Monica Bonvicini, Furious Knitting #2, 2019, silk-screen print on aluminum, 29 1⁄2 × 39 5⁄8".

Monica Bonvicini, Furious Knitting #2, 2019, silk-screen print on aluminum, 29 1⁄2 × 39 5⁄8".

Monica Bonvicini

A leather belt, broad, black, and with a pronounced buckle, might be just a way to keep trousers up, but contemplated in the right (or wrong) context, the same strip of leather can recall a whip, a restraint, or a lolling canine tongue. Film footage of a man slowly taking off a belt might represent the meditative act of a tired person undressing to sleep. It could also anticipate the release of the anger of a paterfamilias about to issue corporal punishment, or it might be a precursor to a sexual act; in Monica Bonvicini’s cosmos, all these associations are present. It may seem like nasty territory, and familiar in all senses of the word, but Bonvicini never forgets that the masochist also has agency, and she holds open the possibility of play, of the sex club as a liberatory theater. This potential is broadcast by the exuberant title of her recent exhibition, “bind me! torture me!”

Bonvicini’s work has often been reduced to her interest in the s/m scene that flourished during the 1990s in New York, London, and Berlin—cities where it acquired the dimensions of a fully functioning subculture with its own social codes, a consistent system of ethics, and an easily identifiable aesthetic. And like all subcultures, when experienced from within, it shed light on the dominant culture: The rules and norms of s/m threw the perversities of everyday life into sharp relief. Bonvicini’s work is similarly shaped by the conviction that it is not sex clubs that are sadistic, but the world outside them.

In this show, Bonvicini spliced the internal iconography of the s/m world with the history of Conceptual art to produce works such as Les Fleurs du Mal and On the Rack, both 2019 and made up of flaccid dicks of blown glass hung on a Duchampian bottle rack. The artist had clad the walls of the gallery in aggressively hygienic aluminum sheets. Regardless of what had taken place or was going to take place, they could be hosed down afterward. Precisely because of its aseptic quality, the metal sheeting produced a kind of nervous electricity in the room, bringing to mind the distance between the plates of a capacitor across which sparks can fly. Bonvicini is known for collecting quotations from feminist thinkers, which she uses not as commentary on her work (for they do not explain anything) but rather as material stuff. Here, I CANNOT HIDE MY ANGER was inscribed on one wall; Audre Lorde’s phrase hung in the room like the resonance of a bell.

The following room contained cylindrical cages on wheels, lined with vertical strips of LEDs. They were created as part of a set design for Giacomo Puccini’s Turandot planned for Venice’s Teatro La Fenice earlier this year. They delineated, in this subsequent incarnation, the setting for a live one-person presentation of the final lines of the slave Liù, who kills herself in an act of erotic self-abnegation. (The opera’s libretto was the source of the show’s title.) On the wall were framed excerpts from the score, with quotations from academic interpretations of the opera, which, as is usual for the genre, is about sex and death. The quoted passages were characteristically strident: SHE DESERVES HER PUNISHMENT BECAUSE OF HER FATAL DESIRE FOR EROTIC LOVE, read the hand-painted text superimposed on one of the final scenes. But each of Bonvicini’s wheel-mounted cages can be freely wheeled about by its occupant, and might thus also be interpreted as a kind of armor or protective outer shell. One possible interpretation was that we now need space suits in order to explore our own desires.