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Melanie Bonajo: One Question, Three Rooms, 44 Possible Answers

P.P.O.W. - New York

By Stephanie Buhmann

Based in Amsterdam and Berlin, Melanie Bonajo creates works that draw on everyday stereotypes and misconceptions. Her photographs, installations and performances are inspired by the shortcomings of contemporary society and its obsessive glorification of excess. In Bonajo, we find the world in free fall, scarred by consumerism, injustice and alienation. Nevertheless, we also encounter the artist’s belief that there are still enough conscious individuals to realize and act on this terrifying fact.

In this exhibition Bonajo specifically proposed a series of questions that were both printed on the press release and written on three large panels leaning against the exhibition walls like proclamations set in stone. Most of these were poignant and reflective and several were offered with an eye on the future. While “Where does change start?” could be understood as the overarching theme song, “Will Families remain to exist?” reveals that Bonajo ponders the changes in humanity at large and in the face of the destructive powers of capitalism and technological innovation. By challenging us to imagine what might be yet to come, she makes her audience both a witness and a principal actor. Her work stresses that it is indeed our actions or passivity, the questions we raise or omit that will determine the future. It is us who will be held responsible and Bonajo’s work offers a captivating last chance wake-up call.

“Melanie Bonajo: One Question, Three Rooms, 44 Possible Answers,” installation view. Courtesy of the artist and P.P.O.W Gallery, New York.

“Melanie Bonajo: One Question, Three Rooms, 44 Possible Answers,” installation view. Courtesy of the artist and P.P.O.W Gallery, New York.

Along these lines, this exhibition served as a conversational forum, where answers for the posed questions were not provided but the search for them was illustrated in poetically abstract form. To Bonajo, art is a medium for exchanging ideas. Her work is characterized by a sense of openness and intentional imperfection that suggest improvisational freedom. Many of the works on display were photographic tableaux, featuring individuals or groups in still life-like settings. These ranged from simple-showing a figure disappearing in the sea with a sign reading “Progress” in hand, for example-to elaborate. One of the most memorable images featured a nude woman stretched out on a kitchen table, like an offering placed on a shrine, covered with burning candles while the door of a fridge has been opened underneath her. Another grouping showed several digitally enhanced animal prints that generated a New Age inspired air of utopia cosmic-kitsch. Occasionally, photographs were installed like post-modern totems, held by fine wooden rods that were centered in bases by means of clay. It is in these constructions that Bonajo is at her most ritualistic, establishing a visual symbolism that honors ancient tribal aesthetics.

Overall, nature was the dominant theme in this exhibition. Her images of individuals who are almost absorbed by or at least appear alienated by it, hint at the troubled relationship of contemporary man to nature. It is a slowly escalating conflict and a dangerous state of existential misguidance. The more we attempt to increasingly control and manipulate nature, the further we are led astray. Bonajo summons up this paralysis with her images and offers one more question: “Does the sun only set for humans?”

(February 28 - March 30, 2013)

Stephanie Buhmann is a contributing editor at Artcritical.com. Her essays and art reviews have been published internationally, including by Kunst Bulletin, Sculpture Magazine, The Brooklyn Rail, Art on Paper, Art Collector and Art Lies, among others. She also has a regular art column in Chelsea Now. She is currently working on a series of interviews with contemporary artists based in New York.

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