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Cosima von Bonin
The Italian, 2018
Marieluise Hessel Collection, Permanent Installations
Sculpture, Permanent Installation

A human-scale figure leans over a balcony, mouth agape and palms facing out, its elongated nose stretching toward the sky. A nauseatingly pink substance appears to drip from the metal railing to pool on the grating of the balcony floor and to the ground below. Some of this stuff has formed the letters that spell out the word cute. Made of steel, foam, and fiberglass, the sculpture (which includes the balcony, the figure, and the pink substance) is installed on the building exterior, where it hovers above its viewers.

The first version of Cosima von Bonin’s The Italian (named Der Italiener) was created for her 2014 solo exhibition Hippies Use Side Door. The Year 2014 Has Lost the Plot at the Museum moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig Wien (mumok) in Vienna. Invited to make a new sculpture for the museum’s roof, von Bonin explains that she was amused by the notion that she would become a “puking chick” doing so, given the daunting height of the massive industrial building.[1] So, instead of commanding the building with a large-scale rooftop monument, she conceived Der Italiener, to be installed outside a fourth-story window. Not quite a self-portrait, the figure nevertheless depicts her imagined physical reaction to the commission. The Italian was commissioned by the Hessel Museum of Art at Bard College in New York and hangs on its exterior; in this context it is installed at about the second story of the museum, where it teases visitors below, including students and faculty.

The figure in The Italian is inspired by illustrations of the wooden marionette in Carlo Collodi’s 1883 sadistic and moralizing story “The Adventures of Pinocchio.” Referred to in von Bonin’s sculpture as “the Italian,” his identity is unmistakable on account of his long nose that grows as he tells lies. The darkness of the children’s tale, most famously depicted in a less sinister version as a Disney film, arises from the puppet’s continual foolishness and punishment for it, and colors the narrative evoked by the sculpture. It’s as if Pinocchio’s latest exploit had somehow led him to the balcony of a contemporary art museum, where he is now losing his lunch. The trickster figure of Pinocchio always suffers for his actions, which mostly result from his insouciance, laziness, and greed. As much as he wants to become a real boy and end his life as an object, he is easily distracted and has unrelenting desires for fun and play that sabotage his goals.

Pinocchio is widely known as a symbol of the quintessential naughty child; living as a wooden puppet, he gets his wish of becoming a real boy only at the end of the tale, when he finally redeems himself through an act of generosity. Within von Bonin’s work, he emerges as a defiant figure, a stand-in for the artist who refuses to comply with the museum’s vision. His nose is elongated, making reference to his deceptions. Von Bonin makes a gesture toward participation with The Italian but doesn’t quite hold back her resistance through its subject matter. The artist’s depiction of refusal, a puking sculpture, is linked in a comical sense to that of the child in the story, whose whims are understandable, but ultimately cause misery, for himself and others. Many of von Bonin’s other works are similarly deceiving in their apparent innocence: wild animals such as sharks, lobsters, and crabs are rendered as large-scale anthropomorphized and fluffy stuffed toys. Dogs appear as domesticated, but still “other.” The human impulse to transform what is wild into something tame is a central theme in von Bonin’s work, exemplified in this instance by the word cute formed out of candy-pink vomit.

The conflict with the demand to pursue civil, domestic, and disciplined work is embodied by Pinocchio—he wants to be real, to exist in human society, but because he cannot seem to conform, he remains an object, a wooden doll outside of society, until he behaves properly. Similarly his naughty friends also lose their human status, one plays and indulges so much that he becomes a donkey. In this story, human society is something that disobedient entities must earn entry into, it isn’t easily granted. Von Bonin’s depiction of Pinocchio as The Italian, vomiting out of a sophisticated cultural space, puts forth this antisocial behavior on the façade of building. The invented character greets viewers and taunts the space through a combination of absurdity and the grotesque, which are brought together with playful charm. As in most of von Bonin’s work, the figure’s appeal is complicated through its layers of reference and narrative propositions. Not a real boy and not a real Pinocchio, as an artwork, The Italian is transmuted into something else entirely.

Ruba Katrib

[1] Cosima von Bonin, “Follow Your Nose,” trans. Nicholas Grindell, Frieze online, posted November 14, 2014,