The Problematized Fun of Cosima von Bonin


Cosima von Bonin is an artist who won’t let go. Her new exhibition at Vienna’s MUMOK is an explosion of stuffed animals and chicks riding missiles, chipboard sculptures and unwatchable videos, techno headsets and copulating scooters. Bridging the soft sculptures of Claes Oldenburg with the pop culture savoir faire of Jeff Koons, adding a pinch of the punkish Isa Genzken, von Bonin’s work doesn’t so much “lose the plot” as throw it into the air, with narratives, characters, and set décor, detached cartoon hands and felt blankies, swirling ’round the museum in a cyclone of fun and anti-fun.

A word or two on the title. “Hippies” is a weird English word that persists in the German-speaking world – like “cowboy” or “hallo!”, it signifies die Amerikaner but without being too specific. The phrase “hippies use side door” apparently hangs over von Bonin’s studio in Köln; it connotes, as exhibition title, a soft form of appropriation. Just as hippies were middle class Americans and Europeans who dressed down to signify their disdain for post-war accumulation, so artists today will grab out-of-date vernaculars to denote their own cynical distance from the corporate, art-fair artworld of biennials and globe-trotting curators. “Hippies use side door” carries that frisson of danger and prejudice found in “white only” signs from 1950s America, but without laying anything at stake. On posters plastered around Vienna, on jute bags and other swag, the phrase is one of the exhibition’s only missteps.

Von Bonin’s show is quite huge – it sprawls over four floors of Vienna’s Museum Moderner Kunst (MUMOK), itself a grey-black basalt cube that squares off against the neo-baroque architecture of the city’s Museum Quartier with all the brawny panache of a heavy-metal fan at a Mozart concert. Immediately across from the entrance hall is von Bonin’s mash-up, where she situates her own career (going back to early balloons she made with Josef Strau, one of her peers and heroes. And so we have a grimy Martin Kippenberger armoire that wouldn’t be out of place in a smoke-filled Ikea showroom, Wittgenstein (Aus der serie der Peter-Skulpturen), 1997, and one of the best-known Mike Kelley pieces, Lumpenprole, 1991, in which a large rug covers various stuffed animals. They are lumps and the fabric art is lumpenproletariat. A Cady Nolan sheet of spray-painted cardboard, (Not Yet Titled), 1996, locates von Bonin’s origins at the height of slacker, ‘90s art: little effort, no politics, low-brow material, but absolute rigor. Presiding over the space, however, are two works that very clearly set von Bonin’s ambition, if not domination. On the wall above the entrance is the phrase “Alles Hippies,” and a list of names that includes curators, artists, critics, and collectors, right down to security guards and cleaners: the hippie (or artist’s) fantasy of democracy. And sitting on three low platforms facing the entrance hall are very big – five feet high – stuffed animals: two dogs and a mule. Like the lions at the New York Public Library, but, then again, not. They’re like monumental lions because they make you pause, they are part of the architecture (even if the architecture is just the contingent and precarious design of an art museum’s interior), they mark a transition. You are now in the art gallery.

Stuffed animals of every description and size are everywhere in von Bonin’s show, and it’s worth considering their function. The first time I visited the exhibition was on a sunny Sunday, and when I walked in there were kids crying and pulling at their parents’ arms everywhere. Of course the kids wanted to be outside, and if they had to be in there with all the art they wanted to grab or sit on or drag the stuffed mushrooms and animals. (In a smart move, there is a box of puppets at the entrance, for the kids, so they can touch something.) So there’s that: stuffed animals as art, on the one hand, offers to break down hierarchies of material and size and quality. They aren’t as big as Michaelangelo’s David, they aren’t as jagged or heroic or as hard as an Alexander Calder or Richard Serra. (They won’t hurt you if they fall over onto you.) But then the stuffed animals are still art, are still things which (mostly) you’re not allowed to touch, which seems even more perverse when they offer such a tactility. And that’s the point, of course: a don’t-touch stuffed animal suggests we think about how such toys function in everyday society. Not just as toys for children, or signifiers of play, but as repositories of (lost) innocence, of memories.

