Addressing viewers feet first, like Mantegna’s dead Christ, a jet black, 51⁄2-foot-tall plush bunny lay pros- trate on a table at the entrance to Cosima von Bonin’s “The Juxtaposition of Nothings” (all works 2010 or ’11); the word “sloth” was written in raised letters across its soles. On headphones attached to the table, one could hear a techno track by musician Moritz von Oswald, who shared billing for the show. The point, maybe: forget the rabbit, party on. Push-pinned to the wall, on printed sheets of paper, was a pair of arch, absurdist dialogues between von Bonin and Daffy Duck. Just beyond, a shiny white Pinocchio sat atop a high chair, lifeguard-style, his very long nose pointing to a textile collage called Nothing #03 that features wide-open cartoon eyes and hands, white against dark fabric, and the stitched words “was habe ich getan?” (what have I done?). This work’s subtitle, the web address www.wrong-distance.com, takes us nowhere—a patently false lead. Would-be exegetes, take heed. The many inviting associative paths that the work offers—to Disney or disco or Christian iconography—are less reliable than Pinocchio, trustworthy only because we can see he’s lying. Von Bonin’s real interest is more the how of making meaning than the what.
Squeezing past these works to the gallery’s main room, one found a busy array of oversize stuffed animals disposed on lacquered white platforms, including another rabbit, slouched atop a pert red dog; several clams on skateboards; and a piratical hound with an eye patch, one leg thrown over a hapless canine, the other squashing a crab. Fake lights and microphones stood here and there. In the corner, a louche, gaslight-style streetlamp sported a big cigarette, its smoke outlined in neon. More music by von Oswald could be heard under two audio domes. An 84-minute documentary about film director and producer George Romero, featuring a scene from his Night of the Living Dead, played on a video monitor. On another, there was the 13th annual Dorian Corey Awards Ball, a voguing competition; headphones delivered its soundtrack, including commentary by a hyperactive host. A pair of big four-fingered white gloves on a platform nearby evoked both Michael Jackson and Mickey Mouse.
In the back room, introduced by a sign reading “Privato,” a mise-en-scène was cursorily established with cardboard letters spelling out “Le Petit Café” and “cocktail bar”; there was also a cardboard mailbox, window and what looked like a coal-chute door. Another textile collage reprised some of the show’s themes-cartoon eyes and hands, Pinocchio, the words “Petit Café” and a slender bone that is a running motif. (Or a sight gag? As in, von Bonin?) At center stage here was an overweight, ashen-faced plush duck, perched discon- solately atop a plush saddle, its webbed feet hanging short of the stirrups and a splash of orange vomit on its chest. Neither nasty-nostalgic, like Mike Kelly’s stuffed animals, nor aggressively cute, like Yoshitomo Nara’s giant puppies, nor volcanically expressive, like Joyce Pensato’s charcoal drawings of Mickey and Bart, von Bonin’s scaled-up cartoon figures are sullen and spent. They’re doing all the bad things, but it doesn’t seem to make them very happy.
Taken together, “The Juxtaposition of Nothings” may seem an assessment—dire—of the current status of American popular culture, a decade and more into a century that seems to promise our slow eclipse. Of course that could itself be a self-flatteringly U.S.-centric view, and in any case is not quite the point. What can be said for sure is that von Bonin is concerned with the transmission of cultural news, and with the art world as a social network. In much of her work, as here, she has collaborated with others, and the articulation of professional and personal relationships has been an underlying impulse. Born in Kenya and raised in Austria, she has since 1986 lived and worked in Cologne, a city whose art scene is dominated by heirs to Fluxus and Conceptualism: Martin Kippenberger, Georg Herold, Rosemarie Trockel, Isa Genzken, Albert Oehlen, Jutta Koether. Like her colleagues, she’s all for the decentering of authorship, which may well reflect a democratizing impulse but often results in work that is regrettably elitist, or at least obscure to all but a few. Critics have noted, thoughtfully, this paradox, and it is indeed not without interest. Having grown increasingly rich in material substance and visual pleasures, von Bonin’s work leaves us provokingly suspended between perplexity and rueful laughter.
Photo: Above and right, two views of Cosima von Bonin’s exhibition “The Juxtaposition of Nothings,” 2011; at Friedrich Petzel.