In 1970, for his first solo show, Dieter Roth filled the Eugenia Butler Gallery in L.A. with thirty-seven suitcases containing assorted cheeses, transforming the room into a place infested by flies and maggots. In 1992, inside the spaces of a decadent former coach house near Hamburg, he created the Schimmelmuseum, a “museum of mold” including perishable works of art made of chocolate, sugar and spices. In 1982 Roth carried out a photographic record of the excrements he produced daily and made a catalog from this, evocatively titled 55 Scheisse für Rosanna (55 Shits for Rosanna).
What kind of art is this? An art of the decaying and decomposable? An art of waste and recycling? Is that poetic or – more prosaically – nauseating?
The Milanese Pirelli space of Hangar Bicocca hosts a major and incredibly vast retrospective of the works by the famous German-Swiss artist (born in 1930 in Hanover and died in Basel sixty-eight years later), many of which were realized with the collaboration of his son Björn and his grandchildren Einar and Oddur (that of the Roths is a kind of family artistic enterprise, where knowledge and techniques are handed down from one generation to another).
As you enter the space, you'll be struck by the extraordinary amount of things, objects and diverse elements that load the Hangar’s naves – you have the impression of a chaotic, topsy-turvy world. Roth had a strong fascination with assemblage and complexity – even though there is a sort of order in this disordered and disorienting cosmos. Islands is the title of the exhibition: it does not only refer to the island where Dieter Roth spent much of his life – the cold of Iceland – but also alludes to the disposition of the works in the gallery – a wide archipelago of different thematic isles.
Björn Roth / Oddur Roth / Einar Roth, Roth New York Bar, 2013, Mixed media installation with video, 231 x 382 x 1470 cm / 91 x 150 3/8 x 578 3/4 in; Photo: Bjarni Grímsson / © Dieter Roth Estate; Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth.
Economy Bar (2004-2013) is the first work that viewers encounter. It is a real, functioning café: a place for refreshment and interaction between people; packed with loads of stuff (bottles, monitors, glasses, pieces of reassembled furniture), it also contains musical instruments – like a piano in the back and an organ installed beside the counter – that people can freely play. The result is a very convivial atmosphere (the opposite to certain kinds of contemporary art, so conceptually aseptic and unproductively cryptic, isn’t it?).
The new work The Relatively New Sculpture (2013) has been especially conceived by Björn and Oddur Roth for the Milanese exhibition: the installation recalls a scaffolding for building construction, and is composed of two square platforms connected by a passageway full with books, desks, lights, damaged violins and guitars. Nothing new actually – the same procedure invented by Dieter and transmitted to his heirs (like a special pigment’s secret recipe handed on from father to son in a Medieval painter’s workshop), consisting in re-using found materials, putting them together and creating an instable, dirty, bizarre work.
Many other pieces are on display in the large space of the Hangar: the Piccadillies, a series of modified prints from a postcard of Piccadilly Circus in London (given to Roth by Richard Hamilton’s wife, Rita Donagh); the Clothes and the Material Pictures, two series of paintings respectively made with clothes and everyday objects; the Studio of Dieter and Björn Roth (1995-2008), an impressive reproduction of the artists’ studio in Basel; the Reykjavik Slides (1973-75; 1990-98), a series of 30,000 pictures recording every building in Reykjavik, in both summer and winter; the well-known towers made of chocolate and sugar busts; two huge floors from his studio in Iceland, installed vertically like a gigantic painting.
Dieter Roth (1930 - 1998), Solo Scenes (Video Still), 1997/1998, Video installation; 131 monitors ca. 1200 x 210 x 45 cm; © Dieter Roth Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth.
What connects all the works on show is a kind of obsession, the haunting wish to preserve and record everything. Let’s think of Flacher Abfall (Flat Waste) (1975-76; 1992), a group of office binders containing waste materials, used tickets, receipts, dirty tissues, scraps of paper etc., all cataloged and chronologically archived in plastic folders. These are the leftovers of the artist’s life, the traces and the proofs of a perfectly human – and definitely ordinary – existence. Let’s take the beautiful, breathtaking video-polyptych Solo Szenen (Solo Scenes) (1997-1998) – on display during the last Venice Biennale – composed of 131 monitors showing Dieter at work in his studio or engaged in some routine activities (sleeping, washing, eating). Harald Szeemann described this work as “the last great antiheroic self-representation of our century”. That’s so true. Dieter Roth’s art has nothing to do with the grandeur or the egotism. His instinct to conserve even the most banal thing, his fixation to record every single aspect of reality tell us something about life and death; through his works, Roth seems to whisper in our ears: “Before being an artist, I am a man – and like me, my art is destined to decay.” His frenetic collecting and recording activity is an attempt to make more durable what is inevitably perishable – an effort pushed by a real attraction for scraps and everyday stuff. It is no coincidence, indeed, that the artist once said: “Every slip of paper is touching – every dumb plastic bag for sliced pumpernickel; somebody designed it; somebody sat there and made a drawing – yeah, and then I collected all of that for a whole year.”
(Image on top: Dieter Roth, Selbstturm (Self Tower), Installation view Hauser & Wirth, New York, 1994/2013, Chocolate casts, glass, steel , 500 x 77 x 77 cm; Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth /Photo: Genevieve Hanson.)