Kunsthalle Bern

Dirk Bonsma

14 Dec 2013 - 12 Jan 2014

Exhibition view
14 December 2013 – 12 January 2014

Dog-boy, Atlas, Mandrake, the geeks, the hired hands / There was not one among them that did
not cast an eye behind / In the hope that the carny would return to his own kind.

From Nick Cave, The Carny, Your Funeral... My Trial, 1986.

Wave after wave of American pop culture swept across the old continent in the second half of the twentieth century, transforming the ways we dress, walk, talk, dance. The majority of these waves were as high as they were generic – sowing the seeds of a non-descript, pan-European youth culture, which has only recently begun to recede. From Elvis to Kurt. Others, more freakish, were of a different nature; specialized and erudite, producing hybrid works of art steeped in personal histories and regional idiosyncrasies. The poster art of Dirk Bonsma is such a hapax, i.e. a word that occurs only once within an entire work or language – or rather, in this case, a DRAWN iconographic and stylistic repertoire that stands alone on the cultural and geographic horizons that nurtured its emergence.

This story, which begins in Bern around 1980, is inextricably tied to the American revival of Garage and Psychedelic rock – with bands such as The Miracle Work­ers, Thee Fourgiven or Pussy Ga­lore – and to the scenes and venues in Switzerland that adopted these sounds as their own. At the time, Dirk Bonsma was an active member of Project Blue, a group of concert promoters that introduced many of these bands to the Swiss public. Dirk Bonsma drew all of their flyers and posters. Simultaneously, a homegrown musical scene materialized, with bands like Bishop’s Daughter or the Lombego Surfers, with whom Dirk Bonsma continues to work to this day. A transatlantic dialogue emerged, one centered on the experience of LIVE music, first in makeshift spaces like Das Boot in Bern or Sedel in Luzern, followed by a network of alternative cultural centers that finally opened their doors in the second half of the ’80s–releasing a bubble of oxygen throughout the country that has since been largely consumed.

On par with music, another wave came from the USA: that of Underground Comix, which Dirk Bonsma discovered via the German magazine U-­Comix. It’s important to realize how profoundly foreign this drawn narrative culture was to German-speaking Europe, a linguistic region almost completely devoid of its own comic book tradition. The vast majority of U-Comix’s content consisted of translations of American, Dutch and French cartoonists, countries where strong links had been established between successive musical and comic book scenes. In California, for example, important ’60s counter-cultural cartoonists like Victor Moscoso or Rick Griffin became major rock poster designers, while a decade latter, French comic book artist Serge Clerc provided hand-drawn illustrations for the music magazine NME. These exchanges were clearly not the norm in Bern, and Dirk Bonsma’s relative isolation might in part account for the eccentric qualities that make his comix-inspired drawings so unmistakably his own.

Another mark of distinction is the internal coherence of Dirk Bonsma’s practice, which is as bound to music as it is to drawing. From Garage to Psychedelic Rock versus from Garage to Punk. Taking sides. While musically indebted to American bands, European punk developed a truly independent and immensely rich visual culture, albeit one that preferred the détournement of preexisting images to the handmade constructions of fictional worlds. Dirk Bonsma continued to draw throughout on the side of a more and more radical Psychedelia, drawing posters today for such experimental bands as Acid Mothers Temple from Japan or the Young Gods from Fribourg.

Dirk Bonsma’s iconographic repertoire and style shares evident strands with younger generations of American alternative cartoonists, such as Charles Burns or Jim Woodring, who, like him, grew up reading the works of historical counter-culture figures like Robert Crumb or Kim Deitch. Yet, like a long lost European cousin, the shape of this common heritage was molded by an altogether different day-to-day reality. “The old painters,” Dirk curtly says. Obviously. But also, something that I hadn’t really noticed before moving to Bern a year ago; a particularly dark and funny carnivalesque disposition, from the ogre, with his distinctive pointy hat, devouring children across the Zytglogge Tower, to demons tugging sinners into the flames of hell on Bern’s cathedral’s doors. A parallel, phantasmagorical history of the city’s walls, to which Dirk Bonsma’s posters have joyfully been participating for over three decades.

