The final year of Dieter Roth’s life repeats itself across 128 monitors, as though diffuse moments missed were, at least, not entirely lost. This is ‘Solo Scenes’ (1997–98), for which Roth filmed his everyday existence in real time. Set at his various studios in Germany, Iceland and Switzerland, each monitor shows the artist’s solitary actions over one or two days. He showers; he polishes his shoes; he picks his nose; he reads in bed; he works. But entire days are also missing. For instance, there is no footage of 7 June 1997 when Roth travelled from his Basel studio to the Musée d’Art Contemporain in Marseille to prepare for the exhibition ‘Stretch & Squeeze’, with his son, assistant and long-time collaborator Björn. In the relatively small amount of literature on Roth’s work, Björn is often described as indispensible, but he too is curiously absent from these monitors.
‘Solo Scenes’ is not the first time Roth documented his life on video camera. For the Swiss Pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 1982, he made the installation Diary, shot on Super-8 and displayed as simultaneous projections across the wall. From this work, we learned of Roth’s attention to self-presentation; the Diary recordings are significantly more self-censoring than those documenting his final year. In an interview in 1979, Roth expressed the assumption that the multiple diaries he wrote daily – including those on display in Camden – would eventually be read by others. A number of writers describe Roth’s shame at his own appearance, as well as certain aspects of his personality. Initially this would seem to be at odds with the artist’s compulsion to record himself. It is here, however, that a more complicated relationship involving Roth’s various forms of obsessive documenting can be understood. A diary written with an audience in mind is also a self-portrait; the staging of oneself is inevitably the rendering of a legacy.
The exhibition in London built on a version shown last year at The Fruitmarket Gallery in Edinburgh. Several works were added, including the ‘Old Bali Tischmatten’ (Old Bali Tablemats, 1974–84), which were apparently used in the artist’s Iceland studio to prevent tabletops from becoming dirty. Inscribed with doodles, telephone numbers and spilt ink, these works also become vitalistic inscriptions of an otherwise unremarkable workaday ethic within the context of Roth’s project at large. The focus of the exhibition remained on the ‘Diaries’, in reference to both a palm-sized booklet used to keep a daily record of events; as well as the word’s adjectival form used to describe the ephemera of a single day.
The latter is nowhere more apparent than in ‘Flat Waste’ (1975–76/92), an expansive archive dedicated to the quotidian cataloguing of arbitrary detritus. Objects recovered are allocated an individual plastic filing sleeve within the relevant binder. Specimens range from cigarette butts to fruit peel, from postcards to newspapers. It is within this archive that the viewer is alerted to Roth’s fixation on the index of waste and decay as an imprint. Again, an archive maintained is an archive that will surely be mined. And when taking into account that ‘Flat Waste’ is a work conceived by the artist (first shown in the final year of his life) rather than a retrospective presentation courtesy of his estate, the overwhelming inclination is that Roth’s intention is prescriptive rather than nostalgic.
A selection of the artist’s ‘Diaries’ and ‘Scripts’, which span the majority of his career, were displayed in vitrines throughout the exhibition, and only a handful of the 623 binders that make up ‘Flat Waste’ are available to flick through for the viewer. This may be perfectly understandable for a public exhibition when considering issues of conservation. But restricted access to the products of Roth’s art also begins to reflect the limited scholarship focusing on the artist’s work. Roth is undoubtedly difficult to place, not least when taking into account his various collaborations with figures including Richard Hamilton and Dorothy Iannone, which may help to explain the absence of any authoritative art-historical account. And nor is the work presented here the sum of his production: Roth famously made works using food products, including suitcases filled with moulding cheese, for example. The discord between his intriguing work and the amount of serious literature on his working life is, I suspect, one that will not remain much longer.