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Architecture, Eros, and Abstraction:
Monica Bonvicini’s Art Fetishes

Monica Bonvicini, an Italian artist living in Berlin, just won the well-endowed “National Gallery Prize for Young Art” with an installation that demonstratively positioned the devices of S&M culture in the museum. Harald Fricke met the artist in her Berlin studio for a talk.

Monica Bonvicini and her Installation "Never Again", 2005
Photo: Hans Georg Gaul

Chains, everywhere are chains. They’re hanging from the ceiling, snaking along the floor, piled up in a corner of the studio. A few individual chain links are scattered atop an overhead projector; on the wall hangs a sheet of paper with a black chain pattern on it. Even the desk is covered in small studs, which Monica Bonvicini’s Vietnamese assistant is carefully weaving into delicate geometrical patterns. Hardly larger than one’s palm, the designs recall garments that Paco Rabanne could have created in the sixties: like a cross between chain shirt chic and sequin glamour.

Monica Bonvicini, Never Again, 2005
Photo: Roman März

At some point, Monica Bonvicini picks up one of the robust industrial chains and plays with it. It makes a high-pitched clinking sound, like coins jangling in a pants pocket. “I’m always surprised by the sound,” the Berlin-based artist says as she continues to rattle the shiny silver chain, “it varies depending on the size. Sometimes it sounds dull and heavy to me, as though I were knocking on a hollow wall.” She picks up a particularly massive chain and lets it drop to the floor. It makes a raw, clashing sound, as dissonant as the noise of a construction site. Which is also something Bonvicini has experience with. Throughout the nineties, almost all of her works addressed architecture, particularly male architectural fantasies of total power. “That began early on, with a photograph of Mies van der Rohe that shows him straddling a chair,” Bonvicini explains. “The photograph’s caption was: ‘I always need a wall behind me.’” Walls – that soon became clear to the sculptor, who was born in 1965 in Venice – are an expression of power. They protect against intruders, can form fortresses, but they also serve as intimidating signs, particularly in modernist architecture. Skyscrapers of glass and steel, marveled at because of their monumentality – while the powerful withdraw to their interiors to escape from view.

Monica Bonvicini, Never Again, 2005
Photo: Roman März

To counter this, Bonvicini posited a feminist activism. In 1995, she made the film Wallfucking , which showed a naked actress rubbing her sex along a wall’s edge. Architecture had rarely been sexualized to such a degree, unmasked as a phallic object. The work quickly earned Bonvicini international renown, and in 1997, she showed the video Housewife Swinging at the first Berlin Biennale, this time with the naked woman’s head covered in a small model home which she monotonously banged against the wall. This surreal act visualized to what an extent home sweet home can turn into a prison. Since then, Bonvicini has gone on to repeatedly attack the male-dominated order in her exhibitions: in 2002, she made the installation Stonewall 3, a cell-like corridor of glass sheets and steel bars with the sentence “Architecture is the ultimate erotic act, carry it to excess” sprayed behind it, like graffiti on the wall. The sentence stems from the theoretician Bernard Tschumi and was originally part of an ad for modern building in 1976. In Bonvicini’s work, it became a swan song to the modernist utopias – a chamber of horrors fashioned in tandem with Michel Foucault’s diagnosis of the control society. Destruction, vandalism, and again and again the ballad of sex and violence in architecture. Bonvicini is following the logic of the Constructivists when she says in conversation, “You have to destroy in order to let something new arise.” The corresponding tool was supplied in an object that now belongs to the Deutsche Bank Collection: Lady Hammer was the name of her contribution to the artists’ edition Sing + Boxen, which the Vayhinger Gallery issued in 2000: a delicate hammer that fits into every handbag, subversively making the male-coded tool into an instrument of feminist deconstructivist strategies.

Monica Bonvicini, Stonewall 3, 2002,
Installation view at Kunsthalle Zürich (c)VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2005

Since then, it’s mainly the zinc-galvanized steel chains that have become a kind of trademark of Bonvicini’s work. At Hamburger Bahnhof, a few minutes’ walk from her studio, they formed part of the room-sized installation Never Again, in which Bonvicini attached a dozen black leather slings to a scaffolding of the type ordinarily used for renovation work. Visitors were not only allowed to walk through the ensemble, which was laid out in a strict square; whoever wanted to was free to lie down on one of the hammocks.

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