Ghost in the Machine

Artforum International, November 2007 | Go to article overview

Ghost in the Machine


Habitus as material; tactic as gesture; production as performance; artist as brand: These are some of the counterintuitive equations underpinning the work of Cosima von Bonin, whose oeuvre ranges from collaborative Gesamtkunstwerk to sculpture making sport of high Minimalism and high-end retail at once. On the occasion of von Bonin's midcareer survey at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles--the Cologne-based artist's first major institutional outing in the US--curator and critic Yilmaz Dziewior and artist and critic John Kelsey isolate the variables in a complex, mutable, subtly reflexive practice.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Wag the Dog

"MANY PEOPLE JUST PLAY THE CHANGES; I like to change the play." This statement--wry, gnomic, a touch haughty, and evincing a nonchalant economy of terms--seems like a good starting point for any discussion of the art of Cosima von Bonin. True enough, the words are not actually hers; they belong to Mayo Thompson, front man for the band Red Krayola. Yet the aphorism nevertheless aptly describes von Bonin's modus operandi, which is to make work that examines and intervenes in the rules of the game--the game being art as a cultural and social practice. Moreover, to enlist Thompson here--he's a friend of the artist's--is a gesture very much in keeping with von Bonin's approach. For her, a key aspect of changing the play is "interlacing," as she once dubbed the mutual influence that takes place over time between her and the musicians, theorists, and fellow artists with whom she habitually works. The process is meant to push beyond the typical parameters of collaboration, as one early case in point may demonstrate: For a 1991 exhibition at Andrea Rosen Gallery in New York, von Bonin's American debut, the Cologne-based artist transformed what was supposed to be a solo effort into a group show of sorts, presenting contributions from friends and colleagues including Thompson, Martin Kippenberger, Diedrich Diederichsen, Isabelle Graw, and Jutta Koether. At the center of it all was her film Die frohliche Wallfahrt (The Merry Pilgrimage), 1991, a bit of absurdist rural Bavarian folk theater in which von Bonin's hometown gallerist, Christian Nagel, played the role of a priest. Rounding out the cast were other members of Nagel's stable, including Michael Clegg, Christian Philipp Muller, Josef Zehrer, and Michael Krebber. Placing this most collaborative of media, cinema, at the heart of her "one-woman" exhibition, and surrounding it with works by other artists, von Bonin suggested that the identity "Cosima von Bonin," and by extension artistic identity in general, is not a fixed quantity--that it is, rather, an unstable compound intermittently generated by the energies that travel across social and professional networks.

This penchant for complicating notions of authorship and attribution is undoubtedly one reason von Bonin has not previously garnered the kind of recognition that has accrued to some of her fellow Cologners. For many of those who have followed her work since the early 1990s, von Bonin has seemed, in an odd way, a perpetually potential artist. She is often seen as someone who has not yet produced a body of clearly defined work and who is thus a tabula rasa, or better, a mirror capable of reflecting virtually any critical trope: appropriation, institutional critique, relational art. One wonders, however, if this dynamic is about to change. Quite abruptly, von Bonin is no longer a shared secret within a select coterie. Like John McCracken, Kerry James Marshall, and Charlotte Posenenske, she is an artist whose work appeared at multiple locations throughout Documenta 12 this past summer--an ennoblement closely followed by her first solo exhibition in an American museum, currently on view at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles. With this bicontinental one-two punch of institutional affirmation, she would seem poised to move once and for all out of the "artist's artist" category and into a larger arena. …

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