Photography by Thibault-Théodore
Styled by Lisa Jarvis
In Cité Internationale des Arts’ austere and derelict modernist building in Paris, which sits beside the perfectly squared French garden of the Hôtel de Sens, Bianca Bondi set up vases and amphora-like vessels in a small sink in the corner of a wet room. It was a few hours before the opening of her 2016 exhibition, The Garden, and the artist was making her objects live through a painful experience: oxidation. Upon making contact with salt and water, the copper of the objects became enhanced by a sheen of sparkling grey that are sometimes seen on the rocks along the beach or on some frescoes in Pompeii that have resisted the passage of time. Looking back at the mutations now, one cannot help but think of the marvelous aesthetics of surrealist gardens like Edward James’ Las Pozas in Mexico or the follies of Le Désert de Retz, which have delighted lovers of ruins and engulfed worlds. Bondi’s creations seem to have come more naively, though; reminiscent of The Little Mermaid’s underwater cave, where the Disney princess piled up her treasures: candleholders, antique vases, treasure trunks, and a simple fork with an unidentified function. Years later, objects still have their own lives for the artist, and are loaded with a kind of surviving dimension outside of human interpretations.
A flea market enthusiast, Bondi, 34, keeps a list of things to be found for future installations and to reconstruct an imaginary museum. She follows the collector’s adage that one man’s trash is another man’s treasure. Her objects are charged with a metaphysical force that finds its power in as much of the artist’s childhood as in her recent readings. While growing up in Johannesburg, she was affected by the animist cultures of South Africa. She recalls reading The Daily Sun, a bi-weekly newspaper that published sports, love, and local, “true” accounts of witchcraft along with stories of crime. The mysterious and spiritual dimension fascinated Bondi as a young girl, and was omnipresent in her early life. She remembers regularly frequenting a so-called “pharmacy” where various roots, claws, chicken feet, and elephant feet were sold behind the counter; and spending evenings binge watching ‘90s occult faves like Buffy the Vampire Slayer or The Craft. Like the heroines of these shows, Bondi practiced divinatory ceremonies in her pre-teen years, but what could once have been a secret game of youth took a more serious and personal turn upon the death of her father. From then on, and through various rituals, Bondi tried to communicate with the impalpable. Soon, an intuition was forged—one of survival beyond the observable, a vitalist materialism where matter as well as ideas are endowed with an active and driving force of their own. Thus, the artist’s practice today is entirely driven by the art of vanity, pictorial traditions dedicated to the transitory, and the questioning of humanity’s finitude.
The scales of time and space that escape us are what Bondi observes when she goes to Paris’ Museum of Mineralogy in the Jardin des Plantes, where Roger Caillois’ collection is drowsing. Perhaps the precious stones remind her of the surface of Kepler’s 22-b, a potentially habitable exoplanet 587 lightyears away that the artist studied years ago when she dreamt of a career in science. But rather than the horological rigor of hard science, Bondi preferred the frontality of plastic and the sensual experience of colors and matter, keeping her creative sensibility close to Bio-art or Earth-art with a Seapunk twist.
Bondi’s desire to observe her sites as closely as possible in order to create is what motivated her travel to South Korea for the Busan Biennale earlier this August when the world was in the throes of the first waves of the COVID-19 pandemic. The artist had to spend 14 days in quarantine in an airport hotel before she could stage her work, “The Antechamber.” Inspired by Kim Hye-soon’s poem “Tundra Swan,” her immersive proposal depicts a landscape of salt with a few scattered objects emerging from an immaculate whiteness. It seems to oscillate between a chamber of life and a chamber of death, recollection and dissipation, as in the setting of 2001: A Space Odyssey, where astronaut Dave Bowman sees himself growing old at an accelerated rate before being reborn. For the artist, the installation has an allegorical perspective: “I wanted to create a dreamy limbo as well as a destabilizing space,” she says. “By putting way too much light in the space, and then 6 tons of salt on white floors, it plays tricks on one’s eyes. The only sources of color were the bed with its crystallized emerald pond and the chest of drawers with its symbolic glass swan.
Oftentimes, Bondi’s artwork can be seen as cosmic synapses or places of divinization. Take her current exhibition, Still Waters, which she is currently staging at Le Parvis Contemporary Art Center, a space located inside a supermarket in Tarbes, France. The show is inspired by the phenomenon of scrying, an ancient art of prophecy that connects us to the spiritual realm, and, to achieve her goal of reflection, the artist is using simple puddles of water surrounded by corridors of salt rather than mirrors or crystal balls. The practice is reminiscent of pagan or Wiccan ceremonies, and takes on the air of a magical biotope between metamorphosis and dereliction. In its liquid bodies are immersed flowers, shells, and copper coins, which tinge a turquoise blue upon contact with the water. The precipitates of Bondi are thus charged with polymorphic virtues; they are bodies in digestion, lives hastened or slowed according to the elements. Floral compositions complete her vanities in perpetual motion, generating a feeling somewhere between chimerical images from the video game Final Fantasy and a Vaporwave EP. Among them is amaranth, a plant with epic stems and inflorescences that is a symbol of immortality; and ruscus, a shrub used for its protective qualities. Alchemical and symbolic phenomena add here the strength of their stories. The spectator attends, in a way, a fantastic mini-epic, as minor in its dimensions as it is dizzying in its ambitions: to speak with the beyond
Considering the history of the artist’s host town, the significance behind her show takes on an unprecedented but fated meaning. The city of Tarbes was the breeding ground of another mythical character; it was where The Count of Lautréamont wrote Les Chants de Maldoror (“The Songs of Maldoror”). The poetic novel follows a hero of the same name, who is not quite alive nor quite dead, and sings hallucinatory liturgies amidst tarantulas, hungry animals, ghosts, and a multitude of exotic plants. In the same manner, Bondi’s art appears strange and trapped, where nature imitates itself and is intertwined with artifice and trompe l’oeil. The shimmering effects of her installations hide small theaters of horror in which her more personal traumas lead to regeneration and petrification. The connection becomes even more surreal when you consider that the water used by the artist is said to be miraculous, originating from the thermal city of Lourdes, the Pyrenean Las Vegas—with stucco chapels and neon lights— which attracts pilgrims from all over the world. It is there that Saint Bernadette Soubirous would have seen the Virgin Mary in the limestone cave of Massabielle. Is Bondi an artist of a miracle? She has yet to decide.
SET DESIGN Nicola Scarlino
PRODUCTION Reda Ait
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