Known for making bold sculptures that examine the relationship between architecture, gender, and power, we visit the Berlin-based artist in her Wedding studio.
“There are some guys who are totally afraid of me even though I am a very nice person,” says Monica Bonvicini with a laugh. “They think I hate men, but I actually don’t hate men at all!”
That these kinds of rumors still swirl around the Italian-born, Berlin based artist—who has been exhibiting internationally for over 20 years—is a reflection of the double standards that continue to exist for male and female artists in 2019. “Very often my works are described as aggressive, and it does, of course, have something to do with their size and materiality, but it also has something to do with the fact that I am a woman artist,” explains Bonvicini, whose sculptures frequently utilize industrial, traditionally “masculine” materials such as leather, chains, scaffolding, and iron pipes.
“I like to think that feminist angriness can be an absolutely positive and constructive power.”
To reduce Bonvicini’s work to an expression of aggression or anger, though, is to miss its inherent humor. On the spiky arms of a metal bottle rack in her studio, for instance, hangs a cohort of flaccid glass penises. Based on Bottle Rack, an early “readymade” sculpture by Duchamp, Fleurs du Mal (droop) is one of a handful of works that Bonvicini has made as a cheeky rejoinder to the phallic-centric nature of the original. “With Duchamp, it was about penetrating wet bottles—and we all know what they stand for,” she says, “but I like the idea of doing the opposite.”
Art history is frequent touchstone for Bonvicini. Works like Chainsaw chromed and Stairway to Hell take on the sleek, mass produced look of minimal art but add a slice of danger and sex to the proceedings. In the latter work, created for the 8th International Istanbul Biennale, for instance, viewers were invited to climb a steel staircase made from a shimmering beaded curtain and panels of broken safety glass. Appearances, Bonvicini seems to suggest, can be deceiving.
Born in Venice in 1965, Bonvicini grew up “very much with the feeling that there was an injustice” in the way that women were treated. Still a child when the Italian feminist movement was formed, she distinctly recalls a group of women who protested a Lucio Battisti concert in her home city to point out what they perceived to be sexist nature of the Italian crooner’s lyrics. “I remember that being a part where I was like: wow, I hadn’t thought about that before,” she says.
At the academy Bonvicini found that it wasn’t just the faculty that were resistant to topics that affected women but also the students themselves. “I remember talking about some of these issues with students who were totally on the defensive and were telling me, ‘Oh no, when I grew up I didn’t have any problems with my family’—like you needed to have a bad father or a bad experience in order to be a feminist,” she says. “I’m glad that at least that’s changed.”
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While she may bristle at suggestions that her work is aggressive, Bonvicini does recognize that historically anger has been a vital tool in both the feminist and the civil rights movement. An avid reader—during my visit she name-checks Anne Sexton, Julia Kristeva, and Anaïs Nin—Bonvicini is currently working on a series of drawings based on quotations of female writers and personalities about this very topic. She has made multiple spray paint drawings, for instance, based on the line “I cannot hide my anger to spare you guilt” from the essay collection Sister Outsider by Audre Lorde. “I like to think that feminist angriness can be an absolutely positive and constructive power,” she explains. “Unlike other types of anger it has a historical foundation; it has a goal.”
Something else that Bonvicini evidently spends a lot of time thinking about is climate change. Large sections of her studio’s walls are taken up with large-scale framed drawings of natural disasters, which was a project she started after being invited to contribute to the New Orleans Biennale in 2008 as the city was still in the midst of recovering from the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. One of the drawings that Bonvicini kept from the show shows a family house that was destroyed by the hurricane. The hurricane came at the same time as the financial crisis: if you had a house,” Bonvicini clicks her fingers, “it was gone, or at least the value of it. [It made me realize] that everything—climate change, politics, the economic situation—is all the same thing.” She works mainly from found photographs of catastrophes from the U.S. because “they best represent this turbo-capitalist society that we are living in.”
A more recent project saw Bonvicini create the sculpture She Lies, in 2010, which floats in the Fjord surrounding the Oslo Opera House, designed by Norwegian architecture firm Snøhetta. Made from steel and glass panels, the piece represents an iceberg, which Bonvicini has called “A monument to a state of permanent change.” It was Bonvicini’s first public art project—since then she also created a sculpture that spells out the word “RUN” in 30-foot letters for London’s Olympic Park—and it came with unique challenges beyond the usual bureaucracy that surrounds such projects. The most difficult aspect was that the Fjord added a kinetic element to the sculpture: the piece moves depending on the current. “It’s different and it’s exciting to do something on the water because it’s complicated,” explains Bonvicini. The advantage is that unlike most public art sculptures She Lies offers onlookers a view that changes daily. “If you always have to drive down this big street or go to work at the opera every day, you don’t want to see the same thing, right?”
Monica Bonvicini's work
Monica Bonvicini is an Italian artist who lives and works in Berlin. She is currently holds a position as a professor of sculpture at the University of Fine Arts Berlin. She is represented by Galerie Peter Kilchmann, Zurich; König Galerie, Berlin; Galleria Raffaella Cortese, Milan; and Mitchell-Innes & Nash, New York.