Prof. Thomas Wagner
Encomium for Rosemarie Trockel on the presentation of the 2014 Roswitha Haftmann Prize, on 14 May 2014 at the Kunsthaus Zürich
Fellow members of the Board,
Ladies and gentlemen,
Embarking on something means making choices. Before you start speaking, you must opt for a particular line and discard the alternatives. And yet if there is one thing that talking about art above all has taught us, it is that there is more than just one perspective, and more than just one truth. Rosemarie Trockel is well aware of this, and consequently her art does not make grand statements; it does not advertise its opinions; even less does it pronounce final judgments. Rather, she creates and develops a field of constant intensity, on which seemingly established truths, and even the consistency of realities themselves, can be questioned and placed in doubt. Her artistic ambition has about it something of the Socratic; for mostly a thing’s meaning appears to her meaningless, and so all that can be said is how something is not. Viewed in this way, her art brings chaos into the comfortable order of things to which we have become accustomed, and unsettles what we had perceived to be certainties.
My task is to offer an encomium for Rosemarie Trockel. But one cannot simply offer praise without becoming enmeshed in her multi-faceted artistic practices. Today, here, they are absent; and that, for good or ill, makes them more difficult to illustrate. You will, therefore, have to recall individual works, one or other of her drawings, some of her wool or knitted pictures and her stove objects; envision in your mind’s eye images or sequences from one of her videos or collages. You should also try to dust off the impressions made on you by your visit to her ‘House for Pigs and People’, an environment created together with Carsten Höller for documenta 10 in 1997; or call up your memory of the big eye that you stood before in the central gallery of the German pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 1999. Anyone wishing to pay tribute to Rosemarie Trockel and what she has achieved over the last thirty years or so therefore has no option to provide an introduction to her work, however brief and, of necessity, incomplete it may be. Which is far from easy to do.
As we consider the individual parts of her extensive production, it is immediately apparent that her artistic interests are many and varied. She employs a vast array of media and methods, choosing whatever seems to her most appropriate to the task at hand. Drawing, to her, seems an obvious mode of expression, owing to its directness. But having once discovered the possibilities of working with a video camera, she spontaneously changes to another field. The process from which something emerges is always the central element. Yet once she has settled upon a concept, she works through it meticulously, extracting from it all the accents and variations it has to offer. For her, the appeal of close collaboration with fellow artists – especially when the project is ambitious, organizationally and thematically complex – lies in the opportunity to give her ‘personality’ a rest and confound the myths of the creative artist.1 In her collages, she thoroughly reassesses what she has done before, what fell by the wayside, what needs to be re-examined from a different angle.
Her reluctance to be tied down also extends to themes and forms of representation. Sometimes she opts for the small form, sometimes for the extended series. Sometimes a gesture or an allusion will suffice; on other occasions she elaborates down to the last detail something that would not otherwise attain the explicitness and clarity that is important to her. Often, she analyses the signifiers of femininity – or rather, she unravels them like existential entanglements. In clothes and knitted pictures, she turns the spotlight on ‘the devaluation of symbols seemingly emptied of meaning’,2 while at the same time seeking to confer new meaning upon the thing devalued. When she gives a symbol of femininity a serial character, especially, she reveals how an inherently free subject is constrained within a certain paradigm: a paradigm that, itself, becomes a symbol of definitions and conditionings, of the exclusion and devaluation of female activities and attributes. Discussing her knitted pictures with Doris von Drateln back in 1988, she stated: ‘I want to see whether the negative cliché can be overcome when the element of handicraft is removed from the equation and the knitted pattern is created by a computer.
I wanted to know why a certain type of work has been regarded by women as embarrassing in the past, and often still is: whether it is due to the handling of the material or whether it really is the material itself.’3
That probing disruption of deep-seated symbols and paradigms also manifests itself in the abrupt transformation of hotplates – a further symbol of a role imposed on woman – into serial, apparently minimalist visual objects.
At the same time, and to take an example of a very different kind, Rosemarie Trockel approaches conditioning paradigms and the movements of devaluation and revaluation contained within them from a distance informed by her conceptual approach, yet simultaneously incorporates an element of the distinctly personal. In 2006, in collaboration with the philosopher Marcus Steinweg, she published a small volume presenting a selection of postcards collected by her mother Ruth. In addition to a small number of souvenirs – such as a card of the ‘Luftkurort Gemünd mit Heldenfriedhof’ – the Gemünd spa and war cemetery – and a picture of her father Josef Trockel, who worked as a draughtsman for German Federal Railways – it contains numerous postcards of works by great masters such as Leonardo da Vinci, Piero della Francesca, Dürer, Rembrandt, Rubens and Hans Holbein the Younger, as well as reproductions of Anselm Feuerbach’s ‘Portrait of a Roman Woman’ and Gabriel von Max’s ‘Anatom’. ‘Nothing’, observes Marcus Steinweg in an essay that introduces the postcards and revolves around motifs from the novels of Marguerite Duras, ‘seems to occupy the child’s consciousness more powerfully than the image of the ever-present mother, whose presence appears unending.’4
Echoing the image of Rosemarie Trockel’s mother in the postcards that she collected, the mother returns as someone absent.
