Monica Bonvicini

Entering Monica Bonvicini’s exhibition “Both Ends,” one became caught in a face-off between two works that confronted each other across the kunsthalle’s atrium. In the rotunda on one side was the seven-paneled arc of These Days Only a Few Men Know What Work Really Means, 1999, a digital collage depicting a construction worker–themed gay porn fantasy. Four floating green circles “censor” the image, two of which enclose the likenesses of Peter Eisenman and Michael Graves in miniature, as if the architects were imprisoned by their own auras. The lurid content of These Days edged into the gratuitous under the flickering illumination provided by Built for Crime, 2006, in the exhibition room opposite. In this work, flashing lightbulbs spelling out BUILTFORCRIME are set in safety glass that is cracked in places, as if the work has been shot at. The piece was slotted into the exhibition space so the phrase seemed to slither along the gallery’s wall. Bonvicini, as curator of her own work, hereby alerted the viewer immediately to her abiding concern: the ways in which a gendered power dynamic underlies our built environment. Whether in the form of large-scale installations, sculptures, videos, images, or texts, her works question—brazenly and with a touch of black humor—the phallocentric cultures of modern architecture and construction.

Fascinating written surveys completed by construction workers in Europe, the United States, and Asia spanned two walls of the next room, under the title What Does Your Wife/Girlfriend Think of Your Rough and Dry Hands?, 1999–. In addition to the title’s query, questions include, Is construction work masculine? and, Do you think there is anything erotic about building materials or in the process of construction? Nearby, enlarged color snapshots from the series “Nude in the Workshop,” 2009, showed the unabashed display of nude pinups in the workplaces and break rooms of manual laborers around the world. As a rejoinder to the startling ubiquity of these buxom idols, Bonvicini sarcastically deflates workers’ pretensions to heroism with the sculpture Chainsaw in the Stone, 2009, a Stihl chain saw that has been driven through one of her photographs to become embedded in a wooden box. Contemplating this work, one was startled to attention by the movement of a nearby piece, Identify Protection, 2006—six safety harnesses coated in shiny black latex and suspended in a carousel-like ring at the room’s center. Occasionally, the ensemble was made to tremble by means of a motor.

Bonvicini tests the material and textual languages of architecture and construction against the desires that accrue to them in a search for a kind of material unconscious. Wood and glass panels, electric and wire cables, fluorescent lights and floodlights, steel tubes and chains carry suggestions of erotic power. So it is not with naïveté or insensitivity that she poses her questions to construction workers. Rather, the point is to feed a set of collective fantasies about heavy construction back to the real agents of the industry. She invokes architectural theorists and critics through the use of appropriated texts, as in her newest work, We Finally Built Walls, 2010, a gridded wood-and-glass construction bearing evocative but uncredited phrases lifted from architectural writings, as well as from gender theory, novels, and poetry. The texts’ cumulative outpouring of affect (not to mention the artist’s consistent ambition to make her work ever larger and heavier) should remind us, despite so many readings of Bonvicini’s oeuvre as aggressively critical of architectural machismo, that critique is, in part, a labor of identification.

Natilee Harren