WITH the painstakingly intimate video diary of his final days, Dieter Roth has bequeathed us a hugely absorbing and poignant reflection on life and death
THERE are many things to learn from the art of Dieter Roth at the Fruitmarket Gallery. One of them, surely, is about the myriad uses of kitchen roll. In his tiny kitchen while cooking, at his desk making a drawing, or while writing his diaries, Roth was never without the stuff.
It’s hanging on a wire from the wall. It’s there in his studio in Basel, Switzerland, and in his workroom in Iceland too. Even when he was reading, Roth used it – the cylinder laid horizontally – to prop up a book.
Roth died in 1998. But we know these intimate things about him because he let us see them in Solo Scenes, the extraordinary artwork he made about the last year of his life.
Solo Scenes is a video diary completed before the age of video diaries, web cams and internet narcissism reached its high watermark. 128 small video monitors, mounted on utilitarian storage shelves mark out the span of Roth’s final days. Your attention flickers from screen to screen. There is no past or present, just an endless now.
Roth reads, writes, draws, props himself up in bed, goes to the loo, packs and unpacks as he prepares to move from place to place. There is a curious consistency, an order and tranquillity around him. Sometimes he is lit by the pale pool of anglepoise lamps; sometimes he sits in dim twilight or darkness.
He’s in a kind of bubble of absorption. At first you think that in continuing to work, Roth was seeking some kind of salvation. Then as the minutes grind by and become hours and days, you wonder if he believed in salvation at all. This is it, this is all there is: the absolutely ordinary. The task at hand, the tool at hand: the kitchen roll.
Roth was a brilliant artist, a messy alcoholic, a peripatetic Swiss German who spent much of his adult life in Iceland. His art was sprawling, unfinished, yet had secret order and inventiveness. He was a concrete poet, who extended his poetry to music and the visual arts. He gave literary things visual structure and visual things literary values. He was defiantly a poet of the everyday, but also a poet of the self.
Although in his lifetime he was widely recognised as an important figure of the avant-garde (and inevitably, his only ever exhibition in Scotland before this one, was at the hands of Richard Demarco in 1970), his posthumous reputation has been exponential. It’s only now we can see him more clearly as a herald of many aspects of the art of our times. Roth’s art acknowledges that you can’t ever see quite past your own subjectivity.
Dieter Roth: Diaries is an extraordinary exhibition that continues the Fruitmarket Gallery’s status as a major international museum in all but name. Academics, cultural historians are only beginning to scratch the surface of Roth’s art and this show, which focuses on his diary-making and self-portraiture, sets out a simple premise from which infinite possibilities extend.
Watching Roth shuffling towards the grave, in his black woollen hat and striped dressing gown, it’s not hard to see the artist as an ageing Rembrandt or a secular saint. But Roth says something more complex, less tangible. The fact that we can’t escape our messy selves, that ordinariness counts as something extraordinary and the business of living is never quite finished even as it ends.
Sainthood is something that maybe happened to the sculptor Donald Judd, the American artist who became one of the most important sculptors of the 20th century. After experimentation Judd achieved much of his art by deliberate delegation, meaning that small fabricators, steel shops and other artists made the work to his very specific but also knowingly oblique requests.
Judd’s art is often described as minimalism, but it’s a term he hated. His attempt to resist the handmade, the artist’s touch, the symbolic, the expressive, the representational has been a touchstone for many artists, even those whose works look nothing like Judd’s austere boxes.
The exhibition in the Talbot Rice Gallery’s magnificent Georgian Gallery thus has a paradoxical whiff of the church about it and the works on show are like sacred relics.
Judd’s drawings were either “instructional” or “portrait” drawings: an attempt to practically communicate what he wanted, or an attempt to record the results. Most fascinating of all are the extensive records of the Bernstein Brothers’ workshop, their worksheets, bills and correspondence. Judd’s sculptures appear as seamless, almost magic objects, pristine and cool. The Bernstein papers reveal the practical labour required to make magic.
At once dry as dust and curiously moving, the show sits well in the Edinburgh gallery. Judd had a longstanding interest in Enlightenment philosophers like Hume, and a fondness for the patterns made by pipers and tartan. His fabricator, the artist and art historian Peter Ballantine, who curated the exhibition, once studied in the city.
Carolee Schneeman, a towering giant of American experimental art, once took part in a radical performance on the London to Edinburgh train. I love to imagine the faces of the unwitting passengers. Schneeman is hardcore. She was right there at the beginning of performance art when performances were known as happenings, her career intertwined with the leading giants of experimental film and music.
Now 73, Schneeman changed the way female artists were seen. She challenged artistic traditions of passive nudity with frank assertions of nakedness. At Summerhall she sits well in a programme that confirms the Edinburgh venue as one of the most exciting for a generation. The sprawling campus that was once the Dick Vet School is a world away from the corporate behemoths of the festival.
Schneeman is best known through the archive images of her most famous performances Meat Joy (1964) and Interior Scroll (1975). She’s the kind of artist who stares out at you from a textbook, her face smeared in substances, her naked body caked in stuff. It’s strangely horrifying then to find that Unsettled, Schneeman’s first work in the gloomy Hope Terrace gallery at Summerhall, is the detritus of a performance, in which the artist tore up vintage photographic prints of her own performance work Eye Body of 1964. It’s sacrilegious this: a bad omen, destroying your own image and history.
It’s not fashionable to admit that artworks can sometimes be frightening. There were moments in this exhibition of video installations when I’ll admit to being frankly terrified.
There are the blasted bodies in Devour, a horrible interplay of domestic scenes set against horrifying images of conflict in places such as Lebanon and Palestine. There are the distorting mirrors of the installation Precarious, which unsettles you with thumping soundtracks and ambivalent images.
But more than the gloom and the violence is the intimacy. In Infinity Kisses, Schneeman recorded her morning greeting from her pet cat, which wakes her each day with a kiss. It goes on and on. The cat kisses the artist, again and again forever. I think of the Schneeman’s face staring up at me from the ragged photos on the floor. And once again, I think of Dieter Roth and his kitchen roll. What does it mean to record all this stuff? What does it mean to watch it?
• Dieter Roth: Diaries, Fruitmarket Gallery, until October 14; Donald Judd, Talbot Rice Gallery, until October 20; Carolee Schneeman, Summerhall, until September 27. www.edinburghartfestival.com
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