in Opinion | 10 SEP 04
Featured in
Issue 85

This Mortal Coil

As a recent retrospective made clear, the playful and visceral work of Dieter Roth is a vivid reminder of human fragility

in Opinion | 10 SEP 04

Early in the Dieter Roth exhibition at New York’s Museum of Modern Art one came across an etching belonging to the series ‘Shit: New Poems by Dieter Roth’. The title of the image was My Eye is a Mouth (1966). In a period when critical discourse has become obsessed by the gaze – usually disembodied, yet somehow inherently male – the blunt physicality of this declaration is perhaps more startling than when it was initially made. The heterosexual masculinity of Roth’s art is indisputable, though only an intellectual prude would complain of its exuberant slap-and-tickle eroticism. What is surprising, however, is the economy with which Roth explicitly linked the act of seeing with voracious orality and then, connecting the holes, so to speak, made it plain that what goes in the eye/mouth comes out as art/shit.

That the latter two terms are associated is hardly news to anyone who has read Sigmund Freud, but the pairing of eye and mouth that results from reversing the logic of the digestive track from bottom to top does radically alter one’s point of view. Roth worked out the artistic and psychological ramifications of this peristaltic equation in various formats and materials; in his several Literaturwurst (1961), turd-like sausages filled with the chopped pages of great books he despised; in installations made of rotting cheese (‘Who cut the cheese?’ is a German expression for ‘Who farted?’); and in faecal chocolate paintings and sculptural multiples that he turned out in his Hamburg ‘Mould Museum’ workshop and his Basel studio, parodying commercial production. Combined with the other biodegradable substances he fastened onto midway through his career (real sausages, dry spices, damp sugar, squashed bananas and more), Roth – who adopted an outwardly playful yet formally perverse Pop manner of a vaguely psychedelic variety – found his vocation in making art that unmade itself and his medium in materials that had a life, and hence a death, of their own.

Indeed, few have made the inevitability of decay more central to their work than Roth. As a deft hand at precipitating exquisite degradation, Joseph Beuys was his only rival. The fact that both were Germans who came of age surrounded by the devastation of war partially accounts for their orientation, as does the delayed impact of historical Dada’s ‘anti-art’ procedures on European artists generally after 1945. Except for their industriousness, the similarities between Roth and Beuys end there, and in life the mostly indirect competition between them favoured the public reputation of Beuys, the symbolist bricoleur of mystical relics and the jack of all avant-garde trades, over that of Roth, the whimsical semiotician of failure and the anti-master of all styles. Whereas Beuys teased high art and then democraticized it by fiat, thereby making himself immensely popular among groups normally at odds with one another, Roth succeeded only too well in deflating high art’s rhetoric while eschewing any compensatory idealism, with the result that anyone drawn to his work found themselves alone in a claustrophobic labyrinth of images and objects with a prodigiously talented but relentless trickster who offered no more consolation to his fans than he did to himself.

In addition to Roth’s habit of leaving unmovable ensembles of sculpture behind him and scattering works on paper to the wind, his puckish but implacable scepticism may explain why we had to wait so long for a retrospective of his multifaceted production and equally multifarious destructions. Nevertheless, it is hard to imagine a more timely exhibition. The resonance between Roth’s visceral anarchism and that of Paul McCarthy and his cohorts is part of the reason. It is not so much that such contemporaries owe Roth anything – McCarthy doesn’t – as that they have prepared the way for the kind of mess Roth makes of tidy minds, his own first of all. And just as McCarthy, Mike Kelley and others of their generation are now, Roth was a great disenthraller, whose emphasis on bodily functions was never merely bad-boy misconduct but rather the basis for a categorical rejection of aesthetic Romanticism.

Yet there was always an underlying melancholy and, in the final stages of his dishevelled existence, a poignancy to Roth’s work that have not made themselves felt among these younger artists. If the funk sensibility has an old-age style, then Roth was its pre-eminent exponent. Nowhere was that more apparent than in Solo Scene (1997–8), an installation consisting of 131 tiered video monitors showing uncut real-time sequences of the prematurely aged artist going about his daily routines: drawing, reading, listening to music, eating, sleeping, drinking, going to the bathroom and so on. On the one hand it is like watching a Swiss watch run down, on the other it is almost a cinéma vérité rendition of Bruce Nauman’s neon-sign conjugation of the verbs of being, 100 Live and Die (1972). There is no telling how many people actually saw this exhibition at Basel’s Schaulager, where it had its début, in Cologne’s Museum Ludwig or in its truncated form at MoMA in exile – for the most part, one guesses, dedicated gallery-goers and intrepid tourists – but at a moment when desperately shiny things crowd the art world horizon, Roth’s artfully derelict demurrers have a paradoxical freshness, and his intimations of mortality make the sterile morbidity of so much new work seem callow. After all, the eye/mouth is moist and warm, and so too for a poetically protracted interval is the art/shit made by the true artist, who never forgets that, aside from our churning, wheezing, palpitating organs, we are just a bag of bones.