Cosima von Bonin

Köln Show 2

Although for many of her generation Cosima von Bonin is a central figure in the Cologne art scene, some have been struck more by her persona and by her artistic approach than by the work itself. This is perhaps in part because (like the late Martin Kippenberger) von Bonin has often integrated objects made by friends into her own projects. She has also been involved in collaborative performances and installations, especially with artist Kai Althoff. Von Bonin’s recent exhibition “Löwe im Bonsaiwald” (Lion in the bonzai forest), the first in several years to contain only her own work, thus marked an important step in her career.

Von Bonin had attached innumerable blades of dried wheat grass to thin pieces of wood placed on the gallery floor, so one immediately detected the scent of straw upon entering the space. Narrow paths defined by strips of tape also wound through the room, which seemed to have metamorphosed into a field of wheat. In the front of the space, the artist installed a partition improvised out of monochrome painted screens and bound bamboo poles, and placed a rocking chair—also made of bamboo—behind it.

Each of von Bonin’s installations is an orchestral whole comprising many individual elements, such as the crate planted with mushrooms and moss that appeared here, or the wooden clogs placed in a corner of the ersatz veranda. The titles (the bamboo piece, for example, was called Blue to Violet Hues with a Tinge of Red, 1997), alluded to the colors of individual elements in the installation, suggesting one possible point of focus. In addition to formal concerns, however, the exhibition offered a wealth of references. A tape recorder, for example, played the messages that were left on von Bonin’s answering machine by the woman who sold her the rocking chair; the saleswoman’s Rhineland dialect added a vernacular element that was in keeping with the installation’s rural ambiance—the piece alluded, after all, to the rumor that Germans planted wheat in their apartments in the aftermath of World War II. The dried grasses also brought to mind expressions like “bringing in the harvest,” which, in the gallery context, might suggest a metaphor for the successful production and marketing of art. A pair of toy stuffed ravens, posted like sentinels to the right and left of the door, were also reminiscent of certain pieces by Mike Kelley.

This exhibition’s strength was that it offered a number of different points of departure. Because it could have served as a setting for any number of unspecified events, it also functioned as a screen for the projections of the viewer, reflecting the artist’s involvement with performance and film. The historical and autobiographical allusions seem to counter the common complaint that von Bonin’s work is too hermetic. Beyond its sensual quality and sly humor, her art’s greatest strength is the charged relationship it effects between subjective gestures and an array of subtle references.

Yilmaz Dziewior

Translated from the German by Diana Reese.