Von Bonin has a terrific range of stuffed animals in her show, from ones she made, in such non-child-like fabric as mohair or tweed (The Bonin/Oswald Empire’s Nothing #01 and The Bonin/Oswald Empire’s Nothing #06, both 2010) to a few dozen store-bought ones that are strung on a clothesline (Marathon #1, 2007), to a series of birds or “chicks” that she props up on missiles, including Missy Misdemeanour (The Vomiting White Chick, Riley [Loop#5]), 2010. To consider von Bonin’s soft sculptures in the lineage of Claes Oldenburg and Jeff Koons may suggest what is different, and important, about stuffed animals in twenty-first-century art. Like Oldenburg, she is working with the everyday, with pop culture, and like Koons, she is investigating fun. But Koons wants to do the tired postmodern trick of bringing fun into the museum: let’s have fun, let’s look at vacuum cleaners and porn. It’s what Lacan calls the signal ideology of today: the demand to enjoy. Von Bonin, however, isn’t so sure. She wants to problematize fun.

As a counterpoint to the stuffed animals, consider the various scooters (the folding variety) tangled together in different rooms of the exhibition. Two or three will be leaning against each other. A cluster will be locked together, with a bicycle. Von Bonin is very specific in these works, sometimes even noting the brand of the scooter. They all seem to be used, as if she bought them at a flea market. (And I suspect that these are somehow specific to the Vienna location of the exhibition: in this former capital of the Habsburg empire, there are, bizarrely, adults everywhere on scooters, like it’s still 2005.) In one room, there are white replicas – made out of cardboard and paper. Compared to stuffed animals, scooters are hard and rectangular, but they are also infantile. Scooters are the self-propelled vehicles of gentrification: hop onto one and you can glide through the city center, cleared of hobos and even, in pedestrian malls, cleared of cars. Like the stuffed animals, scooters are fun. But, again, relegated to an art exhibit, these objects make fun into a problem.

Another motif that floats throughout CVB’s work is the cartoon hand, the hand-in-glove familiar to us from classic Disney cartoons: Mickey’s three-fingered glove. On the one hand (!), these hands are, again, a repository of our childhood memories, of a perhaps-traumatic everyday pop culture (why only three fingers? Apparently because that was easier to render. But think of a child’s chilling realization that her favorite character was missing a finger or two.) As with Lisa Simpson’s pearl necklace (which Vancouver painter Mina Totino years ago elevated to the status of Vermeer’s necklace), the gloved hands show how contemporary art bears the imprint of mass culture’s signifiers. We remember cartoons, not Greek myths or Goethe’s drama. But surely these signifiers, these hands, also bespeak the dialectic of handmade and readymade. That is, they both point to the hand as the artist’s working tool and how that tool itself is just another sign. Anything we can make by hand can be manufactured, and vice-versa. This is hipster DIY culture in the age of the readymade – or conceptual out-sourcing in the age of Etsy cute-craft.

There is much more to talk about in von Bonin’s work – music is everywhere, from videos to floating speakers that let you listen to tracks, all by way of documenting, perhaps, her emergence in the music and performance scene of Köln in the ‘80s and ‘90s, discussed in an illuminating way by Gregory Williams last year in Art Journal. But I want to close with von Bonin’s large-scale fabric works, wool, cotton, and fleece surfaces on which she arranges Daffy Duck and other characters in white silhouettes, more cartoon hands, panels of textiles, phrases stitched with drooping threads, and clashes of patterned cloth. The effect may be minimal (4 Local Talents Hiding from the Thicket, 2002) and it may be complex (When Ardour is Replaced by Ennui, 2006), and the take-away is paradoxical. Mounted on sturdy pine frames that are themselves zap-strapped to supports on the floor (one could write a dissertation on von Bonin’s plethora of plinths, boxes, Styrofoam packing cases, and other ways she displays her sculptures), with titles that are witty, dismissive, and disingenuous, the textile works do not belong in the history of painting – as Williams argues – but instead open the canon of art, its materials, and its imagery, into the social field.

In an essay published in the exhibition catalogue, German critic Diedrich Diederichsen argues that von Bonin’s work has progressively moved away from trying to bring her social milieu into the artworld, navigating “between the impossibility of using art to make the world softer and the aesthetic and ethical task of being inclusive without worrying about wholeness.” Rather, Hippies Use Side Door might be showing us something a bit different: the world is already soft, is already whole, and that is the problem.


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