resists attempts to organize it within such a critical scheme. Her place in the historiography of the Cologne circles that gave rise to such work is secure (as attested by her inclusion in the exhibitions “Rhinegold: Art from Cologne,” at Tate Liverpool in 2004, and “Make Your Own Life: Artists In and Out of Cologne,” which originated at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia last year). But it’s not easy to determine exactly where in that historiography she belongs. She stands apart from others in the Context art group in that her own art’s relationship to context has tended to be fugitive, cryptic, or, at the very least, indirect.

In 1990—around the time that Fraser, for instance, was guiding audiences along the ideological fault lines of museum practice in her performances as docent Jane Castleton—von Bonin was debuting at Nagel’s gallery with nothing more than a few subdued, offhand snapshots of a fishermen’s club in Yorkshire, England. There was a shot of three ducks, two brown and one white; a photo of von Bonin’s brother, with whom she had traveled to Yorkshire, holding a rod and reel; and another of a large stuffed and mounted fish. This low-key, subjective, rather private exhibition appeared at first glance to be exactly the opposite of what was expected of an artist aspiring to be a key figure in Cologne. The work possessed neither the larger-than-life brio of, say, Martin Kippenberger nor the clear critical impulse associated with Galerie Christian Nagel. Yet, however obliquely, von Bonin’s pictures were, in fact, contextual—reflecting on the phenomena of exhibition openings, commercial galleries, and the workings of her artistic scene as a whole. In the photographs, we see the artist not only wryly gesturing toward the perennial art-world impulse to “land a big fish”—artists look to secure the representation of the right gallerist; gallerists and curators look for up-and-coming artists; critics look for harbingers of the new—but also staking out her own place within this system. After all, she photographs and thus memorializes the trophy—which, it turns out, was caught by the “first lady member” of the club. As if to ensure that this would not seem too simple a critical gesture, von Bonin slightly altered her picture of the fish. The plaque on the original trophy reads: BROWN TROUT (3 LBS) / CAUGHT DRIFFIELD BECK / ON THE ABOVE FLY OF HER OWN TYING / BY / MRS. H. T. CROCKATT / (THE FIRST LADY MEMBER TO WIN THE ANNUAL TROPHIES) / 26TH MAY 1969. But in von Bonin’s photo, “Caught Driffield Beck” has been changed to “Caught herself in Driffield Beck,” pushing this lumpen bit of found poetry in a subtly creepy direction. Mrs. H. T. Crockatt is no longer simply a sportswoman; she is implicated in a strange drama. And of course club is the operative word in all this, pertaining to the “strange dramas” of von Bonin’s Cologne milieu as much as it does to the Yorkshire fishermen’s association.

Over the next few years, von Bonin continued to make numerous works considering her own membership in this art-world community, which she valued (and from which she received support), but not without ambivalence. Indeed, an impulse toward Gesamtkunstwerk marked by a certain melancholic hedonism took shape in her work during this period, notably in a series of socially oriented yet mildly antagonistic projects with Kai Althoff. The first of these was Hast du heute Zeit?— Ich aber nicht (Do You Have Time Today?—I Don’t Though), 1995, for which the pair turned the Stuttgart Künstlerhaus into something of a crazy community center, decorated with lengths of patterned fabric and a motley collection of furniture. They performed on opening night, first lying down together on a mattress like a disaffected John and Yoko, then throwing wet towels at viewers, then tending bar—maintaining rather surly demeanors all the while. Later, von Bonin and Althoff’s collaborations would become more formally elaborate, as when they built a labyrinth of wooden gangways for the 1996 show “Heetz, Nowak, Rehberger” at Museum Abteiberg, Mönchengladbach, Germany. (At the opening, von Bonin walked along the gangways in a long dark dress, like a figure out of a gothic novel.) But the basic combination of installation and performance would remain, as would, most significantly, the latter’s inducing of a neo-Brechtian uneasiness in viewers.

