Melanie Bonajo’s first hit was the song pee on presidents with a video clip made up of a collection of photos of young women urinating in public. I remember a steamy concert at Paradiso, her mind-blowingly painted half-naked body and undulating stems sticking out of her pants. She sings: ‘Sharing is more daring† Then fancy videos with people in the wild, with goats nibbling and those reeds again. His exhibition at the Bonnefanten Museum (2018) was called The death of Melanie Bonajo and was dominated by a moving film in which the centenarians looked at the world and themselves through the camera of an iPhone and a selfie stick. She herself acted like a cardboard robot. My favorite Bonajo is the book. Non-human people. It consists of hundreds of love portraits of people with an animal, dogs, cats, dolphins, giraffes and much more.
And now Melanie Bonajo (Heerlen, 1978) represents the Netherlands at the Venice Biennale, the world’s leading exhibition of contemporary visual art. You could take her out for a hippie. Love, Peace, Understanding, You know. But it’s not that simple. She is a philosophical artist, an activist who preaches friendship and sensuality as the core of the human condition. She is a citizen of the world. She is also a loner oblivious to fashions or currents. Intimacy is her theme, the video installation that she presents in Venice is called: When the body says yes. It is an ode to the body, a reverence for union.
What does the public experience in your installation in Venice?
“They can lie down comfortably in a tent, on big cushions. I am against chairs, they block the pelvis. Very unhealthy, that’s why we all have back pain. We play with light, with the sun through the windows. A film can be seen on a big screen about the body, in a ritual in which people celebrate each other’s humanity. For example, they move in warm oil, blindfolded. I call that a ‘body prayer† The blindfold ensures that you do not judge, but listen to the bodies of others.”
How do you deal with modern Instagram beauty ideals?
“No! In my world everyone is party party† I fight against intolerance and fanaticism. No one will see the other as different. That is not always easy, the world is not warm. But this is an attempt.
What is your movie about?
“About body positivity†
That’s fine, but how does that relate to the murdered bodies on the streets of Butsha and Irpin?
“The war in Ukraine touches me deeply, it deeply affects everyone. You see those bodies and you experience how automatically the path of dominance is traveled by almost everyone. A small group denies that it is logical for people to fight each other violently. Conflict is part of being human, but it does not necessarily have to be resolved with a war. A conflict can be deep and sharp, but it does not have to be prolonged. Consider that the feeling and the connection are worth at least as much as the choice of destruction. But you can’t think that. Show it and you will be seen as crazy. “Naive!” they yell, “E-mo-tio-neel!” I resist that contempt with this job. The relationship goes through the crown of reality. Look around you and see what that brings us. Why would you want to do more than embrace life?
Your film is activist, it demands the astonishment of intimacy. It’s also hauntingly beautiful, with kaleidoscopic images in stunning colors.
“Yes, my work is always very aesthetic. I want to disarm people, make sure they are not cautious, but relaxed. I think that one of the most beautiful human qualities is curiosity, which provokes the game. Feeling and responding to your senses is not obvious to most people. But if they feel safe, they can do it.”
The denial of the female body is profound: it is presented as something to give birth to; otherwise, it is unclean.
Between the acts you studied and graduated sex educator† Why?
“Almost all women have to deal with offending behavior. I also. That experience was trapped in my body, I had to learn to deal with it. I followed a therapy with a sex coach, that meant a big change for me. I learned to set limits, to intimacy, to power relations in social situations and to always be aware of their importance for the life of the female spectrum. The world needs to know this, I thought. I have always used my body for my work.”
She says it and I imagine her photos of herself entwined with a kitchen ladder or a vacuum cleaner, as she continues: “sex training it is based on trust, on building security. It teaches you not to feel judged and also not to judge in turn. And now we want to convey that in our film.”
„’We’ are my team. About ten people. It’s not: Melanie puts on a great show. We all have a mission to go beyond physical and emotional limits.”
You chose the Chiesetta della Misericordia, a medieval church in central Venice, as your location.
“The name alone makes it perfect for my setup: mercy – sympathize and sympathize. I walked in and felt a sacred space that has arisen to draw the body into surrender: ooooh… It’s a fun church, I call it the dear of the churches.”
How Catholic are you?
“I am a Catholic but I am a born heretic. The church says: the body is a sin† I say: the body is a celebration. I claim the femininity that was made impossible by the church by opting for femicide, for the genocide of the so-called witches. That denial is deep, with the female body as something to give birth to, otherwise it is unclean. Your period comes, that is already taboo. If you get pregnant, that’s the end of your femininity.”
Although this church has been secularized, this is a church building. Are you afraid of censorship?
“I can’t imagine it, it’s such a beautiful facility. My work isn’t porn, but I don’t want to put it down people’s throats either. I always warn. Warning: naked! Warning: Sex! Beware: women! I’ve asked the board hundreds of times: is it okay? Are genitalia allowed? Erections, yes or no? Not that we do, I was just trying to figure out where the limits are. They kept saying: nothing bad, all good. Meanwhile, ourspoon image‘ already censored by the city of Venice”. [‘Spoon image’ is een still uit de film: een vrolijk rijtje naakte mensen als lepeltjes in elkaar geschoven]† “On the other hand, in every church there is a dead man on a cross. Isn’t that shocking?”
What if your installation stops?
“So I hope there is a museum that says come here. Or we go somewhere with a big truck. Then we do a drive by the movies with the cushions from the church in the truck, and it becomes a camp. A protest camp, on the outskirts of Venice.”
Melanie Bonajo is radiant. New possibilities. She’s already excited about it.