Essay by Hans den Hartog Jager
Cosima von Bonin’s ‘The Idler’s Playground’ stands at one of the busiest sites in Rotterdam – Hofplein, where Coolsingel and Weena meet each other.* There is nowhere in the Netherlands more hectic, more urban or with a more complex use of space. Trams arrive and depart; cars squeeze their way around the five-lane roundabout; people on bicycles, mopeds and scooters flit in between them; and people walk in and out of shops, offices and hotels. Through all of this, the fountain at the centre of the square gushes in a desperate attempt to overcome the tumult of sights and sounds.
Why would you put a statue of Pinocchio there? If not there, where would you put it? And why, in Heaven’s name?
During the process by which ‘The Idler’s Playground’ came into being (committee meeting here, bilateral conference there), there was no doubt someone who made such a comment (“Why don’t you just add at least ten gnomes, each holding a snoring Tarzan?”), but was ignoring an important function of art: to offer a dissenting voice, a break in the rhythm – something that Hofplein could certainly use. But how do you create the opposite of noise in a place that is already filled with it? How to create the opposite of fullness in a place where emptiness has been exiled? Is it possible at all to create the opposite of attention by means of a work of art?
Enter Cosima von Bonin, queen of artistic indefinability. To get some idea of how Von Bonin works, all you have to do is ‘Google’ her. The first thing you notice is that there are hardly any portrait images of the artist – as if Von Bonin herself deliberately keeps out of the spotlight. In the only case where she did not succeed in doing so (Von Bonin is one of Germany’s most famous artists), we see a somewhat androgynous figure with short hair and sunglasses, so that his/her appearance conjures up strong associations with the story about Andy Warhol. He once sent an actor to give lectures and make appearances as ‘Andy Warhol’ across the country (it took months for anyone to notice the difference). In this spirit, Von Bonin once allowed herself to be interviewed by the famous, loudly quacking Daffy Duck, a figure who already regularly pops up in her work. It is as if Von Bonin wants to emphasise that you should not take her work too seriously, and certainly not take its author at all seriously.
It is precisely this indefinability – the attempt to slip through as many artistic nets as possible – that applies to all Von Bonin’s work. As an observer, however, you have to be a bit persistent in order to realise this, for Von Bonin is the kind of artist who does everything possible to rub her public up the wrong way – not expressly or provocatively, but quietly and gratingly. She mainly does this by seeking out the boundaries of ‘good taste’ with unfailing accuracy. For example, her work is full of (soft toy) animals, varying from oysters (with enormous eyes) to octopuses, rats and dogs – a lot of dogs, which hang around aimlessly or stare in a dopey, uninspired way and often have the word ‘sloth’ on their feet. Von Bonin also has a marked liking for embroidery, sewing and – let’s not forget – figures such as Jacques Tati’s Monsieur Hulot who are able, consciously or unconsciously, to detach themselves from the pressure and rhythm of life. Hulot (who featured prominently in Von Bonin’s solo in Witte de With in 2010) is the archetypal man who does not get caught up in the maelstrom, desires no career and seems to live on fresh air – the type of man who drives the well-intentioned and law-abiding citizen to madness and aggression, precisely because he doesn’t seem to be aware that he turns his back on the world. The message thereby becomes clear: Von Bonin loves outsiders and perhaps wants to be one herself. But then you are immediately confronted with the famous ‘Cretan paradox’: should you believe a Cretan if he says he always lies? The same goes, mutatis mutandis, for Bonin: should you believe an artist who says that he does not create art?
This paradox seems to lie at the heart of Von Bonin’s work; it is also the exact reason why her sculpture works so well on Hofplein. Even if you don’t know Von Bonin’s work, you can see straightaway that something remarkable is happening here: you see a statue of Pinocchio (who comes up on other occasions in Von Bonin’s work), seeming to do everything possible to deny his own existence. That already begins with the fact that the sculpture is completely green, as green as the grass it stands on. At the same time, Pinocchio clearly wants nothing to do with all the hectic action around him. He turns his back to the square and convincingly plays the part of the idler, the little boy who needs take no notice of the world. But at the same time it is clear that he doesn’t completely succeed in this: his nose has grown so long that it bores through the toadstool opposite him. It is as if Von Bonin wants to show you that you can never withdraw from life, that you can never escape paradox. Or maybe you can? Because, after all, her idler does sit there, on the grass of Hofplein, the busiest urban junction in the Netherlands, ignoring life. As if no work, careers or tram gridlocks exist. As if, at this spot, there really is still a possibility to beat the maelstrom. All this indicates nothing less than a master stroke: it is precisely by relativizing and constantly undermining herself and her art that Von Bonin is able to penetrate into the deepest caverns of society – and to leave her impression behind. As an observer, all you have to do to achieve this is notice the sculpture – whosoever sees ‘The Idler’s Playground’ has already withdrawn, possibly even without being aware of it, from that eternally beating rhythm.
٭ This essay was written when The Idler’s Playground was still located at Hofplein. In 2018 the artwork has been located at the beginning of the Putselaan.