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Issue 236

Rosemarie Trockel’s Disquieting Puzzles

A major retrospective of the artist’s hard-to-define work evidences her shapeshifting nature

BY Mitch Speed in EU Reviews , Exhibition Reviews | 28 APR 23

To write about Rosemarie Trockel is to enter the ranks of the bewildered. In 1988, reviewing the German artist’s exhibition at New York’s Museum of Modern Art for Art in America, Ken Johnson encountered assemblages that appeared ‘as puzzles, which produced the tantalizing feeling that you might be able to figure them out’. After unearthing a couple of Freudian puns in Trockel’s work, Johnson bowed to the fact that they presented only ‘flickering hints’ of sense. It didn’t much matter to Trockel what Johnson could or couldn’t figure out. ‘I keep my eyes open,’ she told artist Jutta Koether in a rare 1987 conversation for Flash Art, ‘and I trust them more than the words of the critics.’ Given how often those words fall short, her point is well made, though not without a dose of anti-intellectual revanchism.

Rosemarie Trockel, Untitled (There is no unhappier creature under the sun than a fetishist who longs for a lady's slipper and has to make do with a whole woman K.K.:F), 1991. Courtesy: © Rosemarie Trockel and VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2022

A few months earlier, critic and curator Klaus Ottmann had reviewed Trockel’s show at Galerie Tanit in Munich. He also solicited help, in the form of a nearly 300-word epigraph quoting two other emerging talents: Friedrich Nietzsche and James Joyce. Ottmann then opened his review with a spritz of adjectival perfume: ‘The art of Rosemarie Trockel is vigorous, subversive, postmodern, sensitive, German, disquieting, feminine, autonomous, surprising, masculine, poetic … ’ After trying to write about Trockel’s work myself, I’m starting to empathize with his scattershot approach. Just listing qualities might be the best way to sum up an artist whose work deliberately resists summation.

Were you to erase the wall labels of Trockel’s current retrospective at MMK Frankfurt, which occupies the museum’s three floors, you could bet your bottom Deutschmark that many visitors would peg it for a group show. Time has arguably disencumbered this pluralistic approach of its radicalism – not least because, in the psycho-morphological web space that increasingly colonizes reality, selfhood can often feel like a perpetually rearranging Rubik’s Cube of tastes, genders and social-class signifiers. That said, Trockel’s heterogeneity continues to stymie writers. Little consistency = little comprehension = sparse grounds for evaluation. What’s a critic to do?

Rosemarie Trockel, Cage Doré, 2021, installation view. Courtesy: Sprüth Magers, © Rosemarie Trockel & VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2022

In MMK’s rotunda, several tasteful ceramic pieces – Challenge (2018) and Cage Doré (2021), amongst others – presage the oncoming dreamscape morass. Looking a bit like abstracted cupboard doors, they’re punctuated by details at once familiar and uncanny: an exhaust fan or cone shapes with holes at their points like vectorized breasts or pimples. Some are woozy pastel colours, others slate black. The wall behind them is silkscreened with a blue woven pattern and titled Prisoner of Yourself (1998/2016). The weaving motif alludes to Trockel’s most famous works: large-scale, machine-knitted ‘paintings’ dating back to 1985, often irreverently patterned with motifs suggesting a consciousness formed by a creepy overlap of industrial processes, synthesized desire, misogyny and nationalist narrative. Untitled (Woolmark/Playboy Bunny) (1985), for example, is a diptych whose left panel was gridded in the Woolmark logo – denoting high quality textile – and the Playboy bunny, the classic leitmotif of modern porn.

Rosemarie Trockel, Pattern Is a Teacher, 2019, installation view. Courtesy: © Rosemarie Trockel and VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2022; photo: Axel Schneider

Given the implied connection between these knitted works, the woven silkscreen mural and the Prisoner nomenclature, a suggestion is made that Trockel feels confined by her own success. Sticklers might object that the language of imprisonment seems excessive for the problem of being set-for-life art royalty. But consider the agoraphobia Trockel suffered from early in her career, as discussed in a 2003 Artforum interview with Isabelle Graw, and a more layered narrative enters the weave.

Continental Divide (1994), one of several videos included in the exhibition, transforms this psychological torment into Beckettian theatre. Two Trockels occupy an interrogation room. One violently demands that the other tell her who the greatest artist is. No answer is satisfactory save for the artist’s own name. In focusing on the fragile creative ego, the video also nets a deeply relatable 21st-century theme – the soul-eating drive to compare oneself to others – which has only been turbocharged by social media.

