Endearingly anthropomorphized sea creatures, bright neon, and a rich iconography of beach paraphernalia signal a possible environmental theme in Cosima von Bonin’s solo exhibition at Sculpture Center. On the surface, Who’s Exploiting Who in the Deep Sea?, seems to be so very deep (apologies for this and the many marine puns to come). And yet, when one dives into this survey show, it turns out to be fairly shallow.
There are many splashy pieces in von Bonin’s exhibition, like the pile of inflatable, dolphin-shaped pool toys that greets visitors (“OHNE TITEL,” 2016), the soft sculpture of a pale shark slouching at a desk as if in the throes of afternoon caffeine withdrawal (“HAI AM TISCH 1,” 2014), and the ominous octopus crafted from Japanese fishing flags and lit from below with neon tubes like a tricked-out Honda (“TOTAL PRODUCE [MORALITY],” 2010). The work has potential, and much of it is expressively endearing to boot, but the overall effect feels conceptually aimless. Laden with heavy themes, this weirdly rudderless show is a sinker.
The exhibition casts a wide net and gathers pieces from the past 16 years, catching several tasty morsels in its dragnet. A few works, like “IDLER, LEZZER, TOSSPIECE (THE WDW SWING NOSE & SCALLOP VERSION” (2010) — in which a pair of plush toy scallops sit on a swing, wide-eyed and perhaps terrified — and “LACANCAN” (2010), which consists of a blue plush hermit crab sitting (or perhaps stranded) on a lifeguard stand, seem to hint at the current precariousness of sea life. “THE BONIN/OSWALD EMPIRE’S NOTHING #05 (CVB’S SANS CLOTHING. MOST RISQUÉ. I’D BE DELIGHTED & MVO’S ORANGE HERMIT CRAB ON TABLE)” (2010), with its fuzzy orange hermit crab stuck atop the legs of a high-design table, hints at a critique of one-percenters’ appetites for sleek interior decoration and flavorful endangered species. In isolation, these sculptures are awash in style and personality.
Where the show belly-flops is in the relationship of the individual works to the larger installation, and the curatorial framework informing it. “Two opposing sides of the sea — a mysterious underworld with its beaches populated by sun-seeking vacationers — operate as metaphors in much of von Bonin’s work,” the text for the exhibition, co-curated by SculptureCenter’s Ruba Katrib and Glasgow International’s Sarah McCrory, reads. “[T]he exhibition investigates this conceptual thread.” But the significance of “this conceptual thread” remains ambiguous, in conformance with the noncommittal tendencies of so much contemporary conceptual art that mistakes indeterminacy for potency.
What’s so compelling about the contrast between the sea’s heavily trafficked surface and its unknown depths? What can we infer from the simultaneous familiarity (as food and pets) and strangeness (as fellow creatures in our ecosystem) of ocean animals? Is the disparity between the leisure of the beach — invoked by the giant bathing suit sculpture “BIKINI II (GHOST VERSION)” (2011) and freestanding changing station doors “JOHN JAMES” (2002) — and the insatiability of the seafood industry — represented by the colorful food trucks “MR. BURGER” and “YELLOW/RED/BLUE” (both 2006) — all that significant in von Bonin’s coy conceptual oeuvre? Not only does this exhibition never get to the bottom of these or any of the other questions it might raise, it never even goes fishing for answers.
Cosima von Bonin: Who’s Exploiting Who in the Deep Sea? continues through January 2, 2017, at SculptureCenter (44–19 Purves Street, Long Island City, Queens).