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Tuesday, April 5, 2011


Bonvicini's London installation.  Image courtesy of Jennifer Carlile/MSNBC.com

Eight years ago one of the most influential artists in recent years displayed an installation that is still causing waves.  It is going viral AGAIN in emails, albeit without crediting her with her work, and misinforming the locations of the piece. The piece is a toilet within walls made of one-way mirrors.  Inside one can see out, but no one can see into the structure.

Monica Bonvicini's "Don't Miss A Sec" was installed at two places in Europe.  One was in 2003, where it was placed on the construction site of the then future Chelsea College of Art and Design, across the street from the Tate Britain Museum. The other was in Basel, Switzerland in the middle of the Basel fairgrounds.  It is not in Houston, Texas, as many emails state.  The toilet is usable.

At the center of Ms. Bonvicini's work are architecture and public spaces.  She likes to examine the relationship between physical and social spaces.  "Don't Miss A Sec" is about the desire to see it all and the failure to be able to do so.  It pushes beyond the absurd what is public and what is private.

A person cleaning the installation in London.  Image courtesy of Scott Barbour/Getty Images.

She came up with the idea in 1999, when she sketched it while on an airplane.  She related it to the urge to not miss anything, to the notion of "see and be seen".  If you use the toilet, you can still see the next art work, who's passing by, who they are talking to, what they are wearing, and other social "must have" information.

Image courtesy of Ai Binami.
In London, the use of the prison toilet-and-sink unit pertains to the site, which was once the Millbank Penitentiary where prisoners were held before being shipped to Australia in the 1800s.  Her idea riffs off Jeremy Bentham, the renowned jurist, philosopher, and reformer.  His best known idea was for a prison building he called a panoptican.  This was a cylindrical building with a central tower that allowed guards to see all the prisoners in their cells without being seen by the prisoners.  (Today this is accomplished with the use of surveillance systems such as closed-circuit television.)  "Don't Miss A Sec" reverses this concept by giving all the power of viewing to the person inside the piece.

Jeremy Bentham by Henry William Pickersgill, painted prior to
Bentham's death in 1875.  National Portrait Gallery, London

Ms. Bonvicini was born in Venice, Italy, and currently lives and works in Berlin. She attended the University of Arts in Berlin where she studied painting.  She transferred to Cal Arts where she was allowed and encouraged to explore her interests in architecture and art.  Since 2003 she has been a professor of sculpture and performative art at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna.

Monica Bonvicini has gone on to other work, but this piece seems to have caught the fancy of internet users all over.  An homage, perhaps, to the insatiable curiosity inherent in humans - I refer both to its popularity and the fact that one can answer nature's call without missing the action.

Unless otherwise noted, images of installation are in Basel, Switzerland, and are 
courtesy of the artist, Galleria Emi Fontana, Milan, Italy, and West of Rome Inc., Los Angeles.

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