Artipoeus visits Monica Bonvicini’s Guilt at Johann Koenig Galerie in Berlin.
I’m reading this book called I Love Dick.
It’s about a female artist, the author Chris Kraus, who starts a mostly one-sided affair with a colleague of her husband’s after he flirts with her at dinner one night. The colleague’s name is Dick. The author projects her fantasies onto Dick for over a year, entirely through letters she writes and writes and actually sends, although her fantasies quickly transform from romantic wanderings into explorations into art theory, politics and philosophy.
So far, I don’t get it. But I’m only on page 69. Really.
On page 11, the main character, Chris, says in one of her first letters to Dick, about Dick, “I’m a sucker for despair, for faltering — that moment when the act breaks down, ambition fails. I love it and feel guilty for perceiving it… “
I can’t get past the logic of this piece.
I can’t figure out what it is she feels guilty about.
I guess neither can she, because “then the warmest affection floods in to drown the guilt” is the other half of that sentence, that glosses over the guilt.
But… huh? What’s wrong with feeling affection for someone’s frailty, vulnerability, helplessness, humanness. What’s to feel guilty about?
When I was in my 20s I discovered I inherited German citizenship through my father. This was pretty thrilling, partly because it gave definition to the feeling I always had of not quite belonging. But I didn’t get a lot of sympathy when I told people I’m a first generation American, mainly because back in the 1980s, Americans still considered America a country of immigrants.
That didn’t stop me from telling anyone who would listen, though — you know, in that annoying way 20 year olds do, identifying yourself by the things that makes you different rather than the things you share.
One night I told some guy sitting next to me at a bar, and suddenly I was on the receiving end of an accusatory finger, jabbing the air that separated me and him: “do you know what your people did to my country?” He was from Brazil — I thought he was talking about Nazi war criminals, and thought: that’s not my family — we never went to Brazil! What did I have to feel guilty about?
If we’re going to talk about Dick, then we might as well talk about… Donald Trump. I feel guilty for making Trump the punchline because he’s such an easy target.
On the other hand, he kind of does it to himself.
Trump is the ultimate example of a dick — an Uber-Dick, if you will (although the company Uber is also a dick). And one of the qualities of a dick — that Trump has in spades — is the complete lack of guilt. Grab ’em by the pussy, call people names, tell the French First Lady she looks good for her age, playing golf while students attended the funerals of their friends in Parkland, Florida only 60 kilometers away… like, the guy just has no shame.
I feel like I don’t even need to give examples.
The Koenig Galerie in Berlin is, in fact, a former Catholic church — St Agnes — built in the Brutalist style. It is all concrete and stone and soaring ceilings that are designed less to encourage heavenly aspirations than to remind you of the might and wrath of the powers that be.
I saw this exhibit with Kelby, a young friend of a friend visiting from Florida, the heart of Trump territory and not far from the recent Parkland school shootings. Kelby is the black sheep in his community, out exploring the world, experiencing culture, very excited about Brutalist architecture. As we were getting to know each other on our way to the gallery, Kelby told me he studied criminology for a bit at university and wrote a paper on the American serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer, who was so uncomfortable with his own homosexuality that he had to kill his victims just to have sex with them. And then ate them.
I’m an emotional eater, but that’s ridiculous!
When we walked into the gallery, the first thing you see of course is Bonvacini’s GUILT on the floor. Suspended from the ceiling are massive iron chains, that are attached to a large sculpture lying on the floor. The world “Guilt” in giant block letters, the kind used in graffiti straight letter throw-ups or in bling-y hip hop or rap jewelry. The word “Guilt” is painted gold. It’s called 62 Tons of Guilt.
