ALL of life was art to Dieter Roth, including the things most of us just throw away. The view of the ancient Greeks, as seen at the ECA, would have been rather different
LONG ago, it seemed that the business of art was to describe the world so that we could understand it better. It was an enterprise in which art and science were partners. But there was a problem. David Hume put it most directly: how can we describe what we are part of? But he also asked: if we turn inwards, where is the self?
Whichever way you look, inwards or outwards, nothing is certain or definite except consciousness, and even that can be shaky. Before Hume, Rembrandt, in his self-portraits, had already sought to capture both the elusiveness of the self and the conundrum of subject that is also object. Among Hume’s contemporaries, in his Confessions his sometime friend and later enemy, Jean Jacques Rousseau, followed Rembrandt. The book was the first literary self-portrait. Because of the analogy, when Allan Ramsay painted Rousseau for his friend, Hume, he made him look like Rembrandt. The object-subject conundrum shaped modern art, but it is insoluble and in consequence artistic choices seem eventually to have been reduced to two very limited options, either complete self- absorption or the absurd.
Which brings me to Dieter Roth: Diaries, at the Fruitmarket. In what the artist called “the unconstrained representation of his life” that this show reflects, he takes all this to its logical conclusion. His life is his art, and he lived out its logic to the end. He kept diaries and they are an important part of the show, but he kept everything else too. He couldn’t throw anything away.
Twice his studio was cleared, effectively it seems because it was a public health risk, but if he couldn’t keep absolutely all the rubbish he generated, he could at least keep his two-dimensional rubbish and here it is, crisp packets, newspapers, sweetie wrappers, accumulated over years, all dated and neatly filed away in plastic envelopes. He seems to have suffered from Diogenes syndrome, one of the symptoms of which is the compulsive hoarding of rubbish. Here it is elevated to the status of art. (Diogenes actually threw everything away, so it is a rather inverted piece of naming).
Another symptom, apparently, is lack of shame. Here, too, Roth conforms. The main work in the show consists of three banks of video monitors. Each one is different and together they project countless hours of film in which the artist recorded every moment of his life. Here he is going to bed, getting into the bath, sleeping, eating and occasionally working. It is disturbing to intrude on someone’s life like this with all privacy removed. He is a voyeur, but is himself the object of his own prurience and by calling it art, he makes us reluctantly complicit.
There is another dimension. One reason why the artist’s studio became such a health hazard was his interest in biodegradable art: rotten art rotting, perhaps. These films take that to its logical conclusion, but also link it to the consequence of Hume’s question. It reduces art to self, but we grow old, the self biodegrades. These films record the last year of the artist’s life and its inevitable decline. The last film is from May 1998. He died in June that year. Except for the last tape, he is alone. The absurdist logic is the same as in Samuel Beckett’s novel Malone Dies, or his play Krapp’s Last Tape. Both are also lonely first-person narratives recording the end of the life of a solitary eccentric.
There can be no doubt Roth’s work reflects deeply on the concerns that have shaped modern art. What conclusions it suggests about the validity or usefulness of those concerns is another question altogether. It is, however, one to which Alexander Stoddart has an emphatic answer. In an essay in the catalogue of Cast Contemporaries at Edinburgh College of Art, he proposes that since artists began to try to describe the world, modern art has been fatally distracted from art’s real goal.
The cast collection that the college inherited from the Trustees Academy, now beautifully restored, represents the tradition of ideal sculpture that began in ancient Greece. The collection was formed to teach that ideal as the basic discipline of art. We lost sight of that and the cast collection became redundant. Had this not happened, in Stoddart’s view all the rubbish- collecting solipsism of Dieter Roth would have been impossible, or at least it could never have been called art.
For Stoddart, the “world is a material illusion”; the ideal is a metaphysical force. It makes redundant all the philosophical anxieties that have produced modernism. Artists in antiquity, he argues, looked through nature’s muddle to find the hidden grandeur that, like Plato’s forms, lies behind it. As William Blake put it: “Nature has no outline. Imagination has.” In other words, only imagination can cut through the confusion of experience to find clarity; through uncertainty to find definition. Dieter Roth’s exhibition, in contrast, presents only the uncertainty. Nevertheless, it is also true that the only thing certain in human life is just that, uncertainty.
In the exhibition, the restored casts themselves inevitably outshine everything else. Almost the only art works that stand up to them are the drawings done from them by students in the Trustees Academy under the direction of Robert Scott Lauder. Mostly, though, you can’t confront such a tradition without looking trivial, as much of the art here does.
Paul Harvey’s Girl at her Toilet, a girl sitting on the edge of the bath in a 1960s minidress, echoes a classical image of Venus at her toilet. It’s a nice drawing, but trying to rework a classical image like this only underlines the gulf between the classical ideal and the specific and temporal which configure our experience. Dylan Shields’ classical figures in corrugated cardboard suffer from the same limitations. Kenny Hunter, however, makes a link to Dieter Roth which also underlines the difference. End Product is a sculpture of a splitting rubbish bag, but it has the smooth finish and formal folds of neoclassical art. Stoddart himself is represented by a photograph of him at work in his studio on a statue of Coila, the muse of Ayrshire invented by Burns.
One of the most thoughtful works here is by Christine Borland. Casts were used in medicine just as they were in art. Borland has taken a broken and neglected anatomical cast and lovingly restored it. The original was made from an anonymous individual whose corpse was dissected long ago. It is certainly not ideal, therefore, yet it looks quite at home among all the noble classical figures; the aesthetic of the plaster cast is remarkably inclusive.
There is also a cast of the ecorché body of an executed criminal dissected by William Hunter. It was long thought to be anonymous, but has now been identified as one James Langar who was hanged in 1776. He is posed as the classical sculpture, the Dying Gaul, and taking its own identity the cast has always been called Smugglerius. Subject, object, life, death, art, science – the whole story is an extraordinary zig-zag between the real and the ideal. Art embraced subjectivity, and science valiantly attempted to hang on to objectivity. They diverged, but here they meet. Maybe, too, in the end it is all not so far from Dieter Roth.
Quite the most beautiful modern tribute to these casts is a set of photographs by Norman McBeath. With a humility that is all too uncommon in contemporary art, he captures the enduring beauty of the originals. It shines through the casting process, but even more tellingly through all the vicissitudes of changing taste and through all the vagaries of institutionalised educational thinking.
• Dieter Roth: Diaries until 14 October; Cast Contemporaries until 2 September.