Massimiliano Gioni: Your work is always aggressive, kind of in your face. Is your work hostile?
Monica Bonvicini: I do not find my work to be particularly aggressive and I suspect this is an aspect of my work that has been overemphasized. Through the years, I have been offered spaces in galleries or institutions, or even works of other artists, to be destroyed… I haven’t accepted any of these offers yet. I am not interested in works as ‘ruins for entertainment.’ The act of destruction is often seen as a violent one, but it is sometimes necessary. Of course I do not destroy to feel better: I do not do art instead of yoga or therapy. Daniel Buren once said, “I use my work generally, I try to use it like a tool or like a gun” and I do not think his work has ever been received as particularly aggressive. I do like some works from the ’70s that were very much “in your face,” like some performances by Valie Export or Allan Sekula, installations by Matta-Clark, Michael Asher, works by Lee Lozano, Lawrence Wiener or Adrian Piper… I could go on.
MG: What kind of works do you like?
MB: I like works with no tricks, no mystery, no fakery, no mythology, no sublimation. I like art in which the idea and its translation into a work are one. I like the statement “what you see is what you get,” implying the preknowledge and experience in seeing and in getting it… Like, I am not a fan of wonder bra, if you know what I mean.
MG: What is art for? What is your art for?
MB: Art, when it is good, is like a wake-up call to me. In that sense, I am glad that all the ‘chilling’ works of the ’90s are over. What my art is for is not a question I can answer. I can’t give any instruction manuals about it. My approach to art is very much about art itself. It’s about questioning what art is, the art system and the subsequent role of the artist within it. I think art can state so many things on a different level than literature, politics or whatever. But the ‘unspoken’ side of art is not a field of confusion or personal obsession; there is a very specific language in art, there is a lot of history and culture to relate on.
MG: You mentioned history and culture, and there is often a reference to minimal art in your work, or a vocabulary of previous art movements. Do you think your work acts as a parasite on previous works? Is it an appropriation?
MB: The issue of historical reference is very important to me and is reflected in a lot of my works. I see it as necessary to relate to what happened before, because that made things the way they are now. The past permits a deep contemporary reading/understanding of situations and their implications, which is essential in times of cultural and political amnesia. I think art history is just part of every artist’s vocabulary. Not many of my works are related to minimalism: Bedtimesquare and Minimal Romantik are surely associated with it: there I consciously made a comment on specific works by Carl Andre and Sol LeWitt, trying to change them, adding some humor ‘to the corners’… The brick-sculptures 7:30 h look like minimal pieces from the ’70s, but in fact they are the final practical tests for German bricklayer students. Don’t Miss a Sec is basically a comment on many of Dan Graham’s pavilions and on the idea of transparency in modernism — quite cynical. The video installation Take One Square or Two deals with the art production between female and male artists at the end of the ’60s and the beginning of the ’70s, and it is inspired by performances of that period by Valie Export and Bruce Nauman. The relation to art history has never been easy for women artists. What do you want to relate to? To a history that was mostly ignoring their work? I have the need from time to time to say something about it.
MG: What are you or your work against?
MB: Well, I do not like pathos, didacticism, ornament and formalism, repetition, laziness in thinking.
MG: Would you say your work is feminist? Does art have a gender?
MB: No, art has no gender. It does not wear lipstick or shake a dick. Those who make it, write about it, see it, buy and sell it have a gender. I started working on the issue of gender in the ’90s. Works of mine that are understood as feminist were dealing with the construction of sexual identity through architecture. Of course I became more interested in researching female identity and in criticizing the male one later on.
I used to be bothered by people in the ’90s asking me if I was a feminist. I took it for granted that every woman was one after what happened in the ’70s, and that the discourse would be more open in the time of fashionable gender theory. I was mistaken in my assumption. I have a feminist approach to a lot of issues. In my works, I am talking about the impossibility of defining gender, about the social, cultural, economical and political architecture of identities, and I am criticizing any given stereotypes in it. I think it is old fashioned to talk about feminist art now, after the gender ‘invasion,’ but it is, sadly enough, again very necessary since it seems we are living in very conservative times. It is difficult to think about any performance, concept or language-related art without thinking about feminist artists. I do agree with the psychoanalyst Umberto Galimberti who says that the biggest revolutions in history have something to do with women’s emancipation. By the way, everybody can wear lipstick, and a dick to shake is not a difficult thing to organize…
MG: As you just said, the link between architecture and gender is one of the crucial themes that surfaces in many of your works, from Wallfuckin’ (1995) to Take one Square or Two (2001), Destroy She Said (1999), Eternmale (2000) I Believe in the Skin of Things as in That of Women, (1999) or in a lot of your drawings and graffiti. How did you come to hate architecture? And do you still care about it?
