If German artist Cosima von Bonin were to manufacture furry slippers with the letters S-L-O-T-H printed on the soles, I would totally buy a pair. I feel like they’d paradoxically transform listlessness into a conscious activity, declaring: “I know I’m not doing anything, and I’m cool with that”. Instead I have to covet the plush feet of von Bonin’s giant stuffed bunnies who are currently lying around Witte de With listening to chilled out beats, the proud marks of their lethargy printed on the bottoms of their upturned feet.
It is slightly ironic that von Bonin inaugurates a touring exhibition ostensibly about sloth in Rotterdam, the busy, shipping and industrial center of the Netherlands. It is similarly ironic that her “Far Niente for Witte De With’s Sloth Section, Loop # 01 of the Lazy Susan Series, a Rotating Exhibition 2010-2011” (the official title, if you will), is the culmination of a lot of work. Von Bonin has clearly been very busy with the diligent fabrication of large plush animals, sewn cloth “canvases”, and various other constructions. Despite the physical effort and ambition embodied in the work, the exhibition is never too serious. But neither is it lazy or unsophisticated. It’s just that von Bonin brings to her art an irreverent sense of humor, asking us to have a laugh as much as demanding our earnest contemplation. In a way, “Far Niente…” is a participatory exhibition; to “get it” we must adopt the stress-free manner of the impudent creatures temporarily colonizing Witte de With.
Among others, these dozy denizens include the aforementioned “sloth” rabbits, one stuffed in purple velour, lying belly-up on a spinning carousel (or lazy susan), the other sporting an Aubrey Beardsley print, lost in the commissioned beats of Moritz von Oswald. (Viewers are invited to eavesdrop on this music via headphones). Apart from a laundry line hung with all manner of little plush creatures, von Bonin’s animals are oversized and anthropomorphized, as in a trio of posing critters “thrown out of drama school” and a vomiting chick straddling a monumental bomb (think Dr. Strangelove). Cuddly sea creatures are also part of the von Bonin repertoire, including a polychrome octopus, and some adorable swinging scallops. It would seem these animals are allegorical, but we can’t be entirely sure how we are meant to read them. The puking chick seems a bit irresponsible (what with a bomb between its legs), but the others just seem a bit sleepy or indulgent; they don’t care if we catch them in a state of fatigue or frivolity. They’re the type of characters an academic overachiever might turn up her nose at, while secretly feeling a bit jealous about their insouciance (not that I’m writing from experience or anything).
Far Niente promises to change, rotate or remix, as it tours, but the elements that form von Bonin’s unique brand will surely remain the same. In addition to the plush animals, there are cartoon figures (like Daffy Duck), ostentatious labels (Gucci, YSL), and fiberglass Pinocchio “idlers”. These appear embroidered into canvases, as accessories, as freestanding sculptures, and in other artists’ multimedia works curated or appropriated by von Bonin. It’s not all about sloth, but other forms of hedonism, indulgence, and superficiality as well. The animals wear name brands – even if they’re skint students – and smoking is a rebellious act of pleasure (encouraged in von Bonin’s series of romantic neons, Smoke).
Like smoking, gratuitous relaxation is offered as a form of rebellion in von Bonin’s world. There is a distinction between well-deserved rest or exhaustion and idleness for the sake of idleness. The latter seems to go against the demands of a modern service economy, and is certainly counter to the attitudes of the overachieving, frenetic artworld (it is art fair time of year, after all). Von Bonin turns Protestant work ethic on its head; sloth is not a deadly sin and guilt is a waste of time. These attitudes add an element of surrealism, underscored by recurring silver lobsters, one of many art historical references in the work.
For example, von Bonin’s quilted and embroidered fabric canvases reference Minimalism, Pop Art, and Conceptual Art, while further complicating notions of work and sloth, productivity and leisure. Indeed, embroidery can be viewed as busy work – a ladylike hobby that produces something. This is cheeky territory for an artist to venture into, potentially touching upon the idea of art itself being an indulgent pastime.
But we can never be sure. Von Bonin is a master of uncertain and ironic symbols, and it is her seeming non-commitment to any particular reading of her work that makes it so much fun. If we try too hard to figure out what’s going on, we will miss the point. You just have to smile and enjoy the playfulness and whimsy of it all. Far Niente is like a perfect Sunday afternoon. We can prepare for the upcoming week, or we can succumb to the blankets, cuddly toys, mellow music, and cartoons! And since it’s Sunday afternoon now, I think I might follow in the slothy footsteps of the snoozing bunnies. If you find any typos, it’s Cosima von Bonin’s fault.
~Andrea Alessi, a writer living in the Netherlands.
(Images: Cosima von Bonin, Foreground: TOTAL PRODUCE (MORALITY), 2010 Background: PRIVATO, 2010 , 2010; Courtesy the artist, Galerie Daniel Buchholz (Cologne) and Friedrich Petzel (New York) /photo Bob Goedewaagen; A Life Coach Less Ordinary (2008)andFlawless (The Apprentice No.1,2009); Missy Misdemeanour (The Vomiting White Chick, Riley [Loop No. 5], MVO's Voodoo Beat & MVO's Rocket Blast Beat, 2010); England (Sloth Beardsley Version and MVO's Cosimos Songs,2007/2010); Courtesy Andrea Alessi)