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Retrospective Monica Bonvicini: To the cocktail with Mies

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Quite cheeky, one could patronizingly say, if Monica Bonvicini’s intervention on the entrance façade of the Mies van der Rohe building weren’t a heavy, reflecting surface that also towers over the glass hall. “I do you” is written on it in large black letters, so that it becomes clear once again: the sculptress “makes” the place, Berlin’s most important modernist building, she wants it, which is how the title of her outdoor work could also be translated.

Quite self-confident, Bonvicini can probably listen to another comment. When asked by National Gallery Director Klaus Biesenbach whether the mirror surface in front of the entrance really had to measure 14.64 by 14.64 meters, she replied: “You wouldn’t have asked Richard Serra why his sculptures are so big.” Some things have changed still not changed.

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A good thirty years ago, the native Italian set out to crack museum architecture, to question modernity, to stir up these male-dominated domains. Your exhibition in the New National Gallery is both a declaration of war and a declaration of love for the Mies van der Rohe building. If you continue to wander around the glass hall, you will discover the mirrored lettering “Desire” through the window on the back.

So Bonvicini always wanted to be in, despite all the intrigues with van der Rohe. Desire and fighting are closely related. Her love-hate relationship with this architectural incunabula has become one of the most exciting, powerful exhibitions of the Neue Nationalgalerie in recent times – not only because Corona has slowed down operations in the past two years, but also because the most recent projects in the house with performative interventions have been rather selective .

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Bonvicini also rocks the interior of the Mies van der Rohe building. A 36 meter wide mirror surface faces the visitor in the middle of the hall, behind which a walk-on platform is hidden. The cool stringency of modernity is once again undermined: people are reflected in it, the original proportions are lost. Architecture answers architecture here, Mies would turn in his grave. Berlin’s “Miesians”, as curator Joachim Jäger calls his disciples, intervened in vain against Bonvicini’s interventions.

Monica Bonvicini stands in front of a mirror in the special exhibition “I do You” in the New National Gallery.
© dpa, VG Bildkunst Bonn 2022

With the exhibition “I do you”, the New National Gallery honors one of Germany’s most internationally successful sculptors. And of course, at the opening, Biesenbach recalled how he and Monica began their careers together on Auguststrasse in the 1990s. “Children of Berlin” was the title of an exhibition with which they both traveled. It is appropriate that the 57-year-old, at the peak of her career, received a show in the holy of holies in her hometown.

It’s just bitter that she got caught up in the me-too affair about gallery owner Johann König at that very moment. After the artist had left her gallery affiliation at the beginning of November until the allegations against König were clarified, she was sharply criticized in an open letter by the anonymous collective “Soup du Jour” for not having positioned herself more clearly as a feminist.

Who gains power over whom? It’s all about this

König made the decision for her by terminating the collaboration himself – as a supposed protective measure for his artist against further accusations on the Internet: an open threat to other gallery members not to oppose him. A reaction from his other great artist Katharina Grosse was all the more eagerly awaited – and how it will now emerge from this power play. As has now become known, she has now left the gallery – like many other regular artists.

The irony of history: This is exactly what Monica Bonvicini’s art revolves around. Who gains power over whom? Chains, handcuffs, leather belts, bondage paraphernalia are her props. In the National Gallery, twenty pairs of handcuffs hang from the ceiling along three window fronts on long metal chains. If desired, two visitors can be connected for at least thirty minutes, each at one end of the chain, which is an invitation to communicate, to interact with the building – “You to me”, as the title goes.

So far, the means in this power struggle have been martial, Bonvicini ran into walls. Her best-known video from the early days, “Hausfrau Swinging” (1997), which can now be seen in a cloakroom, shows a naked woman with a cardboard gabled house on her head, repeatedly hammering on a white corner of the room.

Richard Serra would not have been asked why his sculptures are so large.

Monica Bonvicini, sculptor

The home as a place of female imprisonment, the male-dominated white cube, all of this plays into this desperate performance that has lost none of its power. The two tons of rubble from the facade of the Old National Gallery, staged a year later as a dump, also bear witness to the anger of the then young artist.

In the past she stood more for vandalism – her battle cry “We will burn the house!” will not be forgotten after she won the National Gallery Prize for Young Art in 2005 and invited to the subsequent party – today the work comes across as surprisingly constructive, even elegant. Their swings, whose silvery chains gleam attractively, no longer look borrowed from the swingers’ club, the bundled neon tubes provide a cultivated light, and the seating furniture with leather upholstery and rivets by the Swiss designer Willy Guhl is chic. Yes, you should make yourself comfortable on them.

Nevertheless, the exhibition exudes aesthetic clarity and intellectual sharpness. The spacious platform built into the hall is no longer a jostle against modernist architecture as it used to be, but a design of its own. One of Bonvicini’s typical stair sculptures made of tubular steel and metal chains leads to the “Upper Floor”, which is covered by the textile work “Breach of Décor”. The carpet shows dozens of photographs of trousers that Bonvicini left lying on the floor at home after they had been stripped off. Suddenly the place seems occupied, even intimate and homely. “I do you” – the announcement made in front of the entrance to the Miesvan der Rohe building has been implemented.

Handcuffs on stainless steel chains with the caption “You to Me”.
© dpa, VG Bildkunst Bonn 2022

Up here, the perspective finally changes. The museum ceiling is no longer majestically high, the visitor dwarfed in a manner that commands respect. And suddenly the view outside falls on the next architectural feat at the Kulturforum. Next door, the excavation pit for the Museum of the 20th Century is yawning. Instead, wouldn’t it be time to fight back here? In terms of air conditioning, the building planned by Herzog & de Meuron is a disaster. There have been no artist protests so far.

In any case, Monica Bonvicini has meanwhile made her peace with Mies, modernity and other guys like Breuer, Wright and Scharoun. “Architecture is not a cocktail,” she quotes van der Rohe on another mirror wall with sayings from famous master builders. Their institutional critique still applies, only without the provo gesture of the earlier years. Instead sovereign.

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Source: Tagesspiegel

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