Fabrice Stroun


Acid Mothers Temple
A rather radical psychedelic collective from Japan centred around guitarist Kawabata Makoto. Alternating line-ups and unusual collaborations are just as much part of Acid Mothers Temple as experimentation with diverse influences that range from progressive rock to Karlheinz Stockhausen. www.acidmothers.com

Bishop’s Daughter
Thanks to concerts by Project Blue and the rock’n’roll family Black Pampers, Berne’s underground in the late 80s became part of a worldwide network. Bishop’s Daughter (the name was borrowed from the Stones’ song “Jigsaw Puzzle”) was the first home-grown band coming out of this scene. Its debut was as supporting act for the amazing Sky Saxon, when it played a few covers. Bishop’s Daughter, whose initial members included the bassist Kat Aellen, guitarist Didier Ludwig and drummer Nic Bischof, and who were later joined or replaced by vocalist/guitarist Bubi Rufener, the ex-Miracle Worker Robert Butler and drummer Pit Lee, soon started to focus purely on their own material. Their first single, “My Mother is on LSD” was produced by Young Gods singer Franz Treichler, as was their first and only album. The band expended great effort on their concerts, combining tribal rock with performance and graphic art. In the wake of the Grunge boom, major record companies became interested in the band but it remained resolutely independent. In 1994 the group disbanded. All the members remained musically active.

Fourgiven, Thee
A legendary but short-lived Garage trio from LA that arose out of the ashes of the similar (and equally famous) The Unclaimed. The knife-sharp fuzz guitar of Rich Coffee cut across the group’s throbbing sound. Garage aficionados still think of Thee Fourgiven, which disbanded in 1989, as the ‘real deal’.

Lombego Surfers, The
One of the most authentic rock’n’roll combos in Switzerland and the band with which Dirk Bonsma collaborated longest and most consistently. Established in the mid 1980s as successor to The Code, The Lombego Surfers played wild voodoo surf punk which was heavily influenced
by Garage archetypes like Link Wray. In the late 1960s American band leader Tony Thomas played guitar with local Boston bands like The Back Room and Electrified Water. Another prominent founding member, Peter Rietmann (died 2009), played bass in the legendary 1960s beat band The Dynamites from Basel. Even though the band’s line-up has changed quite often, they have remained uncompromising in their loyalty to rock’n’roll. As the band writes: “The rock’n’roll street is straight, the few bars and clubs along that street are known by heart, the beer is always cold and the last person to leave clears the bones from the street”. www.lombegosurfers.com

Miracle Workers, The
The Miracle Workers were one of the most popular US Garage-punk bands on the European continent; they even made a few stops in Switzerland. Like Dead Moon, the band originated in Portland, Oregon. Its style became tougher and more punk orientated after a move to LA in 1986. The band surfed at the very peak of the Garage revival wave but from the 1990s it increasingly found itself in deep water. In 1992 it disbanded. Bassist Robert Butler remained in Berne where he soon made a comeback as part of the local music scene.

Pussy Galore
Pussy Galore was a Garage rock band from Washington D.C. The line-ups changed at the same pace as the drugs consumed. Originally oriented towards the Velvet Underground and the New York Dolls, Pussy Galore weren’t afraid to take cues from industrial classic Yü-Gung by Einstürzende Neubauten. Nihilistic electric guitar sounds and a provocative punk attitude were the defining characteristics of Pussy Galore who were around from 1985 to 1990. After the group disbanded, guitarist Jon Spencer formed the band Boss Hog and a short while later the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion.

Young Gods, The
Considered by many critics the best Swiss rock band – they are certainly the most self-confident and most innovative. Formed in Fribourg in 1985, The Young Gods reduced their instrumentation from the outset to the maximum and built on powerful rhythms, innovative electronic sounds and on the charisma of their singer, Franz Treichler. They didn’t achieve international superstar status, but the band played overseas and was cited as inspirational for bands like Nine Inch Nails and Faith No More. The Young Gods are still active and continue to re-invent themselves: they have interpreted Kurt Weill songs and made a new “live” soundtrack for the original Woodstock film. But mostly they play their own songs, sometimes unplugged. www.younggods.com

While the youth in many Swiss states had to fight hard for their space, in central Switzerland things were simpler. The authorities in Lucerne, concerned about tourism, did everything they could to avoid demonstrations. In 1981 they set aside a disused and remodelled prison for use as a culture center and rehearsal room. The Sedel became an important venue for Lucerne’s music scene – and remains so today. www.sedel.ch

Tags: Nick Cave, R. Crumb, Robert Crumb