Art review: Rosemarie Trockel: Drawings, Collages and Book Drafts, Talbot Rice Gallery, University of Edinburgh
The room is shaking. Or maybe I am. The Georgian Gallery at Edinburgh's Talbot Rice is one of the grandest in the country, but neither its eminent history nor its fantastic enlightenment architecture seem solid or stable any more.
Viewing works by the German artist Rosemarie Trockel - the head and paws of a little dog, a big-beaked bird wrapped in what might be a knitted jumper or a garment of chain mail - is a confusing undertaking.
They wobble and shake, then resolve themselves as you look at them. They might seem a little tricksy, but they are genuinely discombobulating.
This sequence of modest monochromes, just a tiny sliver of a vast show of more than 200 works, hangs in one of the alcoves that once held the university's ornithological collection when Charles Darwin was a student.
They suggest that categories themselves are unsteady: the animal and the human, nature and culture, animate and inanimate.
Once these walls were full of cabinets of stuffed birds, now birds themselves are afforded portraits and hung like the heads of politicians and artists in a museum display.
The question is not one of animal rights but one of categories in general: subject and object, who can do and who can be done to. The animals which crop up again and again in Trockel's work are avatars both for the artist herself and for the category of outsiders she apparently belongs to, that of women.
Trockel's work is almost impossible to characterise, ranging as it does from video to sculpture, from installation to painting, and from the machine-made to the slyly crafted. "Feminist" is about the only word that anyone can agree upon. Important is another one, particularly in the context of post-war German art.
Trockel, who will be 60 next year, emerged in the wake of a post-war generation of German art giants like Gerhard Richter and the late Sigmar Polke and her work both honoured and poked fun at the European pop art, the cool conceptualism, the paternal, painterly authority of artists who were once forefathers and now might be considered intergenerational peers in the Cologne art scene.
Trockel's work, like the machine-knitted "paintings" that launched her career, both satirised mainstream male art movements and the hand-crafted, almost hopelessly virtuous labours of the female alternatives. Her wall-mounted stove tops and electric hotplates evoked the domestic sphere but shone with a mechanical blankness that any arc-welding minimalist sculptor might be proud of.
But her drawings suggest the darker, more compulsive aspect of her art that has emerged in the subsequent decades. This is a show of unsettling imagery - a plump baby on parchment whose inky hands are skeletal claws, a male figure, whose anatomised heart is exposed in his chest.
There are repeated images of sleeping figures, which seem to satirise generations of dreamy boys and mystics, psychedelic rebels and shamanic figures in art history. In some of her more frightening images, of decapitated and castrated dogs, she directly satirises or exposes Freudian myth-making.
In writing herself into art history Trockel spent some decades creating "book drafts", collages, drawings and texts in the form of books and catalogues - which are mounted, here, on little shelves like a mini-library display. There are rich linguistic puns, references to artistic heroes and possibly enemies, sly digs about great men and fallen women.
It's commonplace these days to talk about gender roles as a kind of performance. Masks are everywhere in Trockel's work, from the untitled liquid drawing in which a female face emerges from a pool of blackness, like a medieval woman wearing a wimple, to a horrible little sculpture of a male face attached by a plastic umbilical cord to what might be a placenta or a withered breast.
Somewhere in here is another tradition of Cologne carnival mischief, of poking fun at authority, of masks, of gender-swapping and temporary mayhem.
In her world, where animals wear clothes, where men sprout noses that look like tree branches or penises, where no system of art is safe from ridicule or reinvention, we might see the "world turned upside down". Certainly, in Edinburgh this week, you can see it shake.
Until 30 April
This article was first published in Scotland On Sunday, 06 February, 2011
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