Hanging on the wall is a smaller version, framed, this time the word “Guilt” is in an almost cartoon like font, a pendant on a silver chain, that makes me think of teenagers and rebellion and sticking it to the man, the way things become appropriated especially by kids, wearing it as a badge of pride, as part of an alternative culture, rather than a sign that labels you an outsider: suburban kids appropriating hip hop and rap, punks appropriating the Native American mohawk, the gay community appropriating the term “queer”, American kids appropriating the gun debate…
The installation includes one other element that I didn’t see right away, but read about in the literature, so I was looking hard for them. Hats. It turns out they’re on the floor to ceiling bookshelves across from the reception desk, set alongside artist catalogs and exhibition books for research and for sale: three trucker caps, two black, one red, the world GUILT in capital letters embroidered across the front of each.
These obviously refer to Trump’s Make America Great Again hats — who knew these dumb trucker hats would become so iconic? Of course, people who wear those hats are wearing them as a badge of pride, of courage even. LIke the Mohawk, like the term “queer”.
But Bonvacini’s hats of course are meant to place guilt directly onto the heads of the people who are, well, guilty. Guilty of racism, white supremacy, sexism, capitalism, a modernized version of the Scarlet Letter A old Hester Prynne was forced to wear for committing adultery.
Hester Prynne, if you don’t know, is the protagonist of the first great American novel, by Nathaniel Hawthorne. It used to be required reading in high school, back when America was a nation of immigrants. I don’t know when they stopped teaching it — probably around the time Hollywood ruined it with an adaptation that entirely missed the point.
The Scarlet Letter
Set in the 1600s in a Puritan community of Massachusetts, Hester Prynne is a widow. Her husband went to sea, she hasn’t heard from him in a long time, he didn’t come back when he said he would, so she assumes he’s dead. She falls in love with the town preacher, winds up pregnant with his baby, but the preacher of course can’t marry her — he’s a man of God. He’s there to serve the public, obviously a very important career, so Hester volunteers to carry the guilt alone — because she never reveals who the father is. Because it’s soon obvious to the community that the widow Prynne is pregnant with somebody’s baby.
Bam. Adultery. And for her adultery, Hester is forced to wear a scarlet letter A embroidered to her bosom at all times, so everyone will know what she did and so she herself will never forget. She must bear her shame in public as a tool of moral conduct and reinforcement, and so everyone else will know that she can never be trusted, especially around men. She kind of did it to herself.
The hats that are actually worn by Trump supporters already signify a kind of guilt — they loudly and proudly proclaim their identity, built mostly on Trump’s platform of feeling oppressed by political correctness, of being tired of feeling guilty, of wanting to do what he wants to do with no repercussion and without shame. Grab ’em by the pussy, rant like a teenager and slap your name all over everything in giant letters like a talisman or ward against… moral responsibility. It’s not a scarlet letter, it’s a gold letter, pure and uh… gold. Shiny!
Like the necklaces scrawling out the names of rap stars and hip hop artists and Florida teenagers. Guilty, according to some, of bullying their shooter — if only they had been kinder to him in class, he probably wouldn’t have killed 17 of their classmates and scarred all of them for life. They kinda brought it on themselves.
Of course, if the shooter had been black, the argument would be “if only he hadn’t reached for his cell phone, he wouldn’t have gotten shot. 20 times. For no reason.” He kinda brought it on himself.
In Monica Bonvicini’s massive piece of Guilt on the floor, like a giant-sized version of the smaller necklace displayed on the wall, I can’t get past the chains of this piece.
Chains: chains evoke industry, and slavery. Imprisonment. Being tied down — the old ball and chain.
To be more precise, I can’t get past the language of the piece. German, French, Italian and Spanish gender their nouns, and in all of those languages guilt, as a noun, is masculine. But “chain” is feminine.
Who carries the weight of guilt?
Hester Prynne is shunned by her community and barred from the church. She spends more and more time alone, away from the influence of the church and the community, and as a result, she starts to think. At first, her thoughts frighten her, but she continues to explore them and see where they lead her. They lead her to conclude that the PUritan church and it’s rigid moral policy of sin and guilt is not actually designed to bring her happiness, but to keep her restricted and weighed down. Chained.
