Things Fall Apart

Food for Thought: Chopped books are the main ingredient in Roth's delicious Literaturwurst series (1961).Photo: Courtesy of Deiter Roth Foundation; Photographed by Heini Schneebeli.

In 1968, the Swiss artist Dieter Roth (1930–1998) placed a bust made of chocolate and birdseed in a garden where it was pecked apart by birds. Called P.O.TH.A.A.VFB., a German acronym for Portrait of the Artist as Birdseed Bust, the work lampooned romantic views of art, transforming marble into chocolate and viewers into birdbrains. The reverence accorded canonical figures, the faith that art was immortal, the fascination with an individual artist’s character—he ridiculed them all. Roth even mocked the demigod James Joyce, whose Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man he regarded as kitsch.

Despite its iconoclastic spirit, however, the Birdseed Bust was a traditional work of art—the expression of an old, recurring perspective in modernism. Roth was kin to the Dadaists, the Fluxus artists, and all those joyful moderns who, detesting highfalutin airs, knocked down idols and brought the messy vitality of life into art. Like many predecessors and contemporaries—notably Robert Rauschenberg—he chose to emphasize the street over the ivory tower, the disorder of daily existence over the eternal verities. He crowded art and life together.

Roth Time, a retrospective that originated in Europe and was organized for MoMA QNS and P.S. 1 by Gary Garrels and Klaus Biesenbach, makes a large claim for Roth’s part in this modern tradition. The show is enormous, consisting of 375 works, and it’s very busy. Roth had a wandering mind and a restless hand. He moved constantly among mediums, making paintings, sculpture, drawings, videos, and installations. He composed music and poetry. He collaborated with other artists. His energy and ambition are astonishing, yet he emerges from this exhibit as a secondary, if engaging, figure. The imaginative territory he creates is not quite miraculous enough, not as irreducibly distinctive as that of, say, Kurt Schwitters, Yves Klein, Joseph Beuys, or Marcel Duchamp.

Roth’s work is finally more interesting to write about—the curators grant it “transience and order, destruction and creativity, playful humor and critical inquiry, the abject and beautiful”—than to look at. Many of the pieces are the remains of ideas that, in the making, were no doubt intoxicating. Why not, for example, assemble art from studio clutter? Acknowledge the old cans, paper towels, snarled cassettes? It’s easy to imagine the contrary pleasure taken in constructing such art. But years later, the result often looks like the dishes left after a party.

“It’s hard not to smile at the irony of museum-resistant art protected by ‘Do Not Touch’ signs.”

That’s intentional, perhaps. Decay is one of Roth’s obsessive themes. He remains best known for his use of organic materials, including bananas, sausage, and dung. In one room—which smells of stale chocolate—you can see the mold blooms of Bananas Under Glass and a phallic piece called Dung Bunny, which is made of straw and rabbit dung. Not far away is a video of Roth reading his “Shit Poems.” Decay, dirt, and untidiness—generally, merde—is actually a rather common theme in modern art. It’s part of the often unacknowledged underbelly of life, which countless modern writers and artists insist upon, and insist upon, and insist upon. Here, it’s hard not to smile, first at the earnest museum treatment of moldy bananas and second at the irony of museum-resistant art that celebrates the momentary being protected by DO NOT TOUCH signs.

Roth was not an artist who tolerated boundaries, in time, place, or works of art. He believed in change and the constant accretion of detail. His enormous Gardenskulptur, for example, began in 1970 with a version of his Birdseed Bust. Over the next three decades, Roth regularly added pieces to this original work, welcoming transformations created by exposure to the elements. The piece, which continues to change and grow, has almost developed an organic life of its own, as if it were constantly adding and shedding cells and skins. When the work is exhibited, Roth’s son and collaborator, Björn Roth, brings along the workshop where Gardenskulptur is reassembled and monitored—and, not surprisingly, that workshop is part of the art. The trouble is that the thing itself has little intrinsic visual interest. The same is true of the late work Solo Scenes, in which 131 simultaneously running videos depict different aspects of Roth’s daily life, from playing the piano to sitting on the toilet. It is a great modern aspiration, this desire to capture the truth of unedited experience. But Solo Scenes does not excite much more than a passing, voyeuristic curiosity—it’s rather like looking at other people’s photo albums or rummaging in their drawers.

I like best the funny, edgily satirical Roth. In one act of criticism, he took the work of writers he disdained, chopped it up, and turned it into Literaturwurst. (The catalogue describes the piece as “chopped book pressed into sausage.”) In Flat Waste, he organized the detritus of his studio into orderly file cabinets and loose-leaf binders, creating a Kafkaesque vision of bureaucratic madness. A free spirit who lived where he wanted when he wanted—always doing what he wanted—Roth made his own life a telling work of art. It might seem, for example, that he never threw anything away, but according to his son, he actually tossed a gold medal he once received into the garbage. An elegant gesture of moral proportion, by an artist who could not be owned.

Things Fall Apart