BY Raphael Gygax in Reviews | 10 NOV 11
Featured in
Issue 3

Dieter Roth

Aargauer Kunsthaus

BY Raphael Gygax in Reviews | 10 NOV 11

Dieter Roth, Diary (Tagebuch), 1982, Installation view

When Dieter Roth died in 1998 he left behind an œuvre which, in its complexity, its quality and the question of its preservation, will present art historians, curators and conservators with a few tough nuts to crack. After the first retrospective of the artist’s work was shown in Basel, Cologne and New York in 2003 with the legendary Gartenskulptur (Garden Sculpture, 1968–96) as its centrepiece, this second exhibition project to take up the Roth complex goes under the title ‘Selves’ – a term that Roth used in place of ‘self-portraits’ – and is dedicated to precisely this topos. After Aargau, ‘Selves’ will travel to Salzburg for its second venue at the Museum der Moderne in spring 2012.

Roth dealt with the problem of the self-portrait throughout every period of his work. Unlike almost any other twentieth-century artist, he created hundreds of ‘selves’ which probed the possibilities of self-examination, self-questioning and self-representation using a range of media, materials and techniques, and in a number of collaborations (with Arnulf Rainer, for example, or his own son Björn Roth).

Dirk Dobke of the Dieter Roth Foundation in Hamburg and Stephan Kunz, the out-going head curator at Aargau, selected Diary as an introduction to the exhibition; the film installation, originally shot on Super-8, was produced for Roth’s contribution to the Swiss pavilion at the 40th Venice Biennale in 1982. Even in digitalized form, the film still conveys the revolutionary spirit of its day, but at the same time it points to the conservation problems facing the administrators of Roth’s estate. Nearly a dozen films – a mosaic of images projected onto the wall – reflect what Roth called the ‘tägliche Gelebte’ (literally, what is ‘daily lived’): the artist sitting at the table, eating, in conversation. Despite the self-censorship (Roth avoided documenting all-too-compromising situations), the piece can be read as a precursor of reality television, but also as a deconstruction 
of the idea of artistic ingenuity. Putting Diary at the start of the exhibition was an adept piece of dramaturgy, for the work is one of the pivotal moments in Roth’s oeuvre. This placement prevented the chronological structure of the show from becoming too rigid and degenerating into a purely additive feat of curatorship; the position facilitated the imaginary possibility of spooling forward 
and backwards.

Roth is still best known for his group of self-portraits in chocolate. The example shown here, P.O.TH.A.A.A.B.F.B. (Portrait of the Artist as a Bird Feed Bust) from 1968, was cast from a mixture of bird feed and chocolate. This choice of materials, still extraordinary even now, can be explained, not only from a historical perspective, with the desire for experimentation which was characteristic of the 1960s, but also at the level of content – namely the referential nod to the title of James Joyce’s novel A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916). Roth counters this portrait with a portrait of himself as an old man, thus prefiguring the disintegration of his own 38-year-old body.

In a diary entry from 1982 Roth noted that he would have liked to have had 40 or 50 projections for Diary, though regrettably this was impossible for financial reasons. Solo Scenes (1997–98) can thus be read as a sort compensation. Roth presents his personal universe for the last time on 128 monitors lined up on shelves, though in contrast to the Diary installation he also shows himself in extremely intimate situations. One of the most harrowing scenes shows the artist experiencing severe heart problems. For Solo Scenes Roth was able to wrest one last self-portrait from himself – one whose radicalism can hardly be surpassed and which again incorporates every aspect of his work in such a wonderful way. Arnulf Rainer inscribed the following words on one of their collaborative portraits: ‘Dieter Roth is sick of this world and shows it by spitting his oeuvre out.’ This extensive exhibition managed to span the gap between the Roth icons and the smaller, less frequently shown groups of work – and a bit of the spit has stuck.
Translated by Jonathan Blower

Raphael Gygax is an art historian and critic. He lives in Zurich, where he has worked at the Migros Museum of Contemporary Art since 2003.