FOR THOSE WHO HAVE seen more than one of Cosima von Bonin’s many exhibitions and happenings over the course of the Cologne-based artist’s 25-year career, much is familiar in her current retrospective, “Hippies Use Side Door. The Year 2014 Has Lost the Plot,” at MUMOK in Vienna. With von Bonin, there is a sense of infinite regress, for hers is a recombinant practice in which objects, motifs and installations—not to mention friends, collaborators and other players—make frequent repeat appearances.
This is true from start to finish at MUMOK. The earliest piece is a conclave of colored helium balloons inscribed with the names of conceptualist forebears (Bruce Nauman, Joseph Kosuth, Dennis Oppenheim, Richard Prince, et al.), along with their birthdays and the dates of their first exhibitions. Positioning von Bonin from the start as part of a community and a history rather than as a singular creative force, the untitled work is a reconstruction of an installation from her first show, a collaboration with Josef Strau at the Ausstellungsraum Münstraße 10, Hamburg, mounted in 1990, when she was still a student at the Hochschule für bildende Künste in Hamburg.
Even the title of the exhibition reuses a phrase naming a 2008 installation; at MUMOK, the command “hippies use side door” appears in three hand-lettered signs made of corrugated cardboard leaning against the wall on the second floor (Hippies Use Back Door, No Exceptions, 2014). Redolent of the counter- culture, slackerism and marginalization, and echoing the type of ad hoc regulation sometimes posted in American store windows during the late ’60s and ’70s, the text is, in its recontextualization, funny, defiant and ambiguous by turns.
Stepping beneath a neon smoking cigarette posted above the entrance (von Bonin, an inveterate smoker, wittily repeats the cigarette motif a number of times in the show, like a nagging urge), one immediately gets a taste of her sensibility. The sign suggests a social space just outside the museum, where smoking is permitted. And long before the artist-as-curator became fashionable on the global circuit, von Bonin made work by others an essential component of her own efforts. She came of artistic age in Cologne, where she has lived since 1986. That city’s feverish art scene—then including such figures as Martin Kippenberger, Albert Oelhen and Michael Krebber (whom she later married) and often with herself as ringleader—was crucial to her evolving practice.
The critic Diedrich Diederichsen (himself a longstanding friend and collaborator) recaps the Cologne scene in his essay for the MUMOK catalogue: “Its hedonism was heavily influenced by the economies of pleasure espoused by individualistic/anarchistic male artists like Martin Kippenberger, who nonetheless succeeded in organizing and mobilizing an expansive experience of community.” It was von Bonin who, in Kippenberger-like fashion, transformed the sleepy Cologne pub Kölsch Bar Zur Grünen Eck into a “nightlife hotspot.”1
For the exhibition “Hast du heute Zeit? Ich aber nicht,” a 1995 collaboration with Kai Althoff at the Künstlerhaus Stuttgart, Althoff and von Bonin served as bartenders. In other words, von Bonin was deeply engaged in the kind of work that Nicolas Bourriaud came to call relational aesthetics; the Cologne actions tended toward that movement’s cliquishness but also, one senses, a greater degree of out-and-out debauchery. Von Bonin and her cohorts were part of a zeitgeist in which “the bar or hotel” were the “privileged locales of the 1990s,” functioning as “the everyday’s poetic antitext.”2
At MUMOK, one is made quickly aware of von Bonin’s humor, by way of a pair of stuffed scallops in the entrance hall, their googly eyes seeming to blink from their shells; resting on a swing suspended dozens of feet from the ceiling of this tall space, they clearly signal the show’s playfulness. While Karola Kraus, MUMOK’s director, was the institutional overseer of the show (she gave von Bonin earlier outings at Kunstraum Daxer in Munich in 1993 and Kunstverein Braunschweig in 2000, and is an old friend of the artist), von Bonin herself was primarily responsible for the selection and placement of works. So although it spans her career, the exhibition is not presented in a particularly orderly fashion. Indeed, the many repetitions of motifs and formats on all floors give “Hippies Use Side Door” the quality of a big, free-wheeling, artist-directed installation.
One is always aware of the presence of multiple voices in the construction of von Bonin’s artistic world, and although there is a definite “look” to much of the work—a mix of the technologically savvy (in many video and sound components) and the handmade (in the numerous stuffed animals and hand-stitched quilt paintings, most fabricated by others)—one above all gets the sense of a skillful impresario delighting in and subtly directing the contributions of others.
Accordingly, while still on the first floor, one passes through large double glass doors decorated with a decal of a huge black bone, past three large sleepy-looking stuffed animals by von Bonin (two St. Bernards and a donkey dating variously from 2006 and 2008) plunked down on low, white box-shaped plinths. These lazy creatures guard the first gallery, in which von Bonin displays a range of work by herself and other artists, from a huge floor instal- lation by Mike Kelley (Lumpenprole, 1991), whose blanket-covered mounds make you wonder if the stuffed sentinels at the doorway might not have some relatives in the room, to smaller works by Cady Noland, Isa Genzken, Kippenberger and others. Facing the sentinels is a large wall text listing “alles hippies” [all the hippies]— artists, dealers, musicians and many others—who have been part of von Bonin’s life at one time or another.
During opening night, three members of the Brechtian German-Canadian-American performance collective Da Group, joined two others to form a new cohort called The Ypsilon Five (Sergej Jensen, Claus Richter, Simone Junker, Stefan Müller and Oliver Husain). Dressed in purple harlequin costumes, they staged a noisy performance in a space on the lower level. Meanwhile, Die 3 Ypsilons (the German-Canadian “neo-drag” ensemble comprising Doc Nancy, Proddy and Mary Messhausen)—a different group with a name just close enough to the first to sow confusion in the uninitiated (titular prolixity or ambiguity is a frequent baffler in von Bonin’s own ouevre)— wandered the floors ink-stamping visitors’ programs.
