Monica Bonvicini on Her New Massive Sculpture on View in Berlin, a 33-Foot-Long Whip

One visitor even handcuffed himself to a sculpture.

Monica Bonvicini. Photo: Lena Ganssmann.

Monica Bonvicini’s new exhibition at the Berlinische Galerie is an aural invasion. From most parts of the museum, the jangling buckles and leather tails of a 33-foot-long whip, titled Breathing, can be heard hitting the floor and walls. Along with the incessant slamming of a metal door, Bonvicini has crafted a jarring soundscape to house the rest of the museum’s collection of modern art from Berlin.

The viewer edges along the peripheries of the space as Breathing accelerates its dance, with industrial-grade compressed air cylinders that pump air from the basement. The title of the show, 3612,54 M³ VS 0,05 M³, refers to the volume of the space itself (3612.54 m³) and to that of the artist (0.05 m³). As both an archaic weapon and an S&M toy, Bonvicini’s work has, as usual, a dash of humor.

Though the artist is Italian, she has been living and working in Berlin since the 1980s and her work speaks to the city’s brutal architecture and occasionally hedonistic spirit. Yet while she has been included in many important German collections, this exhibition marks her first solo show in a Berlin institution.

In this edition of “Origin Story”, artnet News spoke to Bonvicini about her ambitious new work, the politics of men’s belts, and why one visitor handcuffed himself to the exhibition.

Monica Bonvicini’s Breathing (2017). Photo: Jens Ziehe.
Courtesy of the artist and König Galerie, Berlin; Galerie Peter Kilchmann, Zürich; Galleria Raffaella Cortese, Mailand/Milan.

Did you discover any complications or limitations at the Berlinische Galerie? If so, how did you resolve them?

The invitation from the gallery was not a carte blanche offer, or an offer to produce a new work. Some of the artists before me showed older works or a combination of old and new works. I surely used the space as if I had a carte blanche.

I think I pushed the limits of what they were used to. It was a sign of maturity that they went with it. I like to think that while you work and build a show you also build a real interaction and make a change within that institution. I see this as one of the most important aspects of what I do.

I am always interested in the way an institution is structured and the process of working within one always provides good insight. The Berlinische Galerie is a very bureaucratic place, with lots of emailing. But mostly the complications were intrinsic to the architecture of the space. The proportions and sizes are quite odd. It is somewhere between a large corridor and a too-narrow hall. The height of 10 meters is impressive, but you can’t really hang anything from the ceiling. As an artist, you deal with the pre-existing architectural configurations of a given space by either ignoring them or by addressing them with the works. Dealing with spaces as I do, I just could not resist reflecting on how one of the leading art institutions in Berlin had been built, what its needs and expectations are compared to what it is offering to artists in terms of budget, logistics, as well as the social interactions within the museum and with its public.

Though I would like to add that the program for this entrance space is quite ambitious for an institution whose main field is not contemporary art.

Detail of Monica Bonvicini’s Waiting #1. Courtesy of the artist and König Galerie, Berlin; Galerie Peter Kilchmann, Zürich; Galleria Raffaella Cortese, Mailand/Milan.

How was the experience of making your first robotic sculpture? 

Breathing is indeed my first experience with a pneumatic power system. In a strict sense, it is not a robotic sculpture, as it does not react or interact with the viewers like, for example, Be Careful What You Wish For, which was installed at the entrance of the exhibition space at KunstWerke Institute for Contemporary Art during the first Berlin Biennale. The axial fans fixed on the ceiling were producing as much air as the total amount of cubic meters devoted to art in the KW, turning them into a cyclonic air tunnel that shouted down to visitors every time they entered.

The air for the movement of Breathing is coming from the art storage of the museum, which is located in the cellar. That is where the industrial compressor is, which is moving the cylinders on the ceiling of the exhibition space. It was important to me that it was placed there and not somewhere else.

What did you consider when selecting the choreography for the piece?

I intended to do Breathing for quite some time, so I already had certain movements in mind. I wanted the piece to move in a tentative, mesmerizing way, and also calmly, like a trance dance. An endless and repeating movement, a caressing, a sweeping. BlindShot (Wallsucker) was a piece I had hanging at the entrance of the Padiglione Centrale for the Venice Biennale in 2005. Every five minutes the motor was put to work, which made the piece move and kind of pirouette around itself and over the heads of visitors. Breathing works in a similar way: the given material and the distance between the cylinders and the ground generate the basic movements. The programming was done directly at the museum since there was no other way to install the work in a space with that same height. The resulting nine-minute choreography is very site-specific.

Monica Bonvicini’s Breathing (2017). Photo: Jens Ziehe. Courtesy of the artist and König Galerie, Berlin; Galerie Peter Kilchmann, Zürich; Galleria Raffaella Cortese, Mailand/Milan.

Breathing is a piece that visitors hear before they see it. It echoes throughout the other exhibitions and affects the whole institution. It feels like a real takeover. Why was the sound element important to you?

A lot of my works make noises. Think about Never Again, or Hammering Out (an old argument) SlumshutA Violent, Tropical, Cyclonic Piece of Art Having Wind Speeds of or in Excess of 75 mph.

The sound produced by the compressor releasing air to the cylinders is such a strong and beautiful one. It is industrial and human at the same time. I did not want to hide it as I did not hide anything from the structure that is holding and supporting the work. From the floor you have the sound created by the belts attached at the end of the rope. The buckles are brushing the floor and walls, creating a wiry jingle.

Belts are a recurring theme in your work. In material lists, they are often described as “men’s belts.” This seems like an important distinction. What do you make of your ongoing interest in men’s belts as sculptural material?

Men’s belts do not interest me as such. It is what they stand for and where they are coming from. I try to list all the materials I am using in a work. Every material refers to a choice, and I like to share this. Men’s belts refer clearly to a kind of masculinity and its history, which I am addressing and criticizing again and again.

There is a sense of danger in Breathing, and in fact it did hit someone at one point. Meanwhile, another visitor used handcuffs from a nearby work and locked himself to the sculpture. Were you interested in creating a sense of risk?

Danger is not the first word I would use to describe the work. But yes it did hit someone and it does hit people, but only if you stand within the ratio of the movement of the work or if you are not giving it your attention. Hitting visitors is of course not the purpose of the work, just as you also don’t put your nose against a van Gogh painting to see if the field still smells like grass. I think that the public is smart and is able to react and understand. It is not my role as an artist to give or take away their responsibility.

You are right, somebody handcuffed himself to the sculpture Waitinga sculpture made out of stainless steel, on which a chain and handcuffs are attached. Why this guy did it, I do not know, since I did not meet him. When I arrived the police, who been called by the museum, had already “freed” him and he was gone.

Monica Bonvicini’s Waiting #1 and Passing. Photo: Jens Ziehe. Both works courtesy of the artist and König Galerie, Berlin; Galerie Peter Kilchmann, Zürich; Galleria Raffaella Cortese, Mailand/Milan.

Detail of Monica Bonvicini’s Waiting #1. Photo: Jens Ziehe. Both works courtesy of the artist and König Galerie, Berlin; Galerie Peter Kilchmann, Zürich; Galleria Raffaella Cortese, Mailand/Milan.


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