All of this, as well as issues of anthropology and the relationship between animals and humans, coupled with dazzling international success, has led to a situation in which Rosemarie Trockel’s work is now viewed with admiration as a remote exoplanet on the edge of the ‘art galaxy’: akin to a heavenly body with texts and commentaries revolving around it like space probes, whose accurate instruments no crater or elevation on its surface can elude. But rather than launching another probe into close orbit around ‘Planet Trockel’, I will attempt to sketch out what I see as the central features or factors of her work, by way of five miniatures; or, if you prefer, five theses. Perhaps in this way we can trace a line that somehow delimits the contour of her art.
Given the wide variety of Rosemarie Trockel’s artistic practices, the concept of the ‘oeuvre’ is inappropriate.
For Rosemarie Trockel, making art is a passion. She is less interested in presenting the results. They simply come about. She is driven by desire and effort, by work done well and out of love for art, by stubborn, sustained, joyful exertion. She is excited by the idea of a voyage of discovery amongst the everyday, exploring what is going on around her, formulating what cannot be said but can be shown. Her inclination to pursue an activity that demands inquisitiveness, an alert consciousness, a strong will and incorruptible judgment, as well as patience and accuracy, imagination and inventiveness, intuition and apprehension, seems nothing short of unshakeable. If the task of an artist is to open themselves up to conflicting impressions, get to grips with the impossible and follow the trail of the incomplete, Rosemarie Trockel tackles that task with gusto. Perhaps that is why she is often regarded as a somewhat ‘difficult’ artist. Be that as it may, anyone seeking to approach what ingrained habit causes us to refer to as her ‘work’ can expect to encounter difficulties.
This is largely because adopting a certain style or even assembling a fixed portfolio of works that lays claim to permanence is in contradiction to her modus operandi and conception of art. With Trockel, you can never be sure what is coming next. Her production owes its endurance to something else. It is to be found rather in the refusal, within the play of meaning and counter-meaning, arbitrarily to ascribe one side to the other, to sacrifice one to the other; and in the way that she disassembles the context of a paradigm, a style, an attitude or an ideology into its various components for as long and with as much persistence as it takes to render meaning and counter-meaning distinguishable. One meanders between her works as if in a labyrinth. Worse still, one has the impression of walking through a maze, in which paths suddenly diverge, change course, and multiply. Scarcely has one explored a path or a group of works and then moved on, than the entire layout seems to have changed. As a result, one can never stand before what she has created over the last thirty years as if contemplating a precisely circumscribed ‘oeuvre’.
As a viewer – and especially as an interpreter – one should be wary of unduly rounding off the equations in her work. ‘The conception of Philosophy and Philology as a pair of […] minstrels out of the Teatro dei Piccoli is soothing, like the contemplation of a carefully folded ham-sandwich’,5 warns Samuel Beckett. When listening to the melodies of that duo – philosophy and art – to which Rosemarie Trockel gives voice, we are well advised to take that admonition seriously. For instead of establishing trademarks and a recognizable artist’s identity, she relies on difference, emphasizing internal contradictions and inconsistencies.6 In consequence, and as we see particularly clearly in her collages, she elides genres, refuses to differentiate between original, replica, copy and reproduction, blurs the distinction between draft and end result7 and, in so doing, arrives at a permanent ‘revaluation and reassessment of the everyday practice that is the unfettered creative process of a visual artist.’8 In terms of motifs and themes, she relies on revisions, reworkings and clarifications – and not just in her collages, though in them it is particularly clear. This is not because she runs out of ideas, but rather in order to achieve greater depth and actuality. To elicit new shoots from supposedly dead wood. To see what happens, if it works, whether new shoots are indeed created. But also to show that something which one has made, thought or experienced cannot simply be filed away, that we do not simply leave behind what we have done and experienced, what has happened to us and has taken place around us – that all of this is part of us, of a self, but not something firm and fixed but rather a stage in an open, never-ending process. ‘The only thing I can do, it seems to me,’ she said at the end of the 1980s, ‘is to try to develop my conception of the world or art – the two are identical for me – using whatever curious things come to hand.’9
To sum up, then, Rosemarie Trockel’s approach is open, full of curiosity for contradictions that exist and are to be endured rather than ignored or conjured away. She avoids forming a whole out of many parts, trusting instead to the power of fragments. Faced with abstractions that merely help to stabilize the power of large systems, she confronts them with a wealth of individual practices. As a result, over time, a homogenized body of work has been supplanted by myriad intermediate stages between idea, form and concept, manifold constellations and aggregations – paraphrases of a given state at a given point in time and under given conditions.