Von Bonin has since continued to create room-size arrangements of objects that function as sets for staged events, which she captures on film. This process might be considered similar to that of, say, Matthew Barney or John Bock. Unlike these artists, however, von Bonin is never the main character in the finished work. If she appears at all, it is as one of many performers; she tends to cede center stage to her collaborators even when it comes to visual iconography, as she did recently when working with musician Dirk von Lowtzow, singer for the well-known German band Tocotronic and member, with Thies Mynther, of the duo Phantom/Ghost. In fact, von Bonin has said that inspiration for some of her recurrent iconography (dogs, dandies, and octopuses) has emerged from her freewheeling discussions with von Lowtzow. And the artist, in turn, created the cover imagery for Phantom/Ghost’s 2006 album Three and designed von Lowtzow’s compilation of lyrics, Dekade 1993–2007, which features illustrations contributed by Krebber, Sergej Jensen, and Henrik Olesen. One could say that the apotheosis of von Bonin’s occlusion of herself in these collaborations with von Lowtzow was the 2004 video 2 Positionen auf einmal (2 Positions at Once), which has two distinct parts, Kapitulation and Hundeschule (Obedience School), both filmed in the giant installation, Kapitulation, at the heart of the artist’s exhibition that year at the Cologne Kunstverein. In the video, Phantom/Ghost are seen performing music written for the occasion, serenely impervious to the strange ambience von Bonin creates with the aid of a pair of bulldogs (her own), a host of actors (friends of hers, some in dog masks), and a giant gray tweed sailboat helmed by a gray tweed Jar Jar Binks.

Yet there are other signs of a problematized creative subject here as well, particularly as one takes the figuring, and even materiality, of von Bonin’s “stage” into account. However confounding, that enormous tweed sailboat, with its unlikely captain, is easy to assimilate in view of the increasing significance of textiles for von Bonin’s practice. Most notably, she has been making textile pictures since the mid-’90s, combining swaths of various fabrics (banal plaids, a scarf with a purple eagle on it, yards and yards of an Aubrey Beardsley print), embroidered or cut-out figures (dogs, human faces), fragments of text (e.g., I’D RATHER NOT, OR NEXT WEEK WE’VE GOT TO GET ORGANIZED), and the occasional bit of ephemera (a Mandarin Hotel dry-cleaning slip, say). Most significant among them might be a 2006 series of half a dozen textile pictures, all sharing the title Rorschachtest, which takes the form of symmetrical white fabric “blots” sewn onto kikoys, multicolored squares of fabric that Kenyans traditionally wear like sarongs. Von Bonin, who was born in Mombasa in 1962, here seems to be making an autobiographical allusion, but it is no nostalgic glance back to an innocent childhood. The manufacturers’ labels have been left intact and visible: They simply say KIKOY. This entire sartorial tradition, apparently, has been trademarked. There is no quarter for nostalgia here. The garments have been industrialized and subjected to branding techniques, appearing to deliberately cross the signals between “lifestyle” and inner life, or subjectivity. And these may be productively compared to the artist’s stuffed-animal sculptures, which are often presented on low pedestals fashioned to look like the kind of card- board box in which one might take home the latest Hermès or Yves Saint Laurent, even as the creatures’ innocent, toylike appearance conjures associations with childhood. In fact, the animal sculptures have a surreal quality that recalls one of childhood’s defining aspects: the porous borders between rational thought and subconscious wishes and dreams.

If von Bonin persistently casts light on the “seams” in her practice—on the places where subjectivity meshes with the social world and where a desire for autonomy battles a longing for commonality—the textile works are where these seams are arguably most visible. The fabric pictures look like paintings, and in many ways they act like paintings, meaning that they can be transported and displayed and sold like paintings. But they’re made of fabric—often cheap, generic-looking fabric—and von Bonin has referred to them as “rags.” As such they both recapitulate and poke fun at the myth, ineluctably embedded in any painting, of the artist as heroic individual. And this parodic yet sympathetic dimension is only underscored as the works are filled with allusion, reference, gestures to people and things outside her immediate practice, including Bas Jan Ader, Marcel Broodthaers, and Poul Gernes. In this sense they crystallize something that is true of all of her “solo” projects: Even the art that she makes without benefit of collaborators always belongs to a family of sorts, thanks to von Bonin’s extensive range of biographical and art-historical invocations, and displays a desire to confirm shared knowledge and preferences among this extended family. In 2000, for example, she made a group of brightly colored if somewhat ragtag patchwork flags, their concentric circles echoing Gernes’s target paintings; and she dedicated an exhibition, “Bruder Poul sticht in See” (Brother Poul Goes to Sea), at the Kunstverein in Hamburg in 2001, to the artist, well before he was rediscovered by much of the art world at the last Documenta.

