Cosima von Bonin, DER ITALIENER (THE ITALIAN), 2014, Styrofoam, fiberglass, laminate, galvanized steel, lacquer. Installation view.

Cosima von Bonin, DER ITALIENER (THE ITALIAN), 2014, Styrofoam, fiberglass, laminate, galvanized steel, lacquer. Installation view.

Cosima von Bonin

Cosima von Bonin, DER ITALIENER (THE ITALIAN), 2014, Styrofoam, fiberglass, laminate, galvanized steel, lacquer. Installation view.

Was there a critical entry point into Cosima von Bonin’s reference-laden retrospective, or have we reached a historical condition in which the “handmade readymade”—a couture item especially manufactured for the museological context that also refers to the stream of mass-produced commodities—is all we have at our disposal? The exhibition’s title, “Hippies Use the Side Door. The Year 2014 Has Lost the Plot,” offered a heavy-handed hint. Since, for a time, only the side doors to the museum were open, anyone who accessed the building during this period was automatically branded a hippie—presumably implying that today’s first-world neoliberal bohemian assumes the stylized posture of a commoditized counterculture that exists only as a canned narrative or a lifestyle choice.

The exhibition itself was a remarkable Crystal Palace of gimmicks and diversions accompanied by occasional tinges of melancholy. All four floors of the museum were filled to the gills with von Bonin’s output from the early 1990s to the present, a vast repertoire of two-dimensional works (“paintings” and “fabric-based pictures”) as well as small objects, plush toys, short films, videos, photo-based pieces, sound equipment, and cardboard replicas of previous works (“dummies”). Most prominent in this compendium was von Bonin’s use of premium materials for the fabrication of doleful characters, imperfect merchandise, and impossible situations—for instance, a lethargic hermit crab splayed on a beach chair, an Yves Saint Laurent shopping bag displayed on a gingham tablecloth, and Formula 1 tires crowded on a tiny balcony.

These defeated props, impotent fetish objects, and resplendent signifiers of infantile regression populated intersecting installations frequently accompanied by a sound track of rather generic techno music. For the mass-produced hippie, contemporary life is organized around a logic of accumulation; yet no matter how large or prestigious the trove one amasses, objects and experiences ultimately only frustrate.

And then there are those other hippies, the ones whose work was exhibited on the ground floor alongside von Bonin’s: the friends, colleagues, and collaborators who contributed to the mythic hedonism of the Cologne art scene of the 1980s and ’90s. She pays tribute to this diverse group in Alles Hippies, 2014, a wall text hailing practitioners such as Martin Kippenberger, Isa Genzken, and Josef Strau; others are acknowledged for their aesthetic filiation (Mike Kelley and André Cadere) or belong to von Bonin’s personal collection (Christophe Verfaille, Okka-Esther Hungerbühler). This social index, an undifferentiated stockpile of artistic aura augmenting von Bonin’s status in a reputational economy based on stylish forms of individuation, makes visible a historical condition in which the social has not only been evacuated of political radicality but also reproduces itself as empty forms of pleasurable capitulation. Approached generously, von Bonin’s high-production rendering of afterparties, hangovers, and other signifiers of excess—the sculpture DER ITALIENER (The Italian), 2014, features a figure teetering on a specially constructed external balcony, seemingly about to throw up onto passersby below; Therapy, 2002, an installation of corduroy mushrooms, points to accessible forms of self-medication; a plush, vomit-splattered chicken sits helplessly on a school bench in The Bonin/Oswald Empire’s Nothing #01 (CVB’s Vomiting Chick & MVO’s Vomit!), 2010—could be seen as the perfect performance of a collective process of waking up to an unbearable reality in which the critical aspirations for an aesthetic and political radicalism remain only a vague memory of the night before. Alternatively, the extreme spectacularization of emptiness raises the question of what happens to those radicals—Kelley for example—who are unable to withstand life within the conditions and demands of today’s global capitalism.

While von Bonin’s playfulness may at times appear as a strategy of evasion, this exhibition pointed to one of the dominant forms of contemporary aesthetic enunciation, namely the siting of objects as coordinates around which patterns of associations, emotions, and ideas cluster and disintegrate. Steering those searching for transparent content to a more diffuse hermeneutics, this strategy also begs us to debate how a repertoire of standardized forms can be recomposed in such a way that does not simply expand the forms’ standardized forces, but also recomposes their contents.

Nuit Banai