The following evening, Tocotronic, the influential German indie rock band formed in 1993 in Hamburg, performed to a packed audience in the adjacent MuseumsQuartier. Tocotronic 2001-09. Photo videos provide some of the pervasive ambient sound in von Bonin’s show, along with compositions by Moritz von Oswald, the German techno musician and producer, who composed the music emanating from the numerous installations, in head-phones and below plexiglass listening domes.
One hears von Oswald’s music beneath such domes on the second floor, where one finds a large portion of an earlier exhibition, “The Fatigue Empire,” first mounted at the Kunsthaus Bregenz in 2010.3 The domes are part of the installation series “The Bonin/Oswald Empire’s Nothing.” Nearby are exhausted- looking stuffed animals resting on furniture in arrangements even more absurdist than the furniture groupings of Franz West. A lobster drooling pink threads lazes in a beach chair (Hermit Crab in Fake Royère, 2010); a rabbit with his soles stitched with the legend SLOTH lies supine on a table (The Bonin/Oswald ’s Nothing #04 [CVB’s Purple Kikoy Sloth Rabbit on Pink Table & MVO’s Kikoy Song], 2010). Just as von Oswald’s club music has scored the nightlife of countless partiers, so one imagines the same for these animals, surrogates of sorts who lounge about in the morning after a night of excess.
But the general inertia carries a pointed message regarding a practice that refuses to embrace either productivity as a means to profit or socializing that can be theorized as institutional critique. Von Bonin is no handmaiden to either the marketplace or academia. Somehow she slips betwixt and between these two extremes of our current art-world narrative, indeed creating (as in the subtitle for the show) her own, alternative “plot.”
ONE OF VON BONIN’S most adroit slippages occurs in relation to pop culture, which she evokes without resorting to direct quotation. Emphatically, she is not an appropriationist, despite her wide cultural reach. Many of her creatures merely suggest the identities of the “stars” of advertising and cartoons. She cites Mickey Mouse in the form of disembodied gloved hands that gesture expressively in a number of large patchwork canvases (for example, Let Them Eat Cake, 2008). And a version of Disney’s Pluto repurposed with debonair flair appears in the white, smoking, silhouetted dog in the fabric collage Betrauter Diener (2004). Meanwhile, an angular, rather anxious-looking, human-size mouse in superhero garb alludes to Terrytoons’s Mighty Mouse in the tellingly titled sculpture Reference Hell #2 (Mighty Mouse), 2007. In paintings, Rorschach-test shapes morph into nearly familiar characters that never fully materialize as such. This elicits an unsettled state of viewing, as when seeing someone we should know but can’t name.
That von Bonin’s “paintings” display as well a kind of fashionable elegance, with their tasteful stretched tartans and well-designed, stitched-and-quilted silhouettes, is yet another element of the contradictory nature of her expansive practice. She may be chaotic, but she is not sloppy. Using a paper shop- ping bag, cotton and the Rive Gauche logo, she creates a tribute to the brand’s late designer (Yves Saint Laurent, 1997). In so doing, she discloses the tastefulness and design that inflect her mad romp through the margins of popular culture. And she offers what seem like genuinely heartfelt homages to a litany of artist precursors—West, Kippenberger, Bas Jan Ader and many others. Small stuffed animals dangle from a clothesline, like a group of Mike Kelley plush toys washed and hung out to dry, in Marathon (#1), 2007. Mushrooms are a constant, recalling Sigmar Polke (and psychedelics)—as in a group of eight white mushroom sculptures, arranged in descending heights and made of corduroy, foam, wood and plexiglass. The series is titled, amusingly, “Therapie” (2002).
Sometimes her citations are unabashed honorifics, as in a photograph by Helmut Baar of the misanthropic Austrian author Thomas Bernhard, which she presents at the same large scale and in the same space as a group of her stitched paintings of pink texts on jute sacking. Bernhard was a hero of von Bonin’s youth, his novels and plays apparently offering solace during her adolescence in Salzburg. Nearby is a small flag with Bernhard’s likeness by von Bonin, Sergej Jensen and Michael Krebber; its title, Meine Preise (My Prizes), hints at sentiment without irony as well as alluding to the title of a memoir in which Bernhard trashes the literary awards system.
Similarly, movies by Jacques Tati and a documentary about the horror-flick director George Romero are among the videos screening on monitors in what is perhaps the most ambitious installation, on the top floor of the exhibition. Adapted for this spacious gallery, the installation is extracted from what was the last leg of a 2010-12 touring exhibition called, in typically cumbersome fashion, “Cut! Cut! Cut! For Ludwig’s Sloth Section, Loop #04 of the Lazy Susan Series, A Rotating Exhibition 2010-2012, One Two Three Four,” at the Museum Ludwig in Cologne. “Lazy Susan” refers to the show’s giant tablelike structures on which are positioned installations (some spinnable) of videos and sculptures. Two tall viewing balconies allow visual access from above, while below, one wanders like Alice amid a Wonderland of giant fabric-wrapped mushroom shapes, sound installations and miscellaneous dangling creatures by von Bonin and others.
On one wall amid the oversize stations is a famous painting by Ader with the plaintive text, “Please don’t leave me.” It sounds the right note in this visual and aural cacophony, intimating the presence of a collaborator or viewer without whom von Bonin’s deeply social endeavor would be for naught.