The ever-captivating interrogator of the questions of gender, power and desire
“Sometimes I think I would like to close the door and never come back,” says Monica Bonvicini, looking around her spacious studio, flicking her cigarette ash on to the floor, arm resting on a shiny black dining table. On a display pedestal by the window are transparent moulded penises. A leather seating area surrounded by mirrors fills another corner. “I used to work at home for years and years. Now, when I think back, I don’t know how I did it.” It’s clear that the Golden-Lion-winning artist is protective over her own space, now that she has it – and with good reason. She tells a story of a visitor who decided to try out a strap-on dildo for men that she had used in a performance, when her back was turned.
Not everyone is as intrepid as Bonvicini is in her use of media, a hesitancy the artist relates to the critical responses her work has received. “Because of reviews insisting on what they call the aggressive nature or sexual fetishism in my works, I do sometimes meet curators or collectors who are afraid of my work or even of me. It’s so reductive.” And of course, there’s the fact that she is a female artist making work that is direct in its expression. “Of course, I think they wouldn’t have viewed it that way if I had been a man.” Leather and S&M elements, in particular, made frequent appearances in some of the artist’s older works – a theme that has undergone a real shift in mainstream perception. While we now inhabit a culture of “Fifty Shades of Grey”, of leather harnesses striding down the catwalk in their droves, it was never so sanitised when Bonvicini began working on the theme of sexual identity. “Now I have the impression, from the internet and so on, that the idea of sex and pleasure is so codified. People have to be so sexy that there is no erotic. There can be no smells, everything has to be perfect and clean.” Those changes have deterred her somewhat from using these materials further, but in the meantime, Bonvicini’s star has been in the ascendant.
Throughout her career she has sought to clarify and expose the dominant male gaze in the “neutral” space of architecture. For example, in the work “These Days Only A Few People Know What Work Really Means”, she used gay imagery around building workers to deconstruct the intersectionality of power in architecture. These ultra-hetero labourers have little actual power; now that she is a female artist with the ear of curators and collectors, has this affected any shift in perspective? “Power is a big word… but when you’re young you have the power to fight against it. I recently found a text I wrote in the Nineties that talked about Wittgenstein and Escher. I had to laugh when I read it, because it was clear that I was totally criticising both of them. I was like a little girl, fighting against them. I would probably do the same now though.”
Bonvicini is currently working on the idea of cleanliness in the construction of sexual identity. Woven strips of a collage of hands, bodies, and flesh are placed alongside a photograph of the same collage, blown up to reveal the pixels of the trashy magazines the images are taken from. In a similar technique to her previous collages, like “Bedtimesquare”, there is a focus on the sexual aspect of non-genital images “fitting together”. But it also creates something out of the dregs of our culture. What meaning does photography have, when these grubby images are all we have? The challenges in creating work that speaks to a more universal audience still resonates with Bonvicini. “When I started I knew who I wanted to speak to – my audience was my friends, people in the art scene. Now I have to imagine who’s going to come to a specific town or institution. I might have a bigger voice now, but I have the same chaos around me.”