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"Was this part of the display? Should they react or just stare? Should they feel embarrassed, nervous, or have a go themselves? Gallery security looked flustered: what were they to do? Call the manager? The police? Or was it indeed, 'part of the show'"

Greg Whitfield reviews Monica Bonvicini



"A certain concerted distribution of bodies, surfaces, lights, gazes; in an arrangement whose internal mechanisms produce the relation in which individuals are caught up" - Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish

18th century philosopher Jeremy Bentham dreamed up the Kafkaesque architectural design, "Panopticon", in which he envisaged a space where the individual would be perpetually observed and controlled. Through such exposure to being observed constantly, the individual would create their own self-regulating behaviour, thus initiating and reproducing their own oppression. As such, "The Panopticon" is a classic example and metaphor of neurotic subjugation, through the creation of an architectural environment in which the physical space itself dominates and controls people.

Fascinated by the Panopticon model, Foucault later used it as a metaphor for a domineering society, bent on controlling and shaping the individual. In our world, living and working environments are rigidly organized "like so many cages, so many small theatres, in which each actor is alone, perfectly individualized and constantly visible" (Foucault, 1979).

The reification of the relationships enforced by the architectural structures we are compelled to inhabit then, have become monolithic systems of our own oppression in Foucault's view. Monica Bonvicini seems fascinated by such fetishisation; the distortions of human behaviour which emerge from the urban environments we exist and operate in.

"(This exhibition) is about fear…the fear of division between public and private…the idea of architecture being rotten…architecture as something that's creating a lot of discomfort and on the psychological level, dysfunctional behaviour -- Monica Bonvicini in conversation with Suzanne Cotter, June 2003.

On entering the exhibition, the first work one encounters is entitled "Shotgun". It's a powerful work, reminiscent of Steve Reich's minimalist sound forms, and the consciousness jarring works of Marina Abramovic. In one of Abramovic's opening works, the visitor had to pass through a barren white corridor which suddenly burst into sporadic and unexpected gunfire on all sides. In one of Steve Reich's early works, he took tape loops of simple spoken phrases, playing a dozen reel to reel tape cycles, each one slightly out of synch with the one before to create a mesmerizing array of sound patterns and percussive rhythms, jarring yet hypnotic in their pull. Likewise, in "Shotgun", Bonvicini has juxtaposed sound and image. The viewer is confronted by two huge video screens, each in stark contrast to one another, casting out barren and hostile collage images: fast moving impressions of destroyed and failed environments, stark and unwelcoming, each screen moving at different speeds. Overlaying this banal imagery of characterless Los Angeles streets is a cut up and spliced collage of disembodied voices, colliding with shards of stringed instruments and the metallic ringing tones of various "found objects". Almost comically, one of the cut-up conversations that emerges from this atonal cacophony involves an apparently phobic and worried housewife taking part in a phone-in DIY show, asking how to rid her house of mould. Jarring as the impressions are, there is a definite edge of hysteria and humour in evidence here.

Moving up the staircase, one is confronted by a wall of stencil-printed, disjointed aphorisms and exhortations, framed in red. Letters and word orders are displayed randomly. If, as Albert Einstein rhetorically queried, "Language becomes an instrument of reasoning in the true sense of the word…is there no thinking without the use of language?", then Bonvicini is subverting such an assumption in these framed stencil collages, moving beyond linguistic and semantic convention to tap into something far more immediate and visceral.

From here the viewer/participant finds him or herself in a silent and airless blacked out chamber, with heavy chrome chains hanging from the ceiling, the darkness punctuated in places by neon bright spotlights. One is disoriented and unsure how to react, and the dizzying mood is increased on discovery that all the walls are at odd and oblique angles to one another. Which way is the viewer to walk in this stifling place, turn around or indeed, escape? In the centre of the room hangs a leather and chrome bed of sorts, suspended by the swinging chains. The atmosphere is akin to Kafka's unsettling mood portrayed in In the Penal Colony, or reminiscent of the cinematic impressionism of the Cenobytes underworld in Hellraiser.

