Wednesday, October 1st, 2003

Monica Bonvicini: Anxiety Attack

Modern Art Oxford
Oxford, England

June 21 – August 17, 2003

installation shot of Monica Bonvicini's Anxiety Attack
installation shot of Monica Bonvicini's Anxiety Attack

The architecture of the art museum as an environment for the display and reception of contemporary art has been a hot topic around Oxford in recent years. In 2000, Museum of Modern Art Papers, a series published by Modern Art Oxford’s Educational Department, came out with a slim but meaty volume of conference papers devoted to the aesthetics and architecture of London’s Tate Modern entitled Beyond the Museum: Art, Institutions, People edited by Ian Cole and Nick Stanley. Tate Modern’s architecture is an industrial shell “remade” into a museum for contemporary art, along the lines of Musée D’Orsay in Paris or Dia:Beacon in New York. The essays in Beyond the Museum analyzed Tate Modern’s physical and ideological metamorphosis from a 1950s turbine factory – power station to contemporary art museum from several points of view. None of them mention a small museum an hour away from London, but they could have. It too was “remade” for the purpose of exhibiting contemporary art.

Modern Art Oxford is located in a two-story building on Pembrooke Street in Oxford, England. Its plain gray exterior sports a tiny panel of red and white signage easily spotted from the streetcorner. The building was formerly a brewery, and Modern Art Oxford was previously known as The Museum of Modern Art Oxford. The union of building and museum around 1965 is something of a mystery, and the first decade of programming was not well documented, but 1965 is the year cited as its date of origin. Its mission was to show contemporary art from around the world. The directorships of David Elliott and Nick Serota during the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s fulfilled this mission with inventive programming. In 2002 the museum was given a Dia-like renovation and renamed Modern Art Oxford. Presently registered as an “educational charity”, it receives support from The Arts Council of England, South East, Oxford City Council, and Horace W. Goldsmith Foundation. Industrial-looking, light-filled on the spacious upper floor, Modern Art Oxford is a gray goose among the tawny fortresses of Oxford’s ancient colleges.

In light of all this, Senior Curator Suzanne Cotter’s decision to invite sculptor Monica Bonvicini to install her first solo show in the UK at Modern Art Oxford this summer thoughtfully reflects a mutual dedication to contemporary issues surrounding art and architecture on the part of the museum and Bonvicini herself. Cotter conducted a fascinating interview with Bonvicini about her work on the occasion of the show that was published in a free brochure available at the museum. Anxiety Attack featured new and extant works in dvd, sculpture, installation, and drawing. The exhibition had a long run from June 21 to August 17, 2003.

Berlin – Los Angeles based Bonvicini has been active on the international circuit since 1995. She began to attract attention for sensational yet intelligent video installations critiquing the latent sexism of modernist architecture. After winning the Golden Lion Award in 1998 at the Venice Biennial, Bonvicini began to show widely in Germany, France, and other European countries. Here in New York she is represented by Anton Kern Gallery. Born in Venice, Italy in 1965, and educated at Berlin’s Hochschule der Kunste and Cal-Arts in California in the 1990s where she studied with the American conceptual artist Michael Asher, her sculpture is formally grounded in minimalism and its space-time extensions in images and sound. Not surprisingly, her work also picked up on theoretical concerns of the minimalist milieu which often clustered around social space and social control in the 1970s.

At the core of Bonvicini’s practice is a notion that the architecture of buildings and the “construction” of subjectivity have certain parallels. Putting herself simultaneously in the guise of thinking citizen and contemporary female artist, she questions her relationship to modernism’s “everybody” and the female subject its architecture often objectified – or negatively “defined,” according to Bonvicini – as a consequence of its ideology. Her work confronts viewers with their own assumptions about the neutrality of public space, sometimes by luring or tricking them into interactive encounters with her sculpture. She branches out from physical space too, opening the concept of architecture to include language or any ‘structure’ based on a system.

But it is Bonvicini’s style and sensibility that bring her particular concerns to life. Clever formal puns brewed with psychological transgression, often laced with a witchy dose of sexual titillation, satirize the purported neutrality, solidity, and masculist bravado of architecture, minimalist sculpture, and text in the public domain. A sense of the absurd serves her well, for her humor is both physical and cerebral.

