in Features | 11 NOV 98
Featured in
Issue 43

Untidy Minds

The crowded rooms of Jonathan Meese, Dieter Roth and Jason Rhoades

in Features | 11 NOV 98

Scenario 1: The room is a mess. Towers of books and magazines (you never know when you might need them), wine glasses, crumbs of chocolate, notes on torn-out pieces of paper, cigarette butts, plates smeared with dried-up spaghetti sauce: there's only one raft in this typhoon of objects - at the eye of the storm, your computer (or your canvas, your record player, the book you're reading, your TV, or the one sacred spot where you always have a blank sheet of paper and a pencil). It's a safe place, even if it is covered with yellow Post-It notes; at least you have the physical presence of hardware and the logic of software, even if your data's in a mess. Late at night, with only a small lamp to see by, you first try to conquer, then to ignore the jumble; then suddenly it turns into a bed of roses enabling you to produce, to write, to whatever. It's like a life-support system, where production is the pumping heart and active mind, the rest of the room a near-dead body.

Scenario 2: You can't even think about thinking until the residue of life and work is sorted into shelves and boxes and files and dustbins. Especially dustbins: be brutal, it's not worth keeping. Your desk is a dream of architectural order. The room is a model of functionality. Ah, it's like fresh air; you float above the scene, everything is easy and at hand. You're on top of the world. Now that everything is in its place, you can start, ready for take-off. But it's late, and it all took so long you're exhausted.

Most of us live somewhere between these two extremes, although we might at points in our lives experience both situations, even within a single day. The ways in which artists deal with rooms and objects often reveal something about how they became who they are, how they work with the polarities of chaos and order, form and function, re-enactment and repression. Some artists' work is mega-messy, more than you might be prepared to take, cramming the room so that you're right in the work and there's no space to step back and reflect.

This could be seen as a form of attention-grabbing, dominating spaces by volume rather than by content. On the other hand, putting it all up can be a nightmare, and transporting it must cost a fortune. It's a risk. Dieter Roth, who died in June at the age of 68, tells us through his crickly-crackly handwriting in the photocopied, low-tech catalogue for his show at Vienna's Secession in 1995, that he had always hoped some generous Swiss collector would sponsor the transport of the two (later three) containers in which the incredible and insurmountable mess of Gartenskulptur (begun in 1968) was stored while not exhibited.

Some artists seem to have an almost psycho-social need to disturb us with their enormously-detailed little big worlds, and you would have had to have been virtually dead not to feel this momentum on entering Hamburg-based Jonathan Meese's first solo show earlier this year at Contemporary Fine Arts, Berlin. He made you feel like a guest who arrives early, the host still out, the windows shut, but the door unlocked. Entering a bohemian squatter's den, you find the music still on (some Neil Young record, or Robert Mitchum doing Calypso); being curious, you look through things, feeling at once displaced and familiar.

Your first thought might be: oh, the usual teen-idol paraphernalia. But soon the impression you've gleaned of your host becomes dense and lively: photos are plastered over the walls, floors and ceiling of the long-haired Meese grimacing, wearing a Napoleon hat or a plastic helmet. The two rooms of the gallery have been transformed into a crudely-built plywood labyrinth of narrow passages, staircases and arcades. It's too detailed, too insane for a real teen bedroom: a number of (mostly 70s) cult figures, such as Burt Reynolds, Bruce Lee, Klaus Kinski and Diana Rigg are worshipped, every inch of the space covered with black and white photocopies and colour prints; there are crime novels, plastic carnival helmets, and scribbled commentaries everywhere. This mess has a kind of system, though, and is divided in three main rooms: a little TV at the centre of the first room plays the orgy movie Caligula (1980), starring Malcolm McDowell, with Dutch subtitles; the second room has Clockwork Orange (1971), again featuring McDowell, on a monitor under a rusty metal grid so you can walk over it; and a third small room shows Zardoz (1973), John Boorman's bizarre Sci-Fi B-movie starring Sean Connery.

Taken as isolated elements, these pictures, movies and words would be nothing but camp retro-references, but en masse they become starting points for a manic investigation into the reality of a particular kind of image - the grimace. When you look at all these famous faces, you realise it's not their beauty and the promise of glamour and romance that gives them their power. While the models and actresses who turn up in Karen Kilimnik's sparser arrangements are immediately targets of envy, Meese's grimacers transform the desires projected onto them into desire-as-power, the Sadean way. The grimaces signal a hedonist, polymorphous insatiability, paralysed by the freeze frame, the price paid for such moments of triumph in the focus of public attention. Even Diana Rigg's Emma Peel - one of the few women represented in the installation - shows, in several different photos, the same studied, slightly raised, right-hand corner of the mouth.

Zardoz turns out to be the clearest allegory in Meese's installation: the movie tells the story of a future world in which an elitist race has built a paradise in which nobody has to work, nobody dies and everyone is brainwashed. The rest of the planet are illiterate hunter-gatherers who worship a god called Zardoz: a big flying, grinning stone head that periodically orders them about in curt, aggressive terms. Sean Connery, as Zed the moustachioed rebel, eventually discovers the idiotic little clown who's hiding in the flying head, revealing Meese's leitmotif, the face of the false god - the grimace.

Indeed, all the pictures and scribbles mainly work as beds of disorder where these grimaces can feel at home, a teenage sanatorium for idols of transgression, aggressive only towards those who feel personally attacked by messy rooms. As with Stan Laurel, looking at Meese with an undersized policeman's helmet on his head and his tongue under his lower lip is not exactly frightening. This might be serious, but it's a serious game, a hide and seek of desire, and Meese is the first to admit it.

