BY Jörg Heiser in Frieze | 04 MAR 01
Featured in
Issue 57

Houses in Motion

Monica Bonvicini

BY Jörg Heiser in Frieze | 04 MAR 01

The morning I began to write this piece I awoke from a riveting dream into which I had tried to integrate the reverberations of a concrete mixer revolving in the back garden. Behind the wall a hammer started to beat a sluggish rhythm. I got up to buy some milk...

On the street two construction workers were putting rubble into a container. One, sporting a gold earring, shouted at his peroxide blond companion with drill sergeant modesty: 'du schwule Sau!' (you gay bastard). I passed pallets of bricks, cement, stacked plasterboard panels and another group of construction workers. One of them piped up '...when you call, you first hear a sweet female voice'. I felt as if Berlin was thrusting my nose into the things that Monica Bonvicini, who has lived here for most of the last 15 years, deals with in her work. The only element missing was the wiry figure of an architect in a hard hat trying to brush the dust off his pinstripe suit.

Like the work of Bonvicini, the city under construction seemed to be telling me that space is never neutral, and nor is the way people move through it. Buildings are steeped in and shot through with libidinal investments of sexual and social status, and when they are built or demolished, these investments become visible, like ghosts conjured up in a seance.

A woman runs between the concrete barriers flanking roadworks in the middle of a high street. She passes piles of sand and tar, steel girders lined up like railway tracks, yellow plastic barrels, workers with brooms, and heavy machinery. Her run seems endless, prolonged by the camera which follows her from a car, by an edit that dices everything up and by the samples of music taken from 'Run Run Run' by the Velvet Underground and 'Running Dry' by Neil Young. A sudden silence freezes her image, and her run starts anew.

At the Salzburger Kunstverein this video was projected onto a large tarpaulin stretched diagonally like a lean-to, while on the opposite side of the space another video could be seen, angled into the walls like a little loggia open to one side. To the almost unmodulated sound of a violin playing a single note, a man walks along an interior wall. He is visible only from the shoulders down, in black and white, the horizontal stripes of his pullover echoing the sequence of white wall, black skirting board and grey linoleum floor. The image and sound are looped, making his walk endless.

This piece, Run Take One Square or Two (2000), could be read, superficially, as a simple inversion of gender stereotypes, in which the realm of the home is assigned to the man and the road to the woman. Yet Bonvicini gives this commonplace another twist: we can't really be sure that the 'male' body in the room is not that of a tomboyish woman; and perhaps we have mistaken a long-haired boy, glimpsed from a passing car, for a 'woman' running in the street. The straight line of the street, as projected in macho road movie scenarios, is twisted and broken, while a walk along the perimeter of the rectangular cage of womanhood is warped into an endless circle. The black and white, stalking, dead serious air of Bruce Nauman's late 1960s videos Slow Angle Walk (Beckett Walk) (1968) and Violin Tuned DEAD (1969) is contrasted with a slacker patchwork of street culture. Late Modernism meets its aftermath, as the simple C of the violin blends into the jangle of guitars.

Le Corbusier famously hated the very idea of the street and its uncontrolled stream of life. He transformed the building into a kind of camera, capturing a panoramic vision of a 'pure' life aloof from the street. This sense of distance lives on in the clean geometry of Minimalist art and design. In contrast, Bonvicini takes great pleasure in contaminating this world with the things it takes so much effort to exclude and control. At her 1999 exhibition 'Fuckeduptimes' at Mehdi Chouakri in Berlin, she set a group of Sol LeWitt-like structures in limestone, like odes to the aura of abstract consideration. This vision was ringed by small wooden frames of equal size, which apparently contained scribbles in the style of Hanne Darboven. On closer inspection they turned out to be questionnaires for bricklayers - What Does Your Wife/Girlfriend Think of Your Rough and Dry Hands? (1999) - who responded to queries such as 'Why do you think construction workers are almost always men?' with answers like 'strength' or 'tradition'. (However, an apparently female mason answered the question 'How do you get along with your gay colleagues?' with 'All the girls want to wear my tool belt. There aren't enough of us in the trades.')

The abstract neutrality of the 'sculptures' became socially vexed, as they turned out to have been built by apprentice bricklayers in accordance with designs commonly used as examination tasks; the title of the work, 7.30h (1999), did not refer to a Cagean meditation on duration but to the time limit allowed for erecting the structures.

Bonvicini doesn't only attempt to puncture the skin of late Modern art at the expense of bricklayers: well-mannered denizens of the educated classes, assuming they would never sink to such depths, were proven wrong with Plastered (1998). Plasterboard panels resting on slightly raised polystyrene sheets covered the entire exhibition space of the historic Vienna Secession for the group show 'Junge Szene'. Art lovers preparing to contemplate the exhibits found themselves breaking through the panels with an alarming crunch, producing an artwork about the cracks in their own composure along the way.

A Violent, Tropical, Cyclonic Piece of Art Having Wind Speeds of or in Excess of 75 Miles per Hour (1998) was less subtle about disturbing the social mores of art gatherings: people entering this miniature white cube built into the gallery were exposed to the violence of two opposing high-power ventilators, which produced a gust equal to that of a hurricane (the work's title is an adapted dictionary definition). Again, a piece by Bruce Nauman was turned inside out and charged with a street-level asperity: Two Fans Corridor (1970) had fans blowing a soft stream of air behind a 'U' of walls built neatly into the space so that a narrow corridor was left behind it.