Anxiety Attack started off with a multi-channel dvd entitled Shotgun (2003) in the ground floor gallery. The imagery, repeating itself in a 10 minute loop, showed an endless stream of one-story buildings and views into chainlink fenced backyards. It was apparently shot from a car cruising in a depressed Los Angeles neighborhood – a nonviolent drive by shooting. Meanwhile, a charming musical soundtrack interspersed a cello and guitar duet with a voice over from a home improvement radio program. The two-channel projection set the moving imagery within the still frame of a wall, and all of that was projected on a physical wall. The sweet and sour, high-low tone of the work somewhat overstated its irony. But the sound and image ensemble laid out the theme of anxiety and architecture in no uncertain terms.

A series of 63 drawings in red felt tip pen and tempera hung frame to red frame in the stairwell was collectively entitled Kill Your Father (2001). Seemingly a sentiment worthy of Louise Bourgeois, Bonvicini in fact appropriated these phrases from rock lyrics. Coarse representations of chains and roughly stenciled words expressed unhappy feelings about relationships, a short route from desire, anger and disgust to loss. As a group, the red and white grid of drawings emitted emotional claustrophobia, a word cage.

In the museum’s upper floor galleries, several works in sculpture and installation were placed with the intention of viewer interaction. A floor hugging sculpture entitled BedTimesSquare (1999) resembled a square wading pool constructed of drywall and ceramic tile. A witty homage to the minimalist “specific object,” the interior was inset with an air mattress. Nearby, a suite of more stenciled text drawings on the theme of love kept up the emotional tension of Kill Your Father.
Another work for viewers to explore was a darkened, leather-and-chains chamber entitled Black (2002). Two lone spotlights gleamed in the room, one near the strappy hammock of temptation, the other near a standing grid of chrome chain lurking in the shadows. Linoleum tiles padded the floor. Bonvicini asserts in the interview with Cotter that this piece was her response to an exhibition of abstract art at a Dutch museum. As a critique of the commodification of abstract painting by museums and collectors, Black confronted the viewer with the trappings of fetish behavior. The piece suggested that if lousy museum displays had blunted the optical sublime, an opportunity to reawaken the whole body to the sublime’s dangerous thrill could be found here in sculptural form. Bonvicini’s intentions notwithstanding, another interpretation might be considered. Black, the color exiled from Impressionism, roared back in abstraction: Malevich and Mondrian, Franz Kline and Frank Stella. Making a color into a room fitted out with its associations was a clever response to the museum show, a cheeky formalist color exercise.

A digital print entitled Red on Parking Lot (1999) claimed a whole small room to itself. The image depicted a pale cement parking lot; a young woman in a red dress lying flat in a parking space; and some greenery growing over the pavement. The woman’s lack of anxiety, lying on her stomach with her expressionless face towards the camera, prompts the viewer to construct a reasonable explanation for the scene. But try the color exercise once more: Red on Parking Lot as a formal study in red, white, and green that reconstitutes the figure abstraction elided.

The main gallery on the upper floor featured the spare yet room-filling installation A Romance (2003): a wall made of glass and clear acrylic bisected the spacious skylit room at an angle. Some sections of the wall were shattered by bullet holes, painted black, stenciled with text, or left empty as space for viewers to walk through. The cracked and shot sections recapitulated themes laid out in the dvd Shotgun on the ground floor. The glass wall primarily referenced Mies van der Rohe’s glass walled skyscrapers, and the unreadable text seemed like graffiti or some muddled effort to communicate. Turning to Cotter’s interview once again, Bonvicini comments that in A Romance she wanted to address agoraphobia, the fear of empty space. The work’s iconoclasm was strong and insistent, however, as if something more were afoot.

The main gallery also featured 6 Drawings for Anxiety Attack (2003) consisting of more works on paper with stenciled language. One drawing found after passing through a gap in the glass wall read:

I get furious at
stairways furious
at Doors at Walls
Furious at Everyday
Life which interferes
with the continuity
of Ecstasy

This drawing suddenly spun the dark side of the exhibition in the opposite direction, and the shattered glass wall of A Romance seemed more like a breakthrough. Both language and architecture have the power to shape one’s sense of space. If they’re constricting, the boundaries must be expanded or broken. Anxiety Attack, as a whole, stressed how essential to happiness it is to have enough space.

It’s interesting to note that, concurrently with the show in Oxford, Bonvicini participated in the inaugural exhibition at Cincinnati’s brand new Contemporary Art Museum, Somewhere Better Than This Place: Alternative Social Experience in the Spaces of Contemporary Art. Israeli architect Zaha Hadid designed this building from the ground up with the special demands of contemporary art in mind. Bonvicini’s contribution to the exhibition was an empty room with a huge industrial fan blowing a hurricane-force gale at the intrepid viewers who locked arms and entered her display. That should clear some space for ecstasy. Perhaps Bonvicini has pushed open the door to landscape.