Rosemarie Trockel’s New Modes of Operation @ Talbot Rice, Edinburgh

Rosemarie Trockel's New Modes of Operation @ Talbot Rice, Edinburgh

Review by Colin Herd

At the heart of this extensive survey of Rosemarie Trockel’s works on paper is a corner-wall of the central gallery devoted to Perspex cabinets displaying what must be about a hundred of Trockel’s “book drafts”. These books, which Trockel has produced in half-formed, unique editions throughout her career, form a fascinating paper-patchwork of Trockel’s recurrent thematic concerns. Unconventionally erotic, sexualized imagery and a thorough attention to the materials she uses characterize Trockel’s practice, which has subtly explored gender politics since she burst onto the art scene in the 1980s with groundbreaking works such as her mechanically produced ‘knitted pictures’, her life-size ceramic sofas or her kitchen stove sculptures. The unrealized and inconclusive quality of the book drafts also sets the tone for a show that is ambiguous, anti-didactic and disconcerting, a show whose common threads are in fact threads, where matters of binding, adhesion and unraveling are central.

The book-drafts draw attention to the range of materials and techniques employed. In particular I found myself taking note of and examining the range of different bindings Trockel makes use of: some hand-sewn, some seemingly stuck together with glue, others loopily spiral-bound, a few left loose-leafed and still more stapled up the sides like razor wire. The paper-stock is just as various, with books made from ruled paper, graph-paper, artist’s paper, magazines, newspaper, yellowing letter-paper. Very often, these materials form the major part of the concept of the book-design. One book made from yellowing letter paper is hand-sewn with a golden thread. The cover is blank except for a small, typewritten, lower-case statement: “is not enough”. It’s an amusing comment on capitalism, on art, and on her own practice of producing ‘unrealized’ books. The books straddle the line between private and public, especially as they’re displayed behind Perspex, showing only the cover and not what’s inside. There’s an underlying dynamic of revealing private thoughts. For example, one book, with the title “imagine” has below it two columns of text, labeled “smaller” and “bigger”. Under “smaller”, the hand-written words: “schulden” (German for “debt”, but also “fault”), “Amerika”, “Ego”, “aujourd’hui”, “past”. Under the heading “bigger”: “breasts”, “income”, “beings”, “prisons”, “witchcraft”, “problems” and “time”. Running counter to the revelation of private thoughts and fears, though, is an equally strong dynamic of ambiguous or secretive withholding and restraint, where blueprints for narrative are suggestively whispered but not ultimately delivered. One book has the word “phobias” in large letters next to a faded picture of a woman standing next to a desk in what looks like an office. The piece suggests claustrophobia or agoraphobia, but also male prejudice against or discriminatory treatment of women in the workplace. Another cover simply has the word “Dad” in large black lettering.

Trockel’s exploration of juxtaposed texts and images continues in her wall-mounted, framed collages, as does her engagement with books and book-forms. Neighbouring Fields (1990) is made out of two different size pieces of graph paper stuck together. The right hand side of the image is dominated by a picture of John F Kennedy, which is overlapped and partially obscured by a book-jacket from Sylvia Plath’s volume Winter Trees. The connections between the two figures are traced by a black line in the shape of a slanted irregular quadrilateral that borders the Plath book and has one of its corners at the right hand side of Kennedy’s bright white smile. Both Kennedy and Plath met tragic, early deaths in 1963, and they were both born in Massachusetts. It took me a while to realize that the line is not black ink but a single thread, hovering just above the paper and literally tying these two very different but somehow parallel cultural figures associatively together. More recent collage-work extends and complicates this associative approach, juxtaposing a greater number of elements in a more oblique, confrontational dynamic to one another. The Magician’s Apprentice (2008), titled after the Goethe poem about an over-ambitious young apprentice, is a collage on painted wood-panel. From what we can see (much of it is obscured by the collaged elements) the painting is abstract, but there are faint suggestions of the shape of a face, as if we might decipher a face if the collaged elements were removed: a disappearing act. At the top of the page, a stuck-on leaf of paper with a portrait in pen of an elderly, overweight artist, sitting at an easel, self-assured but distinctly static. Below this portrait is another, much more crudely drawn, in brown ink, of a muscular male figure, standing proudly but a little embarrassed in his underwear. At the side of the collage is a piece of written text, like the name of a hackneyed spell or trick: “Disintegration de la Madame”. The piece flaunts masculine tension and insecurity, exploiting and obscuring female presence. In an ironic, provocative and defiant gesture, a single black thread stitched down the side of the top piece of paper is coming unstitched and fraying.

The disappearing woman act is turned on its head in the drawing Untitled (sleeping) (2000), a figurative study of a woman sleeping. Utilizing a hatching, shading technique that she uses in a number of works, lending her drawings a texture like wool, Trockel reveals the woman’s figure in the un-shaded space. The woman is a definite shape in the space uncontaminated by the little, uniform, fabric-like stitches or prison bars. Most of Trockel’s drawings are characterized by this engagement with and interrogation of the political and sexual associations of her materials and techniques. A suite of preliminary studies shows puffed up portraits and what look like statues of men, on a purple background. The men are splattered with white glue, or watery, gloopy acrylic, unavoidably seminal, like a porn-magazine. The images are powerfully degrading and vaguely ridiculous, revealing the corresponding degradation and exploitation of the pornography industry, and art industry too. The fact that they are preliminary studies playfully plants the possibility that these works might be carried out off the page. Trockel is an artist for whom ephemera, preliminary studies and drafts are a mode of operating rather than a mode of preparation. Her drawings, collages and book drafts are an extremely impressive, challenging and provocative body of work.

Rosemarie Trockel
Drawings, Collages and Book Drafts
Talbot Rice Gallery until 30th April

Rosemarie Trockel, Ich kann über meine Filme nur lachen (My Films Just Make
Me Laugh), 1993 Copyright: Rosemarie Trockel, VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2011.
Image courtesy of Sprüth Magers Berlin London and Private Collection