In Lives of the Artists Vasari recounts with reverence how Giotto, the first artist of the Italian Renaissance, took a sheet of paper and ‘on that, with a brush dipped in red … with a turn of the hand he made a circle, so true in proportion and circumference that to behold it was a marvel’. The tale of Giotto’s ‘O’ would only grow with the centuries, and the story of the skill of the artist who could distil narrative into the profundity of form became legend.
An ‘O’. All-encompassing with its round reach; a line stretching along its length and curving until the loose ends meet and embrace. What better embodiment of Giotto’s masterpiece, the Scrovegni Chapel, than this holistic symbol where all points are intimately connected on a line and explicable only by reference to the whole, perfect shape.
700 years later, Bea Bonafini has resurrected the spirit of this apocryphal sign. Her work Slick Submissions, featured in ARTUNER’s exhibition Memories Arrested in Space, contains the same tight embrace of content and form. Bonafini has expressed her desire to create a space that swallows the viewer up into its system of logic, signs and sensibility. Inspired by richly decorated Etruscan tombs, Bonafini has translated these frescos onto the floor to create a carpet that teems with life. Although experienced here on the ground, the artist has suggested that once the show ends the work can be hung like a tapestry. As such, Slick Submissions becomes a constituent part of an imagined room, able to be both floor and wall and potentially totally encompass the viewer.
Cut-out figures chase each other across the now-rug; one recognises birds and faces in profile in the Etruscan style, interlocking shapes which emerge and disappear before the eyes. The viewer becomes wrapped up in the carpet’s world, immersed in following these multiple appearances. The figures themselves seem to be moving with a singular ambition across this contained space, as though carrying out a meticulous choreography or playing their part in some strictly-governed game. Slick Submissions takes its name from a Mixed Martial Arts’ strategy, a fluid movement designed to bring the opponent swiftly to the mat, and Bonafini plays off the gladiatorial reputation of these fighters in her intimate portrayal of entangled bodies. The fight is approached like a dance; viewers recognise the gestures and follow the fighters’ choreographed violence. The fighting cage is a world apart, a realm governed by its own logic, language and symbols – like the Etruscan tombs – a system Bonafini imprints into her carpet.
Worlds like these are most often places of worship: spaces that have surrendered themselves to the logic of religion. Unlike in the tomb and the fighters’ ring, cathedrals and temples are inhabited by the spectator – that interloper to the main narrative. Belief involves a commitment of the entire self and spaces of worship are designed to facilitate this, affecting the believer through sensory experience. In the Scrovegni Chapel Giotto created a narrative that spirals down towards the viewer across the walls of this perfectly adapted viewing box. One is required to move one’s whole self around the room to follow the images; the journey of the body invoking the journey of the patron’s soul towards redemption. Bonafini has stated her desire to build places of worship and contemplation for non believers, and just as Giotto moved his viewers’ bodies to move their minds, she too constructs a bodily experience in order to produce a sense of calm and mental quietude. The viewer is swallowed by the space, held in its aura and caressed; hypnotised by its interlocking patterns which one feels with eyes, hands and feet.
Instead of using walls, however, Bonafini creates on the ground. She marks out boundaries and builds the space from the ground up. In this, she enters the ranks of generations of sculptors challenging the confines of their medium by making flat, floor-based works. As such, Bonafini’s carpets can be read topographically as attempts to map out and demarcate space. It appears the artist has listened to Felix Gonzales-Torres when he described Roni Horn’s Gold Field as ‘a new landscape, a possible horizon, a place of rest and absolute beauty…that gesture was all we needed to rest, to think about the possibility of change.’ Art that lies down is intentionally anti-monumental, however, this does not mean that Bonafini’s works are passive. Instead they follow the new wave of flat sculptures by artists such as Karla Black and Polly Apfelbaum which find a resilience in vulnerability, an agency in claiming space.
Lying down on Slick Submissions, one feels this power: it radiates up from the floor and surrounds you. The carpet is pliable and yields to the touch, but it also holds your body up. This final paradox sums up Bonafini’s work, with her images of warriors in soft pastel tones.