But perhaps it’s more relevant at this moment to consider how such references operate in Relax, It’s Only a Ghost, 2006—an installation first presented at New York’s Friedrich Petzel Gallery in 2006 and then reprised at Documenta, and which is thus emblematic of von Bonin’s own introduction to a larger scene. Significantly, the work includes three white metallic architectural sculptures that shamelessly exploit the auratic Minimalist vocabulary of Sol LeWitt. At the same time, they can be entered, climbed, used as stages or viewing platforms: Their function is to quite literally bring the theatricality of which Michael Fried has accused Minimal art undeniably into the picture. Beyond LeWitt and Fried, a relationship that is closer at hand comes into play, in the form of the artist’s statement that accompanied the exhibition’s original incarnation at Petzel. Von Bonin turned the responsibility of composing this assertion of intent and meaning over to von Lowtzow, whose text begins with the announcement: “After a one-year sabbatical, Cosima von Bonin returns; the thing is, she is only a ghost.” Statements like this, perhaps, bespeak von Bonin’s reservations about her very presence in the globalized art world, as might the sabbatical von Lowtzow mentions—an allusion to her periods of “hibernation,” or regular retreats from making and showing art. Certainly, the figure of the ghost, that classic representation of liminality, fits von Bonin’s peculiar staging of absence and presence and of ambivalence toward any setting in which she appears—not to mention the roles an artist must typically play in order to be recognized, or “seen.” It is she herself, in other words, who haunts the blank white platforms of her recent sculptures, the specter on the watchtower. Von Lowtzow, in his text, notes that the artist is

now in the wonderful realm beyond capitulation, beyond the fear of failing. . . . Here there exists no triumph. Here everything is just spooked. The dimensions of paintings, arrangements, installations—the excessive impetus by which all of this is set in motion, the fuel which drives the engine, the unrestrained power that urges the things along—it is never ever an expression of the ‘great gesture,’ of the will, of the intention. All this always emerges at the threshold of just doing nothing, at the threshold of deception. . . . So the mise-en-scène of Cosima von Bonin’s exhibitions resembles the ghostly conspiracies of the materials she uses.

At this threshold stage of her career, von Bonin performs herself at the threshold of deception, perception, and reception. She does not embody herself through her materials—quite the opposite. She disembodies her materials, subsuming them again within the ectoplasmic stuff of the “ghostly conspiracy”—the shifting collusions of ideas, conversations, relationships—that forms her practice.

In this vein, von Bonin’s penchant for involving other cultural producers in her work has often been regarded as a technique of appropriation, but that is probably not the most useful way of framing it. For one thing, with von Bonin the exchange is reciprocal—a mutual inscription in the production matrix, a way of speaking together, if not in unison, that infiltrates even those portions of the artist’s oeuvre that don’t overtly involve “interlacing.” And here it is tempting to perceive, within this ghostly conspiracy, not an artistic mode of appropriation, but rather a mode of existence analogous to Italian post-Operaist Paolo Virno’s elaborated conception of the multitude. Like Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Virno defines the multitude as a group of individuals who constitute a collectivity without homogeneity. But whereas Hardt and Negri’s vision of the multitude is essentially a rosy one—the multitude, for them, is precisely what may undermine Empire—Virno’s is not. For him, the multitude is a radically ambivalent concept, containing within itself the potential for “loss and salvation, acquiescence and conflict, servility and freedom.” The important point here is not the relative pessimism of Virno’s thinking. The point is contingency, or what Virno has termed the multitude’s “proximity to the possible.” Von Bonin’s work, tracing the contingent circulation of ideas, imagery, and affect, of discourse high and low, of dissension and affinity, within the collectivity of individuals in which she is enmeshed, also maintains, via its very ambivalence, a proximity to the possible. Language, people, and positions are transformed into a material, which, first and foremost, entails possibility; that is, they are transformed into material that makes reference to much more than what is immediately apparent. This might be why von Bonin has seemed to many to be a potential artist, and why it seems likely she will seek to remain so. She is not an artist who will ever have a clear-cut, finite set of concerns. If the attention her recent work has garnered results in a popular conception of her stuffed animals and textile pictures as emblems of her “brand,” she will surely simply fold this new development in her reception back into the work, transforming it, somehow, into a material.

Yilmaz Dziewior is a critic, curator, and director of the Kunstverein in Hamburg.