What’s interesting about The Scarlet Letter is that in his prologue, Hawthorne confesses that his ancestors were Quakers, part of the first wave of settlers to the United States, and they actively participated in the Salem witch trials, accusing, hunting and killing women in their community and spreading hysteria. His prologue is an apology, his novel a scolding, a caution against letting opinions and dogma and politics get too extreme.
62 Tons of Guilt
In conventional literature — The Scarlet Letter, Dostoevsky’s Crime & Punishment, Oscar Wilde’s The Portrait of Dorian Gray, guilt sickens, cripples, kills. Nobody wants that, so what do you do with it? You give it away — shift it onto someone else: teh classic guilt trip — this hurts me more than it hurts you, I did this because I love you. Don’t cry for me, Argentina… said Eva Peron, while her government was busy disappearing tens of thousands of Argentineans. I died for your sins. Oh.. wait…
It turns out, that Brazilian guy in that bar so long ago wasn’t referring to Nazi war criminals settling in Brazil, but German colonialism, a part of Germany’s history that isn’t very well known. The German government very quietly paid reparations to Namibia a few years ago for its brutal colonialism, and nothing was really heard about it again — much like the Japanese government’s offer to pay reparations to Korea’s comfort women, on the condition they stop talking about it.
Because that’s the other thing you do with guilt, when it’s too heavy to carry. You sweep it under the rug, detach yourself from whoever is standing in the public stockade, reach an out-of-court settlement, pull your advertising, launch an internal review, notify your users their data has been sold.
Eat the poor, said Jonathan Swift.
The Koenig Gallery literature that accompanies the exhibit says “visitors wonder whether Bonvicini’s massive sculpture has fallen down from the ceiling into the chapel” and got suspended in a paused frame of motion, caught in a permanent status quo.”
It may be the permanent status quo in the chapel of a Catholic church, but it that’s now how I saw it.
I didn’t wonder whether it had fallen down because I saw the installation photos on Instagram, and because I’m in an art gallery, a place where nothing ever happens by accident. Well, almost never.
Grab them by the pussy, said Donald Trump.
What was so infuriating was the line he said before that: when you’re a star, they let you do anything. So he knows it’s wrong, but he does it anyway, accompanied by the logic that “they let him.” Because he’s a star. Although the reason why is only secondary to the fact that “they let him.” I mean, they kind of do it themselves, so what’s to feel guilty about?
It’s almost like a non-apology apology: I’m sorry you feel that way… because I don’t, is the other half of that sentence that gets glossed right over, no doubt washed away by warm and fuzzy feelings flooding in because it’s just… so powerful to be the only person who can cause or take away the pain. And because who wants to carry that guilt?
In the book I Love Dick, the character Dick protests occasionally that he shouldn’t be forced to participate in the author’s one-sided fantasies, that it’s kind of psychotic, actually. But the author insists he has inspired her to write, that she has finally found her voice and can at last create the art she carries and he doesn’t really have to respond or, really, be a part of it all… except those times when she insists on a response to keep her fantasy alive.
She’s reversing the old artist-and-muse trope, playing the role of the maestro who grooms and pets his models and muse, claims he needs beauty and love to create and yes, sure, his wife is at home running around after their five kids but she understands — and you should too — that she as a human being is not as important as his career, his ambition, his Art.
To me, it makes sense that Monica Bonvicini’s 62 Tons of Guilt is on the ground, too heavy for the chains to hold, the letters cramped together and forced into a square, a box. Gilt — that is, gilded, colored gold, as though guilt is something precious or sacred to bear, as thought the guilt itself is the treasure that makes the bearer divine.
Here’s a necklace to prove I love you — it’s a little heavy but that’s because it’s covered gold, it’s in your name. It looks good on you…
Monica Bonvicini’s GUILT is on view until April 15th in the chapel of the Koenig Gallery, in the former St Agnes Church, Alexandrinenstr. 118–121 in Berlin.
Listen to this article here:
Brought to you by Susie Kahlich from Artipoeus