The irony of 1970s gallery alterations by Nauman or Michael Asher (with whom Bonvicini studied for a while) is that by making the white cube the focus of criticism they helped to prolong its authoritarian atmosphere. At least, the ensuing wave of analysis made the commissioning institutions appear self-important. Over the last decade this is a situation we have become accustomed to, and attempts to diffuse any remaining unease we may feel about institutional spaces have been made via the calculated casualness of well-placed beanbags or candy-coloured lamps.

Bonvicini has chosen to go in the opposite direction, charging the structure of late Modernism head-on. Her contribution to the 1999 Venice Biennale was the installation I Believe in the Skin of Things as in That of Women. The title came from a Le Corbusier quotation about façades which provoked Bonvicini to erect one and then tear it down. The work was a box-like room whose walls, again made of plasterboard, were kicked in at certain points to form holes. Like in vandalized public toilets, naughty things could be seen scribbled on the inside: a statement by the venerable architect Perret (a contemporary of Le Corbusier who argued with him about horizontal versus vertical window frames), 'a window is a man, it stands upright', was accompanied by a caricature of a naked, bulbous-nosed man saluting with one hand and rubbing his erection with the other. Another architect, naked but still recognizable by the set square pressed under his armpit, stood like an embarrassed schoolboy in front of a voluptuous, jewellery-clad woman seated in a throne-like armchair. She was identified as Zaha Hadid, and the accompanying quote - 'cut off your dick and eat it!' - was a more direct response to phallocentrism in architecture. Compared with Plastered or the ventilator work, I Believe in the Skin... has its punch-lines written onto it rather than into it, and to a certain extent its literalness is less powerful. Yet perhaps this makes it harder to 'overlook' the social implications of the more opaque pieces.

Bedtimesquare (1999) transformed the ground floor of the Kunsthaus Glarus, with its picture windows of mountain views, into a tycoon's Modernist Alpine resort. But the owner obviously has a rather odd idea of bedtime fun: the sculptural structure in the middle of the otherwise empty room has a mattress framed by a rather uncomfortable, hard-edged pedestal of clean white bathroom tiles. The mattress itself is not of the love-nest variety either: it's one of those cheap velour airbeds that give you sleepless nights for the wrong reason. You might imagine a slapstick scenario involving the tycoon, having commissioned a famous Minimalist architect to design his new bedroom, trying to get friendly with a St Moritz supermodel but hitting his knee on the tiled edges as he tries to draw her towards him, leaving her to suppress her laughter as he yowls in pain.

In the stairwell to the second floor her amusement might have been prolonged by the graffiti: 'on some not very distant day I expect to see a farmer wearing a pastel playsuit and riding a matching tractor.' Upstairs, however, the sight of the wannabe playboy's windowless bunker of a living room, Eternmale (2000), provoked a mixture of pity and horror. Swiss designer Willy Guhl's garden furniture, made from panels of Eternit (a mixture of cement and cellulose) bent into a single loop, might be really cool but it is not exactly inviting, especially when placed in a wide circle on an electric blue carpet. The insignia of the distinguished rake were distributed throughout the space: monitors were placed in two corners, one displaying a log fire, the other a budgie; easy listening music emanated from the third corner; while the sounds of male porn climaxes issued from the fourth. The crown jewel of this painstaking symmetry was an authentic Picasso portrait, Tête de Femme (Head of a Woman, 1963), the most expensive painting in the Kunsthaus' collection, hung in the centre of the rear wall.

It was like a bachelor pad for a steel-blue, robot Bond, and transformed even the Picasso into an element of seduction. In fact, Bonvicini's installation embraces a vision laid out in a series of articles in Playboy during the late 1950s (from whence the tractor quote in the stairwell comes) lamenting the dominance of soft pastel colours in 'effeminate' domestic interior design, and the lack of living spaces tailored to the needs of bachelors in the industrial age. This real-life parody of 20th-century Modernist architecture and design makes prevailing hetero-male anxieties about the 'too feminine' drip from the pristine surfaces like sour sweat.

But then again Modernism in general could be seen as a giant spring-cleaning exercise to remove all these odours: doing away with the rancid rugs and pillows, the totems and taboos, chucking out the makeshift constructions of centuries and opening the windows to let in light and air. In the same way that psychoanalysis seems strangely invested with a Catholic idea of confession (working through a personal history of sins), Modernist architecture seems strangely imbued with a Protestant urge simply to get rid of them.

It's commonly claimed that Berlin is a city in which this fight between history and a tabula rasa is constantly restaged: it's like a phoenix whose feathers are a little more ruffled each time it performs its rising-from-the-ashes trick. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, it would be unusual if any artist who lived amid this gigantic transubstantiation chose to ignore it. In fact, there are myriad works (mostly photographic) documenting backyards and cranes, remnants and excavations, dead zones and focal points, socialist housing and capitalist make-overs. But once you start, like Bonvicini, to dig a little deeper, you discover that the initial fascination with a changing city gives way to a more substantial view on how power and status are set in stone. Then, with a knowing smile, Bonvicini flips over the 'cool' and the Sublime to reveal their close neighbours: the embarrassing and the ludicrous.

Jörg Heiser is director of the Institute for Art in Context at the University of the Arts, Berlin, Germany.