MB: Well, when I was still studying, I started getting bored by reading about art and I developed an interest in architects’ writings, actually because of philosophy and strangely enough because of the book All the things I know but of which I am not at the moment thinking by Robert Barry. Language has always been a very central topic for me. The first multiple I did back in ’93 was a quotation of Thomas Bernhard about the need of a guy to walk 15 or 20 steps undisturbed in one room… Reading essays or interviews with Tschumi or Eisenman, Loos, Site and so on was very fun and inspiring. Soon after, I started reading about gender and architecture and so the story went. It is impossible to not consider architecture when working within a mode of installation or sculpture, as it is impossible to ignore minimalist movements. I never did a work on a particular building, I am not interested in critiquing a specific architect, and if so because he (it is almost always a he) represents a certain way of thinking about architecture and culture in a particular time. Most architects were/are also versatile writers and they write about almost everything! I am into architecture as a whole. I always say you can avoid people but you can’t avoid architecture. In that sense, I maybe hate it, as a limitation of space we always have to deal with. Everybody needs a roof, a few walls, sometimes some doors… There is no identity with architecture and no memory. Architecture is something indispensable and basic that can develop itself into virtuous forms of all kinds (and I am not only talking about the building side of it). The system of architecture is a good mirror of the art one: only bigger, richer and more complex in its political implications.
MG: I sense your work has moved from a more precise reference to architecture to a more subtle or complex reflection on desire, which is another recurring element in your work, as in Stonewall, Black, Blind Shot (WallSucker) and in lots of the recent black-and-white drawings with quotations about revolt. One of your works is simply titled Desire. So let me ask you something very simple or maybe even dumb: Why is desire so important?
MB: The ‘mother of art’ (architecture) is impregnated with desire… the first work I did using quite clear S/M visual references was called Fetishism of Commodity (from the well known essay by Marx) and was inspired by what I defined as the ‘material fetishism’ in the architecture of Mies van der Rohe. The work Desire is a large-scale sculpture made out of aluminum and polished stainless steel letters; they reflect what is happening in front of them: desire is never frozen. Turning Walls was also a sculpture dealing with a more popular desire for homemade creativity and street design. “Marked in stone is ‘the desire’ of architecture but so is the violence which leads to its satisfaction,” writes N. Leach. Built for Crime is pretty much about it. There is no revolution without architecture and no revolution without desire. Desire is a state of mind, it is not a problem. In the recent large-scale black-and-white paintings and drawings, I mixed images of buildings with quotations by Anaïs Nin, Julia Kristeva and Anne Sexton about revolt. No revolt without desire either. And no feminism without all of it.
MG: Are you a sadist? Or a masochist? I mean, towards the viewers…
MB: Well, toward the viewers I am more a sadist: because I ask for a reaction. I am a soft sadist, if you want. I mean that I am looking for a discussion, not for devotion.
MG: What do you like better, leather or cement?
MB: Both: leather feels good to walk in, cement to walk on.
MG: How do you start a piece?
MB: I normally have an idea related to an issue. I start making drawings about it, or let’s say more collage works, using, for example, plans, images of preexisting spaces the work will be in (but not necessarily), pictures I found, texts I read… Actually I am working with cuts, I guess. I usually have a pretty clear vision of what the work will look like, the size of it, the materials and so on. The most difficult part is starting something new. The process is always tiring: to decide to go into one and not the other direction, deciding on a word and not on another.
MG: The “Not for You” show you realized this summer as the second project of “West of Rome Inc.” was probably one of the most demanding you ever put together. How was working on this project?
MB: The show in Pasadena was challenging especially because of the kind of space I had to deal with and its not-so-humble size, the entire surface of which I covered up with Plastered. The dealer Emi Fontana did a fantastic job in finding it. It was the perfect space for my works. I had this gigantic show in an empty store in a sort of mall-like situation, very thrilling. To find such a show in that location was surprising for a lot of people. The store went bankrupt and was empty, but its signs were still hanging on the façade of the building: I had them turned on in the evening during the exhibition period. The illuminated “Organized Living” phrase related perfectly with Desire, Stonewall and the four quotation-drawings on broken safety glass on display in the shop windows. The concept of “West of Rome” is to find places never used before for exhibitions in which the artist can bring up results that would never be possible in a gallery or museum space. The idea of “West of Rome” is to mark a city with ‘spotlights’ spread out within its urban tissue. I like the idea very much since I would like all art institutions of any kind to be built and torn down every five years…