The author is dead, but Cosima von Bonin is the resurrection. She can turn commission, collaboration, appropriation, performance and even the making of objects into a series of feints and disclaimers, so that meaning is enclosed but not pinned down and the artist’s absence itself becomes a singular presence.
“The Juxtaposition of Nothings,” at Friedrich Petzel Gallery, is billed as a collaboration with DJ Moritz von Oswald, who contributed its sonic nothings, but the first thing you see, when you enter, is feet. A giant, purplish-black plush rabbit lies supine on a white table, at once dreaming up the contents of the show, which seem to expand from his pointy, soft head, and shaming you for your desire to vivisect him. Pinned to the wall, on your right, are eight pages of dialogue between Ms. von Bonin and Daffy Duck, full of the kind of gleefully brilliant, slightly opaque puns that only nonnative speakers can come up with. Daffy complains of having awoken from a deep sleep of “the kind they call dreamless.” Sewn onto the rabbit’s soles, like the mystical symbols that decorate the Buddha’s feet, is the single word SLOTH.
The gate to this rabbit’s dreams is formed by a little white Pinocchio figure, sitting thoughtfully atop an 8-foot-tall lifeguard chair. His nose reaches almost to the opposite wall, and a spider hangs down from it. (Pinocchio is at a right angle to his own lies: Instead of treating a dialogue with a cartoon duck like a joke, Ms. von Bonin treats it with conviction but makes sure to address the duck, just once, as Monsieur le Canard.)
Once you are past this synthetic-ivory gate of dreams, it becomes difficult to tell whether you’re on the outside looking in or the inside looking inner. There are cotton wall hangings; a sign of red iron letters reading PRIVATO; a flat-screen playing Document of the Dead, the 1985 movie about George Romero movies; and a naughty white lamppost, nicked from some Disney Potemkin village, smoking a cigarette. (The lamppost is a collaboration with Michel Wuerthle.) But taking up most of the main room is a piece called The Bonin/Oswald Empire’s Nothing #03 (CVB’s Fatigue Raft & MVO’s White Rabbit Song), which consists of four shiny white foot-high tables. On and around the tables are, among other things, a rainbow-striped rolling pin; a yellow, white and green plastic femur; two plush clams on adorable little silver skateboards; a cluster of microphones and lights and a pretend black movie camera, all on tall black stands, leaning down over the clams; a tiny plastic rabbit’s head attached to one of these stands; two hemispherical acrylic speakers hanging from the ceiling, attached to nearby stereo equipment, dropping Mr. von Oswald’s beats; a pair of white cartoon gloves; and three fishing rods, two plush and one metal but shaped like bamboo, leaning on a red and white expandable portable fence. A glittery tangle of yarn hangs from one of the rods. (Go fish around and see what you come up with.)
On one corner, meanwhile, a fat white plush rabbit, wearing an eye patch, also with SLOTH on his feet, sleeps one off with his friends, a little red hot-dog dog and a white lobster with a body like a silkworm’s. At the opposite corner, another purplish-black rabbit, surrounded, like the clams, by lights and mikes, reclines against the back of another little red doggie. The doggie looks up at the rabbit on his back while the rabbit–this one with no SLOTH–looks up at a TV screen angled down at his face. The screen plays footage of black men in minimal clown costumes krumping in a large, roped-off area, surrounded by spectators, two at a time. We watch the odd, repetitive dancing, or we watch the rabbit watching the dancing, or we watch ourselves watching the rabbit, or we watch the little dog. In one corner of the back room, a cardboard sign reads LE PETIT CAFE.
It’s very easy to do work like this wrong, to make a spectacle of the fact that the artist is thinking instead of a realization of what the artist is thinking; to throw out loose ideas and hope they happen to cohere, or to overdo coherence and end up with overbearing monotony. But the ideas here–work, leisure, consumption, authenticity, spectacle, the meaning of meaning–are left to be nothing but what they are. And Ms. von Bonin’s absent presence is so kindly and self-effacing that it has hardly any weight, leaving the whole thing to balance against itself, floating securely as what it is, available but not insistent. Because it’s not what you say, but how you say it: The juxtaposition of these nothings is really something.