New York

Cosima von Bonin

Andrea Rosen Gallery

As gestures of appropriation generally strike a rather flat note these days, one might well wonder what is at stake in Cosima von Bonin’s first U.S. exhibition—an odd assortment of nondescript objects, paintings, photographs, drawings, posters, and letters. None of these items was made by the artist; they were produced especially for this show, by friends within the Cologne art world, including Heimo Zobernig, Diedrich Diederichsen, Michael Krebber, and Martin Kippenberger.

A short film by the artist, entitled The Merry Pilgrimage, 1991, suggests that despite the exhibition’s deceptive veneer, it does more than rehash stale questions of authorship. An adaptation of the last 14 minutes of another film by the same name in the style of Bavarian peasant theater, von Bonin’s video is simple enough; in a kitschy, Capraesque way, the narrative unfolds as a village priest and pilgrims return home. In between squabbling with his maid, dispensing fatherly Christian advice, and arbitrating disputes amongst a motley crew of parishioners, the priest maneuvers events to prove the moral of the tale: what you don’t have, you dutifully go to pray for—and sure enough, rewards will come your way. The players in this spoof of the petite bourgeoisie are also players in the German art world: the gallerist Christian Nagel, has the leading role as the priest; Christian Phillip Müller deserves kudos for his performance as Klara, the fussy maid; and various other male and female parts are assigned to male artists, with the sole exception of the farmer’s wife, played by Karin Barth. Barth happens to be Nagel’s “real-life” assistant. Clearly, von Bonin’s film is a parable, though not a direct one. It is less important, for example, to think of Nagel as a priest among his stable of artists, or the actors (and filmmaker) as the sheep of his fold, than it is to catch the fact that the only woman who appears in the film is cast in a very minor role. The wife, the assistant, the girlfriend—these are, nominatively speaking, the most accessible roles for women within the art world; but then, as the film points out, the mores of conservative village life differ very little from those of the international “avant-garde.”

Turning again to the pictures on exhibition, we can view von Bonin’s curatorial activity as anecdotal with respect to the film’s parable of her personal experience and struggle for recognition in an unquestionably male-dominated art world. The only pieces by women included in this rogue’s gallery are two drawings of male heads, by Ingeborg Gabriel, and a series of photographs by Jutta Koether, Isabelle Graw, and von Bonin, taken at the symposium in Boston entitled “Rosemarie Trockel: Feminism and German Art.” Gabriel, although an artist and an esteemed member of the Cologne art world for many years, has never shown her work before. Without intending any discredit to her, Trockel ranks as Cologne’s token famous female artist. But what, we must ask, of von Bonin, who falls between two extremes of experience? One wonders if she will continue disguising her critique in the form of gossipy humor—if, in other words, she has settled into an appropriational mode in protest of the difficulties that muffle women’s voices; or if she will realize that by virtue of her gallery representation and, obviously, the great deal of support she receives, she now has a voice and presumably can say and do whatever she pleases. It’s a predicament facing many women who have built their careers and made their political points about gender discrimination via the strategy of appropriation: once they seize power, do they continue to mimic the language of the oppressor or do they find a language all their own? Von Bonin, it seems, is still wrestling with this dilemma.

Jan Avgikos