This year’s Dutch entry from the Venice Biennale can be seen not in the modern Rietveld Pavilion, but in the Baroque Chiesetta della Misericordia. And it must be said right away: this is a relief. Three kilometers from the busy main site of the Biennale, in a quiet corner of the Cannaregio neighborhood, artist Melanie Bonago (Heerlin, 1978) has created a soothing oasis dedicated to the celebration of the human body.
Sunlight streams through the rainbow-coloured pink windows. The floor is filled with colorful pillows sewn together, which captured the architecture like a stream of lava. Fall into this soft rocky landscape and refresh with video images projected on a large screen. Bonago invites us to “cud your inner sloth.”
The movie is forty minutes long When the body says yes Many gay people – white, black, non-binary, transgender – speak openly about what their genitals mean to them. For example, a gay man talks about his difficult relationship with his circumcised penis. He still blames his parents for doing this to him when he was a little boy, without his permission, because in their religion, “others did.”
herd of animals
Meanwhile, parts of the body are passing on the screen, filmed during a “positive pleasure camp” organized by Bonago earlier. Pubic ridges decorated with petals and beads – celebrate your vagina! Bodies of all sizes and colors lie on each other – hairy arms next to smooth legs, tattoos next to burnt skin. Sometimes they are tied with duct tape, not for sexual pleasure, but to indicate their cohabitation. Together they make up almost a herd of animals. Especially at the end of the movie, when everyone is dripping in oil and slithering over each other like slippery snakes, they are linked to a rapidly multiplying group of seals.
Bonago’s work fits into a long tradition of feminist artists using the body to expose sexism and create greater self-awareness. In the 1970s it was called body artit now corresponds to the broader social trend of body positivity† In times of increased wisdom, Bonago’s contribution to this Biennale was above all a daring work of art, which will surely cause some controversy in this Catholic setting. The ad poster, which shows eighteen people from the film throwing a spoon into what Bonago calls the ‘big spoon’, has already been rejected by Facebook and Instagram. The municipality of Venice advised the use of an alternative image for posters in the city. That’s a shame, because this work of art has nothing to do with eroticism or sex, but rather with eroticism and love.
Also read this interview with Melanie Bonago: I’m a Catholic but I’m a born heretic
Hopefully Bonago’s work will be spared from censorship
Bonajo’s work also evokes memories of the sugary sweet colors from Pipilotti Rist videos. This Swiss artist had the audacity to show close-ups of girls’ bodies on the ceiling of the church in Saint-Stay during the 2005 Biennale. Rest also created a space where everything was soft and cuddly, with bean bags and sweet music. The church council soon closed this gallery, ostensibly for “technical reasons”. As muscular male trunks on Baroque ceilings may have been admired for centuries, the nude girls pictured are still a bridge too far in Catholic Italy. Hopefully, Bonago’s actions will be spared this oversight.
Melanie Bonago represents the Netherlands at the Venice Biennale. This means finally taking a risk againwritten in 2020 by Hans den Hartog Jäger
Of course you can ask yourself whether all that self-discovery and self-expression doesn’t match up a bit in times of war. On the other hand: Skin hunger has been an important topic since Corona. The human body needs touch to stay healthy. Unwanted harassment has finally become a social topic since #MeToo. Bonajo’s artwork is about that, too. Underneath all the happiness of a hippie lies a serious message: Your body is yours.
Above all, Bonajo succeeded in breaking free from the constraints of the National Pavilion through this installation. Off the beaten path, the artist has created artwork that is seriously uplifting and deeply liberating.
A version of this article also appeared on NRC on the morning of April 20, 2022