Irony, I-Ronny – for Rosemarie Trockel, irony is a way of creating distance, but above all a sign of the subject’s elasticity.
Rosemarie Trockel is a consummate practitioner of ironic elasticity; for that is what irony is about: elasticity. Not just any kind of elasticity, but the elasticity of the subject or the self, a sense of possibility beyond rigid conceptions of identity. To give you an example: when, in one of her works based on the egg motif, Trockel places an egg in a soft foam rubber mat on a wooden box with white-painted sides, the front of which exhibits something resembling the contours of a vagina, and leans against the protective cushion two printing plates bearing photographs of inmates from some prison or other staring out through the bars of their cell, the cold prison and the warm protective space, phallic rods and egg cavity are more than just a formal contradiction. It is no accident that the work bears the name ‘Melancholia’, for within it the contradictions persist side by side, irreconcilable. For Wilfried Dickhoff,10 the work refers partly to Trockel’s desire ‘neither to deny nor casually to ratify the abdication of subjectivity.’11
‘Die legendäre Ei-Ronny’ (‘The Legendary I-Ronny’), a drawing from 1993 depicting a cowgirl with ‘eggs’ between her legs (a play on the double meaning of the German word ‘Ei’, namely ‘egg’ and, colloquially, ‘testicle’) and firing a pistol, takes ironic aim at machismo but also employs the schematic opposition of male and female as a metaphorical debunking of a construction of identity based on rigid contradictions. Trockel takes ‘shameless pleasure’ in deactivating the powers of origin and conditioning, and switching from thinking in terms of results to focusing entirely on the process itself. Often, all it takes is the duplication of a contour, a slight displacement – in image, language or gesture. ‘Irony’, she once said, comes into play ‘when I need to be malicious. It is a vice that prevents me from becoming cynical.’12
And as we examine her book drafts and drawings, we need only take a moment to absorb the titles that she has given the plates to notice how subversively she deploys irony, but occasionally also caustic humour, to tickle the old ego where it is most sensitive: in its autocratic identity. Titles such as ‘Wermutinsel’ (‘Wormwood Island’), ‘Aua Zukunft’ (‘Ow Future’), ‘OB makes us bleed’, ‘Spiral Betty’, ‘Romantische Seele’ (‘Romantic Soul’) and ‘Vater morgana’ (‘Father morgana’) joyfully sideline the familiar and open up freer horizons of meaning. For Trockel, then, irony is a welcome opportunity to overturn familiar ways of seeing, to undermine conventional codings of images and paradigms.
Rosemarie Trockel’s art is thoughtfully political.
Not only does Rosemarie Trockel think in political terms: her art is political from the bottom up. But in what sense? When Doris von Drateln asked her whether her works aspired to social impact, she responded:
‘Art works to be the continuation of politics by other means. But direct change through art is probably more of a fairy tale that is worth believing in. One must insist on art as anticipatory illumination.’13
Note the choice of words: Trockel quotes Carl von Clausewitz’s celebrated dictum ‘War is merely the continuation of politics by other means’, but alters it in a crucial way. For her, art is not something apart from society and politics. Rather, art ‘works’ to exert political influence through its own means. It is typical of Trockel that, while consigning the idea of art directly changing relations to the realm of the fairy tale, within that negation she still holds fast to the possibility that art, as anticipatory illumination of a better world, has a headstart over meagre reality. Few artists are so aware of what they are doing.
Trockel sets up oppositions, then, but does so in a complex and wilful fashion. She is an avowedly political artist inasmuch as she refuses to be taken in by the shiny surfaces of capitalism and takes the (in)famous ‘relations’ literally. How does she do this? She deploys the very phenomena that are proliferating at the start of the 21st century: control, surface, hardness, smoothness. She refuses to abide by the dictates of others; she does not create a once-and-for-all image that, to use a word employed by Roland Barthes in connection with photography, ‘sets’ like concrete. On the contrary, she renders relations fluid, leaves them in a state of becoming, making them appear permeable, full of holes, open-pored. She does not arbitrarily set relations right, but she perceives exactly what the situation is and, in so doing, penetrates down into the schizoid depths of capitalism with its wish machines and organ-less bodies. In the political too, then, she creates and exploits spaces, devises an atrium of liberty in which another self, another basis for changing identities, can form.