In amongst the darkness, hostility and ambiguity however, is the humour of the ridiculous; a sense of being trapped countered by a mood of futility: how will people react, surrounded by torture chamber chains, sadistic forms, dead-end corridors and halls barely lit by single light bulbs? One couple started rattling the chains frantically, and jumped onto the swinging leather bed. Other members of the "audience" were frozen, gawking. Was this part of the display? Should they react or just stare? Should they feel embarrassed, nervous, or have a go themselves? Gallery security looked flustered: what were they to do? Call the manager? The police? Or was it indeed, "part of the show"? The spectacle "confronting itself" (in Guy Debord's terms) was comical yet very telling. (Some weeks before, a man had been arrested and carried off by police in the very same gallery for throwing paint at Jake and Dinos Chapman: he was, so he said, "defacing" the brothers as a comment on their defacing of a collection of original Goya prints. The Chapman Brothers had bought a set of "priceless art treasure" Goya works, which had originally aimed to portray the extreme and irrational violence of humanity. The Chapman Brothers had then gone on to painstakingly go through each picture, putting clown and animal heads in place of the human faces. On another occasion, when a pair of Chinese self styled "art activists" were arrested and aggressively manhandled by gallery security for jumping on Tracey Emin's "unmade bed" exhibit, the same impotence and banality of aspects of so-called "confrontational" postmodernist art were highlighted.

The next gallery focuses on the power of architecture to divorce man from his natural impulses. (Themes explored by Raoul Vaneigem and radical ecologists Paul Shepherd and John Zerzan with their narratives of man distorted grotesquely by the limitations of architecture and the unnatural way in which it moulds and restricts human behaviour.) There is no vacuous postmodern reluctance to commit oneself in Bonvicini's structures here, no hiding behind endless ambiguity and linguistic games: the heavy glass and steel walls and "half finished buildings" in this part of the exhibition speak boldly and clearly.

Firstly there are Bonvicini's huge monolithic structures to consider, then the aphoristic collages displayed on the tall glass and metal constructions. Bonvicini goads you by literally, controlling your movement in this room. There is a sense of being trapped behind these overbearing glass and metal walls, a sense of being "told where to go" and instructed which direction to take. Disorientation sets in when one realises that certain paths in this part of the exhibition are dead ends. Conversely, some of the apparently solid walls have incongruous exit points, playing with our perceived notions of "linear direction" and goal-oriented movement. The viewer is thwarted by Bonvicini's confrontation, which aims to throw us off our balance.

At a time when Kafka's In the Penal Colony and a study of Jeremy Bentham's Panopticon prison plans are required reading at a number of "high-ranking" architecture schools, Bonvicini's meditations and humorous provocations are a valuable reflection. This is an exhibition that challenges and unsettles the viewer with an unnerving combination of impulsiveness, nausea and aggressive yet naive comedy.

As in Theodore Adorno's seminal work Enlightenment as Mass Deception, Bonvicini shows us an architectural landscape limited and controlling in its austerity, dictating bodily movement, mental process and ultimately, choices. In Adorno's words, "…a system which is uniform as a whole and in every part….housing projects designed to perpetuate the individual as a supposedly independent unit in a small hygienic dwelling make him all the more subservient to his adversary -- the absolute power of Capitalism…under monopoly all mass culture is identical, and the lines of its artificial framework begin to show through." To Adorno then, the crude architectural structures in modern cities present the opportunity for an exploitative and unnatural "circle of manipulation…a technological rationale is the rationale of domination itself. It is the coercive nature of society alienated from itself."

In conversation with Susan Cotter, Bonvicini explains some of the motivations behind the Anxiety Attack exhibition:

"Complex ideas are based on facts and I try to keep things simple…it's about getting away from the fascination with the outward appearance of things to tap into something more fundamental…I can't think of any surroundings that are not architectural. I am talking about it as something physical but also an abstraction. I think of movement, language and thought as buildings; every structure is related to a system, which is a kind of architecture to me. Every space has a character. A space where you go to see art…is a space for direct contact between you and the work…confrontation with art is about a state of awareness, a wake up call…It's about demystifying…(it's about) the geometrical form of minimalism as an unreasonable example of logical thinking (and) something lacking in humour."


Greg Whitfield has spent most of the last twelve years living in London and the Far East, specifically Korea, where his wife is a Korean classical musician. He is currently engaged in researching and writing a book on the avant-garde/sound system and bass culture, which has been emerging out of London over the last twenty-five years up until the present time. He loves Dadaism, conscious music and literature, and, of course, very loud bass.

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