In the early 1980s, when Rosemarie Trockel achieved success in the art world, Pop and conceptual art were firmly established, the second wave of feminism was breaking over the crumbling dams of art’s patriarchy and the market was booming. Trockel’s loud, subversive works carried ‘female’ connotations, for instance the now-iconic ‘knitting pictures’ of the 1980s which ran counter to the contemporaneous cult of macho Neue Wilde painters or the stovetop sculptures of the ’90s. Trockel merged Pop, minimal and conceptual art with contemporary theory and humour in an increasingly complex weave. The latest peak of this progression in complexity can now be viewed in the exhibition Märzôschnee ûnd Wiebôrweh sand am Môargô niana më at the Kunsthaus Bregenz. Here, Trockel has set a course through new and recent work that resembles a synthesis of her deliberately bold and simple Pop-influenced beginnings to her later ‘rhizomatic’ phase, to borrow from Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari.
At the start of the exhibition on the first floor, the works are oriented along the aesthetics of production. Trockel presents digital prints on Alu-dibond that feature photos taken on mobile phones, screen shots, sketchy collages and obscure media clips such as the newspaper report ‘bordello boss chops himself up’. In other images, a woman inspects her abdomen with a makeup mirror (Self Inspection, 2002/14), a blonde dude poses in sunglasses (Next Time, 2014) and a disabled person struggles along a canal promenade (Venice could be cold, 2014). Curiously Trockel has placed these prints in bulky frames – made of concrete in reference to the Brutalist museum building designed by Peter Zumthor – and hung them on the wall. Was she aiming to counteract the currently popular process-enamoured research aesthetics in which – out of a fear of auratization – works are returned to the wilds of tabletops, laboratory-like environments or other non-art-related contexts? Or is this a more basic form of referencing and connecting? In his catalogue text accompanying the major travelling 1998 Trockel retrospective which started at the Hamburger Kunsthalle, Uwe M. Schneede wrote that with Trockel’s work, one wound up ‘deeper and deeper in a system of allusions and references in which work concepts, processes, formal solutions, and especially connections between art and society are turned over and over in critical or ironic manner.’ In the same catalogue Wilfried Dickhoff stressed the ‘incomplete polylogue references, lines of flight, traces, and formations of difference’ typical of Trockel. In this show such incomplete references comprised a point of departure, or rather, an archipelago to start from.
The work on the second floor appears far more trenchant. Here, among other things, are the designer sofas cast in steel (including Copy Me, 2013) – which stand in a lineage of Trockel’s earlier, somewhat more comfortable-looking furniture sculptures – as well as her inescapable wool pictures which this time pick up on the aesthetic of analytical concrete and minimalist painting (including Diamant, 2014, and Midsummer, 2013). On the third floor, the works – an easel with a photo of a pin-up girl somewhat didactically attached to it, ceramic body casts, images shown on a projection and mixed-media assemblages – revolve around a sculpture, The Critic (2015), placed at the centre of the space. The mannequin is dressed in hybrid gear – a cross between traditional Bregenz Forest garb and a bulletproof vest. On its head is an upturned pot with tufts of gamsbart, on its back pieces of jewellery made from animal body parts, pinned on like medals.
What does all of this ‘mean’? The ’80s, when Trockel’s art could be interpreted as a statement, is long since passé. Instead, the exhibition makes clear just how indebted her work is to the Postmodern spirit, with its penchant for endless semantics and fetishization of a lost urtext, and to the rhizomatic structures of openness, incompleteness, linkability and process. Yet what was once conceived as an ethical aesthetic of non-identity and progressive formlessness has paradoxically congealed into a form – precisely because it’s now identifiable as a historically locatable type: as a complex of attributes. Looking back over a postmodernism that already appears historic, the question that arises here is whether Trockel’s system hasn’t perhaps become a bit too self-assured: a reference to Minimal art here, a nod to design there; a recourse to her own work here, a political allusion there; a reference to Warhol here, a fashion quote there. Added to this is the fact that today the elements of Trockel’s art which appear in constant repetition and metamorphosis seem to be primarily self-referential and less concerned with their social or political contexts – a fact that robs the work of some of its urgency. With her undeniably sophisticated ‘polylogues’, her irrefutably impressive ‘System of Allusions and References’, Trockel invites viewers to take part in an endless game of tracking, contextualizing, decoding, recoding, linking, unlinking, proposing and rejecting. Yet in a time of new social and economic urgencies, with fervent debates over large geopolitical shifts on the horizon, the revival of 19th and early 20th century chauvinisms, and the cynicism of the art establishment, Trockel’s polylogues can come across as strangely monologic in tone. It’s an irony of the zeitgeist that it’s precisely the subtle, complex and refined that’s forced to capitulate before the coarseness of the moment.
Translated by Andrea Scrima