Rosemarie Trockel engages in ‘ego-shooting’. She confronts the old, autocratic subject with experiences that change it.
‘The old ego dies hard. Such as it was, a minister of dullness, it was also an agent of security […]’, notes Samuel Beckett in his essay on Proust.14 Trockel mobilizes counter-forces. She unremittingly demonstrates that we need have no fear of multiplicities.15 They ‘are reality, do not presuppose unity, do not flow into a totality and most certainly do not hark back to a subject. On the contrary, subjectivations are processes that are produced, that emerge, precisely from multiplicities. The rocks which the nascent subject must negotiate amid the motley chaos of the world, like Odysseus navigating the passage between Scylla and Charybdis, open up for the first time the possibility of having experiences, ‘inasmuch as true experience can only, as Hegel puts it, be what is brought about by the reversal of consciousness that follows the revelatory disappointment. Experience is what happens when the subject turns against itself, bringing with it the destructive liberation from prior opinions.’16
In this interpretation, for Trockel, experience represents the possibility of permanent change, of becoming different and a different person. Yet the difficulty, as she knows all too well, is that the system we live in absorbs anything which appears to be different. Anything that appeared authentic, part of a subculture or subversive, or has been identified as such, is appropriated, categorized, exploited and commercialized in the blinking of an eye. The same applies to art. Rosemarie Trockel reacts to this too. She feels her way towards the other without, to put it in philosophical terms, allowing it to become an identical. Wilfried Dickhoff once spoke in this connection of ‘picture puzzles of the non-identical from traces of memory and desirable impossibilities.’17 This also ties in with the way her works exhibit what one might refer to as a ‘deep surface’. Even where they name and designate something, the attribution is only provisional. The possibility of seeing things differently remains. The multiplicity of our perspectives on the world can therefore be rescued without us as subjects having to become one-dimensional. We can do more than simply wish for what has still to become: the transition and advance towards the ‘not yet’ can be acted out – which is at least something.
Let us now come to the fifth and final point.
Rosemarie Trockel develops an artistic approach in which the subject awakens to new life.
How can one act as an artist when one has experienced and comprehended that the self is no longer a stable construction, and that many selves can exist alongside each other and in succession? Rosemarie Trockel shows us the way. That alone is sufficient to secure her an outstanding position in contemporary art. In so doing, she ignores the art business as far as she is able.
She allows for the unfamiliar, acknowledges it as such, tolerates differences. Rather than clinging on to results, she greets them as welcome opportunities, as stations to pass through and change, so that the results can float free and effects can emancipate themselves from their causes. She identifies and orders the familiar and the customary in different ways, sifts, tests and plays through what becomes visible, what we remember, what conditions, restricts, wounds, devalues; but also what encourages and liberates. She knows no agony, so little does she accept the power of convention.
With relish, she dismantles the old self, that purported pole of stability, into its individual parts: myriad individual, personal, collective and media forms, memories, habits and experiences – spontaneous bursts of enthusiasm and enduring disappointments included. That dismantling takes place through the adaptation of images, scenes, constellations, views, perspectives, opinions and attitudes, just as the everyday and time dictate them to her. Deploying the elasticity of subtle irony, she devises picture puzzles between identity and non-identity. She teaches us to look closely, shows us that it is fun to live with blurring, contradictions, paradoxes and ambivalences. In short, she teaches us to become and remain porous. To allow what happens around us to pass through us. Or, to put it another way: she teaches us to see more when we see differently and see other things. She exhorts us to open our eyes wide, to awaken to a fearless, fresh way of looking into the world: one that refuses to be satisfied with standardized answers or appeased and anaesthetized by supposed facts. She encourages us to go through the world wide awake and attentive, and to live an active life in it.
Ladies and gentlemen, it is my belief that Rosemarie Trockel makes art in order to test all this out. Her art gives us the courage to do so, appeals to us to do so, and challenges us as her audience. And because she inspires us to trust our hunches and intuition more than mere knowledge, she also contributes to what, to use a language freighted with economic theory, one might call ‘instability management’.
What becomes of a self that has cast off its corset? Perhaps an artist like Rosemarie Trockel: who can tell? Her exhortation to the self is not ‘recognize your-self’, but rather ‘investigate what has made you the person you have become, and seize every opportunity for experiences that change you. You are so much more than a subject identical with itself.’
When I met Rosemarie Trockel two weeks ago on a sunny spring afternoon in Cologne and we talked of this and that, she said: ‘Actually it’s the easiest thing in the world.’
Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for listening, and allow me to congratulate Rosemarie Trockel on winning the Roswitha Haftmann Prize.