Cosima von Bonin

Cosima von Bonin's art is dry. And it's not easy to decipher. This is as true as ever of the exhibition organized by the Kunstverein's new director, Yilmaz Dziewior. In itself, being cryptic is no indictment—at least according to Theodor Adorno, who called for modem art to be unintelligible. The idea was to make it harder to co-opt. But is that the case with von Bonin's art? Apparently not. The edition of mushrooms she made for the Kunstverein, in green loden or orange felt stuffed with foam, sold out immediately. In Germany, von Bonin is one of the most best-known artists of her generation, although even initiates find her work elusive. This is due mainly to the fact that. when invited to do an exhibition, this sociable artist is just as likely to show art made by friends, or else to organize lectures, readings, and parties. This show was dedicated to Danish artist Poul Gernes, who died in 1996 and whose twenty-four target paintings in Pop-y colors, 1968-69, form the background to some of von Bonin's own work here: “Bruder Poul sticht in See” (Brother Pod goes to sea) was the title of this homage to an artist whose outsider existence she admires.

Von Bonin's concerns are communication and exchange, and—to sum it up—the boundaries of the art market and a certain awareness of life. This awareness of life—no matter how dry the first impression may be—is not without romantic yearning, but for what? For the past, when traditional values were still decisive? Or rather for the “farce of traditionality,” as Diedrich Diederichsen wrote in the catalogue for a show last year? This exhibition began in the stairwell, with a quote from Robert Browning: “Oh, to be in England/Now that April's there.” Hamburg is a port city, once the most likely place to embark to England from Germany by ocean liner or sailboat. On passing Wuzbian and Hasbian (all works by von Bonin 2001), two huge mushrooms decked in camouflage fabric fashionable this summer—one reached the upper floor of the Kunstverein and faced a wall partitioning its main exhibition space. There we saw an abstract painting made in collaboration with the student Jan Timme—but no, not abstract after all: It is the railing of an ocean liner, on which the silhouettes of a couple are playing while that of a gentleman at the bowsprit is already gazing toward England. A fabric piece, on which von Bonin has stitched the contours of a mushroom and the Cologne cathedral, hung in the her's wake.

Behind the partition, the snow-white, gleaming, seemingly perfect hull of a more than thirty-foot sailboat lay elegantly at an angle. Two jerry-built catapults threatened this proud dummy yacht, but not really: They were loaded with wadding-soft quilts. During the opening, these weapons were fired by two chic sailors commanded by von Bonin herself, likewise in sailing garb. Afterward the costume was kept in a wooden coffer, which served as a changing room during the performance. Fashion conscious yet again: The sailors' T-shirts were from Dolce & Gabbana. On a long table behind the coffer were scattered the green and orange mushrooms, already sold out.

To save modem art from being taken over, Adorno's critical theory demands not only that a work be hard to comprehend, but even that it contradict our desire to see it as art. Some of this ambivalence is attached to von Bonin's performances and installations, but does it really save them from being too easily assimilated, especially by the ever-nostalgic?

Noemi Smolik

Translated from German by Phil Stanway.