Dieter Roth's room-filling installations play the opposite role. Roth appeared to view the gallery as a place to get rid of the residues of his own work - a respectable scrapyard offering trade-ins to create space and money for new accumulations. At least that's the story of his best-known installation, Big Ruined Table. In 1979, Roth decided to include his actual studio table in an exhibition of his books and graphics at Staatsgalerie Stuttgart, along with all the material on and around it - cameras, brushes, pencils, tools, tape-recorders - with projectors showing him working at the table. With every re-installation, it got bigger and bigger, with new appendages added, or old ones augmented. Every time a projector breathed its last, a new one would simply be mounted on top of it, so that over the years, a tower built up. On display at Galerie Hauser & Wirth in Zurich at the time of Roth's death, the mess had grown to over 12 metres wide.

Roth was fuelled by something at the heart of all room-cramming: the desire to overcome, through materials, the fear and hate created by social and internal conflict. What held him together and tore him up at the same time, apart from writing and alcohol, were his attempts to level out this production of chaos with orderly, serial works. In 1973, for example, the German-born Swiss artist photographed every single house in his adopted hometown of Reykjavik, Iceland, creating 14,000 slides; in 1990, he repeated the project, this time amassing 20,000 slides. In 1972 and 1976, he collected every piece of what he called his 'flat waste' (invoices, stickers, envelopes, used pieces of toilet paper), sorting them into 1,100 files, chronologically ordered and labelled. This order proved to be only temporary relief, and eventually the Big Ruined Table became Roth's real retreat, the material witness to his artistic life, his raft, the big projector screen on top the sail.

The nemesis of these crammed rooms is less the white cube than Western society's home-sweet-home and its mode of accumulation, its random, at times neurotic, habit of keeping and replacing. There are extensive moonlight economies of can and paper recycling; many retro fashions rely directly on the average household's processes of consuming, littering, renovating and moving. So it's little wonder that one of the most prominent room-crammers in recent art is from LA, the world's capital of one-family-homes, cars, garages and thrift-store economies.

For Jason Rhoades, the city is a tool-kit with all the material he could possibly want: legions of DIY supermarkets, trade supplies and custom car specialists, electronic stores and factory outlets. When Kurt Schwitters began his MERZbau in 1923, reconstructing his bourgeois Hanover flat and creating an 'environment' long before Allan Kaprow, he had to rely on the relatively small variety of materials available. With these materials he built a network of tunnels through which mice could run around, releasing light switches and creating a literally lively installation.

Jason Rhoades' white mice were the visitors thrown into The Purple Penis and the Venus (Installed in the Seven Stomachs of Nürnberg) as Part of the Creation Myth (1998), his recent mega-installation at the Kunsthalle Nürnberg's suite of seven rooms. The title played on, among other things, the way the town's name is synonymous with that of the home of the annual Nazi rallies and the subsequent war trials. The customised environments were held together by an artery of cables running through the building, circulating electricity and transmitting video footage taken from cameras in all rooms to a monitor in the first, positioned casually on top of a broken Atari arcade machine. The overall atmosphere was not one of a paranoid desire for control, but a tinkering playfulness; the little plastic cameras were just another toy from the discount electronic store, and deeper in, one found a phantasmagoria of key geeky insignia: the super-luxury TV-massage-armchair in front of the Nintendo console, a laptop used exclusively to download porn from the Internet, piles of family-size pizza boxes and beer cans, a Hawaiian shirt, a Nike shoebox, tools, guns and lots, lots more.

The literary elements present in the work of Meese or Roth were ironically rejected: Rhoades' seventh room is a library, stuffed with hundreds of copies of the same edition of Marian Webster's Desk Dictionary. (The catalogue for the show is structured from A to Z as well.) While the artist would never miss an opportunity to show off his poetic capabilities when titling his works (Theatre in my Dick, Swedish Erotica and Fiero Parts, Purple Penis... etc.), his visual allegories work on a much more direct level. Jackhammers cry out to be identified as phalluses, buckets as vaginas, while the visual imagination is cleaved like wood: in a video on display, Rhoades explains that information entering the brain is divided into three categories: 'everyday life' (which seems to consist of openings and meeting gallery personnel), 'work' (representations of the artist's works), 'love' (hardcore porn). Rhoades cuts this information into pieces and piles them up, like a lumberjack stacks wood.

The brutal humour of this is obvious, and there's a lot of rude comedy in the work of Meese and Roth, too. But while the latter do not attempt to hide the fact that their struggle with materials is taking on a life of its own, Rhoades wants to appear ironically aware of everything, sovereignly overseeing the scene and juggling with the material language of art. Perhaps Rhoades is attempting a type of subversion, like someone who cracks jokes about his compulsions in order to disguise them. But where Schwitters managed to be simultaneously sarcastic and serious, subtitling MERZbau 'Cathedral of Sexual Misery', Rhoades' Theatre in my Dick is just ironic.

Collecting from thrift stores is not only the province of artists. Many people are simply unable or unwilling to get rid of things, experiencing real problems - or pleasure - managing their stuff. Maybe this hoarding is a way of staving off one's fear of being cast aside, or perhaps it's just another type of collecting, like stamps or tea cups; a way of putting things in order, taking control. There's an element of this in even the most intellectually-driven art or book collector. But that's just one side of the story: post-war generations might interpret these urges as one aspect of the big lie, part of the useless requisites your parents built around you and themselves to divert attention from the real pleasures and troubles outside.