Rosemarie Trockel, Sabine, 1994, Courtesy: Sprüth Magers, © Rosemarie Trockel & VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2022

Before we even encounter Trockel’s sculptures, prints, drawings and collages, the videos at MMK evidence her shapeshifting nature. Julia, 1020 Jahre (Julia, 1020 Years, 1998) is an arresting outlier. Here, a young girl reflects on life with humbling (if slightly suspicious) eloquence. Then, Toni Braxton’s 1996 ballad Un-break My Heart comes in. The R&B melodrama drives home the weight of a situation that is, when you think about it, also a little heartbreaking: our non-apprehension of the child mind. Then there’s Napoli (1994), a work that’s barely a work at all, in which birds flock to Jimi Hendrix’s ‘Third Stone From the Sun’ (1967).

Rosemarie Trockel, Miss Wanderlust, 2000, installation view. Courtesy: © Rosemarie Trockel & VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2022

A singular chameleon, Trockel surfs styles and techniques while never succumbing to superficial mimesis. Imagine the knowing visual seductions of pop art combined with Marcel Duchamp’s impishness and the gravitas of Joseph Beuys. In her 2010 survey at Kunsthalle Zurich, ‘Verflüssigung der Mutter’ (Liquefaction of the Mother), the artist took a page from Beuys’s book and installed selections of her work in glass vitrines, as though she wanted to beat time at its own withering game by entombing her art in the type of Wunderkammer normally reserved for disintegrating relics. Many of the small sculptures shown in those vitrines reappear at MMK, but this time out in the open. In Daddy’s Striptease Room (1990), a cardboard box printed with the work’s title encases a model-size cathedral, setting off pinballing thoughts about perversion in the Catholic church. The kinks keep kinking in Ohne Titel (Untitled, 2005), a cheeky head-hunter fantasy, in which a mannequin head sits in a transparent Perspex box, wearing a sleeping mask and a wig.

Rosemarie Trockel, Ohne Titel, 2005, installation view. Courtesy: © Rosemarie Trockel and VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2022; photograph: Frank Sperling

When she reviewed the Zurich retrospective for Artforum, Quinn Latimer wrote that ‘one could be forgiven for viewing this most astonishing survey […] as a dream (or nightmare) of domesticity and its oft-gendered (dis)appointments’. Trockel’s sculptures definitely scour the depths of home life: one of the most disturbing works at MMK, S.h.e. (2000/05), is a mise-en-scène wherein an animatronic torso polishes a mirror to the sound of a rhythmic machine. To make her argument, Latimer references a number of iconic works that reappear at MMK, including several knitted paintings (e.g. Evening Sun, 2013), long ceramic modernist sofas draped with sheets of clear PVC (e.g. Copy Me, 2013), wall-mounted sculptures that make household stove tops look like geometric abstract paintings (e.g. Unplugged, 1994) and big, glossily glazed ceramics (e.g. Shutter, 2006–10). But the part of Latimer’s review that resonates is the curious suggestion that her interpretation might require forgiveness.

Rosemarie Trockel, Shutter, 2006, installation view. Courtesy: © Rosemarie Trockel & VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2022

Latimer’s sharp description of the aforementioned ceramics as ‘exploded dishware’ supports an entirely plausible feminist reading. But those pieces equally resemble squashed paint cans or mashed and chromed elephant dung. Similarly, Trockel’s ceramic couches could fit very well in altogether non-domestic settings, like museums or bank lobbies. Even her stove top pieces might signify the childhood trauma of a first-burnt finger as much as they do domestic oppression.

Rosemarie Trockel, Ma Fenêtre, 2018, installation view. Courtesy: © Rosemarie Trockel and VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2022

The offence that all critics inevitably commit is choosing one interpretation over another. Invariably, when it comes to Trockel, these expositions come off as disassociated white noise, like the vague warble that Charlie Brown – protagonist of the comic book series Peanuts (1947–2000) – hears when his teacher talks. They also cold- shoulder the mire of associations that is the only honest response to this work. Wandering Trockel’s maze-like practice, you might well feel an unconscious, chthonic humming. It’s the sound of every thought and feeling being trailed by those that died for it to live.

Rosemarie Trockel’s exhibition is on view at MMK, Frankfurt am Main, until 18 June.

Mitch Speed is a writer based in Berlin, Germany.