BY Daniel Birnbaum in Features | 01 JAN 03
Featured in
Issue 72

Notes From the Underground

Daniel Roth

BY Daniel Birnbaum in Features | 01 JAN 03

Elsewhere a person floating in the warm pool of a thermal bath in Bulgaria has a vision involving bio-engineered plants developed by the Ford Foundation; a man disappears from the face of the earth with the help of Chinese doctors, only to rematerialize as a landscape image transmitted through a strangely primitive-looking fax device. In A User's Guide to the Millennium (1996) J. G. Ballard contends: 'I'd like to see more psycho-literary ideas, more meta-biological and meta-chemical concepts, private-time concepts, synthetic psychologies and space-times, all in all a complete speculative poetry of fantasy and science.' What he doesn't know, because no one told him, is that he wants the art of Roth.

His delicate black and white drawings are so explicit that they leave little open to conjecture. They show architectural constructions, interiors equipped with elaborate mechanical devices, and supermodernistic milieux reminiscent of the stage sets of James Bond films. Although fragmentary, the drawings display things clearly. For instance, Town Hidden under Concrete (2001) depicts a valley filled with cement and indicates the location of buildings hidden under the even surface. It's all pedagogically rendered, and the image doesn't seem irregular in any way until you pause to consider its implications: a city entombed in cement - what kind of dark vision is this? Compared to most utopian fantasies, Roth's imaginary universe is unusually morose. A cement-covered town situated where five valleys meet is the strange locus for a series of interconnected projects, all involving subterranean tunnels and pipes connecting rooms inside buildings with each other and with the world outside, where the sun is presumably still shining. The tunnels appear in virtually all of Roth's works, linking reality with spheres of imagination and the present with zones geographically as well as temporally distant. Roth's art lives up to all of Ballard's hopes for a speculative kind of fiction that brings together such unrelated things as a modern office building and the Shanghai zoo, examples that actually sound as if they were taken from one of the artist's recent projects.

In the same way that the mysterious system of tunnels is always linked to the world as we know it, maps, geographical sketches and all kinds of factual details make this attachment to reality quite convincing. The boring mediocrity of the subterranean system of catacombs is very familiar: I recognize the atmosphere from villages in Switzerland and Germany, and from descriptions in the novels of Thomas Bernhard. It is often mentioned that these places emanate a kind of provincial claustrophobia. Whether issuing from a boathouse in Switzerland, a Modernist French office building or a house in Slovenia, this dullness seems to contain something threatening. Some possible scenarios: behind a hidden door a stairway leads the visitor to the meeting-room of an occult sect; a lift takes us to the headquarters of an extremist political organization equipped with a private army; through a system of grottoes we travel in mini cars to a secret science centre, where researchers are busy exploring the effect of various forms of radiation on living organisms.

All of these bizarre, dramatic and sometimes frightening phenomena could very well be found - or at least be alluded to - in Roth's installations. While his work includes paintings, photographs and sculptural elements, drawing seems to be the medium in which the most astonishing aspects of his narratives are rendered, in a dry and unambiguous fashion. Even when they are very large, the drawings are subtle in tone: they visualize unbelievable scenarios in precise black and white. The sculptures represent single pieces of lurid evidence from the monstrous world depicted in pencil on paper. Often large and colourful, they have a different physical presence but remain quite enigmatic outside the narrative sequences of the drawings. The photographs, finally, tend to bring the fantastic accounts back to the world of geographical fact. They supply evidence in the criminological sense: this is the village, the building, the office where it all begun. Right here, behind this door, inside this closet.

Untitled (Gabriele D'Annunzio) (2000) is a project, originally presented at Art Basel, 2000 that combines visual facts with wild technological fantasies. The geographical starting-point is the small Pension Hohl at Lake Garda, in immediate proximity to a famous military ship that belonged to Italian master of decadence Gabriele D'Annunzio. Roth's installation - consisting of a reconstruction of a room inside the ship, drawings and sculptural elements - conjures up a science-fiction-like transformation of the entire landscape, which takes place in the early evening, when the neon on the roof of the hotel is lit. Through a clandestine tunnel that starts in the lobby the guest can enter the interior of the mysterious ship. This is where the shift is triggered: the mountains start to move, gradually come closer and finally make the whole of the lake disappear.

In the most ordinary of places mystery lurks around the corner. The general atmosphere in most of Roth's works is one of paranoia. Literary to the core, his visual stories have more to do with the imaginary universes of Franz Kafka or Edgar Allan Poe than with any form of modern or contemporary art. Paranoia projects complex scenarios: the script is never simple, always labyrinthine and full of detail. Does Roth give expression to a kind of suspicion that we all carry within us? Do we have a right to be paranoid? Speaking of the huge institutions completely beyond our control - the banking systems, political and advertising conglomerates and vast entertainment empires - Ballard wrote: 'They've made themselves more user-friendly but they define the tastes to which we conform. They're rather subtle, subservient tyrannies, but no less sinister for that.'

Roth's anxieties, however, are more classical, perhaps even old-fashioned. Like all detectives, he's paranoid, but at the very kernel of this paranoia is also hope and a great sense of freedom waiting around the corner. What is frightening is not so much the fantastic worlds opening up behind the façades of boredom as the suffocating dullness itself. The real horror would be if there were no labyrinths behind the closed doors. Thus the phantasmagoria really represents an escape route. The sad-looking house that opens Roth's book Bergsturz (Mountain Fall, 1999) would be too depressing if it weren't connected to a network of secret corridors, grottoes, subterranean headquarters and lifts that take the visitors to the peak of the mountain. If there were just that dreary German house, standing alone in the dispiriting outskirts of some forlorn village, it would just be too sad. That really can't be the whole story.

I sit down on a bench close to the river and start to read a short piece by Jorge Luis Borges. I've already read it some 20 times, but every new reading brings a surprise. What happens? You sit on a bench in a German town, and suddenly you're in Buenos Aires. You read half a page, and you're catapulted to ancient China. The text is a labyrinth. My reading is a labyrinth. Can art transport you in the same manner through time and space? Clearly that hasn't been the aim of the vast majority of artists in recent times. Roth's work sometimes makes it happen - not through elaborate high-tech installations but through the worlds conjured up with the help of a black line on a white background.