Rosemarie Trockel: A Cosmos. A Gallery Assistant’s review. 26-03-13
What you experience when you visit an art exhibition for an hour or two is exceptionally different from what you would experience if you had spent many hours for days on end at that same exhibition. This is something I’d never been able to do before I began invigilating at the Serpentine Gallery for Rosemarie Trockel’s ‘A Cosmos’.
My first introduction to the exhibition comprised of a whole day spent in two out of a possible six galleries. Despite the fact that I supposedly had so much time to look at and assess the art, I swear I barely saw anything besides the heart shaking greasy grasps of toddlers with worryingly absent creators and spatially unaware rucksack swingers.
The number of people who take offence when politely requested to remove their rucksacks and hold them in their hands is astounding. Not only do they silently glare and sniff but they mutter ‘for god’s sake’ and ‘for fuck’s sake’, begrudgingly lowering their bags, contrarily lifting them back onto their shoulders seconds later. One woman seemed to have decided that we were attempting to breach her human rights and in the end I had no choice but to ask her to leave if she wouldn’t adhere to gallery rules.
I tend to think that it’s the people who refuse to understand why we might want them to remove their bags who will fail to have a positive experience with contemporary conceptual art. They carry round with them a great sense of entitlement as though it’s their right to see the art and treat it with as little respect as they have understanding, as though they’ve just paid an astronomical entrance fee. I’m glad it’s free. It renders you impartial. A high entrance fee can bring about an unbalanced estimation of a show’s value when battling against the British need to get one’s money’s worth.
This may all seem dull but my main purpose for bringing it up is to say that it’s a shame, because I don’t like telling people off and I don’t like putting up negative barriers between myself and others; because I want people to ask me questions and I want people to go away from the show feeling as though they engaged and thought hard and came away feeling full rather than furious.
That is one of the main things I’ve learnt since working at this exhibition: people need to start asking Gallery Attendants more questions if they want to get more enjoyment out of conceptual art. I can see people wandering about with incomprehension floating about on their faces but without any plea for help I won’t patronise them by volunteering information unless it’s appropriate. However, it’s the conversations I’ve had with members of the public about the art that have been the most enriching thing for me and I hope, for them. With over 200 exhibits in the show, it has been great when people have asked me to find meaning in specific artworks and I’ve had seconds to contemplate and analyse and come out with something possible. GAs are not just grumpy furniture.
On the show
The first thing to think about when looking around the exhibition is the idea of a Cosmos. I love chaos, clutter and association making. Once you accept that you can’t understand every work as it was perhaps intended, you can start to relax and enjoy your personal experience and understanding of it.
As you move through the exhibition, be aware of the different art spaces you’re walking into, from open and light to cluttered, dark and Museumesque. Rosemarie worked closely with curators to create a unique encounter where new meanings can be drawn from the works based on their groupings. One room is white-tiled from floor to ceiling, creating a laboratory-type setting, a place for experiment and the darkly humorous. In Replace Me (2011) we are presented with a grey-scaled version of The Origin of the World in which Trockel has confronted her fear of spiders by transplanting the pubic hair with a hand drawn tarantula. It’s an excruciating image that plays with ideas about birth, death, the primitive, the unnatural, the complexity of artistic processes, but it evokes a direct response, as do many of the works on show.
Situated right next to this is a large plastic tree turned and hung upside down. Why? Who knows? But isn’t the concept of a plastic replica of a tree being manufactured quite funny in itself? Trockel is concerned with the natural and the manmade and the tensions between them. Ladislaw Scarewitcz’ stop-motion film about the domestic troubles between two beetles is amusing and awe-inspiringly intricate with most people finding it both impressive and charming.
However, one visitor’s face seemed to melt in disgust the more she watched, and she eventually turned to me and uttered ‘obscene’. She explained that she thought it was vile to ascribe human behaviour to defenseless insects. Trockel is certainly interested in the concept of manipulation and control. In Starewicz’ film, he created his puppets from dead insects, and it’s this idea of giving inanimate objects human qualities that crops up repeatedly in the exhibition, from as simple an example as a cut flower next to an amputated hand.
The eeriest display of control is presented in the form of Morton Bartlett’s Ballerina. Tellingly shown amongst other items in one of three vitrines, her limbs are that little bit too long to be those of a child and her smile terrifyingly false. She is one of eighteen of Bartlett’s homemade doll family, a troupe of young girls (and three boys) who he dressed and arranged into poses which he then captured in photographs. I remember seeing them all exhibited at the Hamburger Bahnhoff in Berlin in 2012 and feeling thoroughly disturbed. A current display of his photographs at the Horse Hospital near Russell Square also provides a further insight into the mind of the reclusive man. In A Cosmos the effect is subtler but behind the hanging photographic print of the ballerina, Trockel has placed a small black curtain and a butterly.
Collectors in both history and literature are often portrayed as sexually repressed and potentially dangerous individuals, most obviously in John Fowle’s The Collector, less obviously when remembering details such as that Nabokov’s parents were ornithologists. Interestingly, it’s those who find it hard to engage with the rest of the exhibition who like this work. It is what it looks like at least.
Other works by outsider artists include the obsessive and wonderous drawings of manuel Montalvo, that conjure gasps of wonder, the bird sculptures of James Caste, and Judith Scott’s woolen sculptures. Each showcase a necessity to create and express, revealing languages that we are able to visually translate. Scott’s works are extremely pregnant and expressive, with layer upon layer of colour and texture binding the original starting object beyond recognition, obscuring it’s original purpose in the same way that the wool is no longer being used for a practical domestic purpose but as an artwork. There’s an emotive sense of something struggling to escape and bearing Scott’s Downs Syndrome and deaf/mute disabilities in mind, it’s not hard to see it.
The room that people seem to have the most trouble with is the ceramics. They are neither traditionally beautiful nor unattractive. One woman walked in before loudly muttering ‘Call this art? I like art but this isn’t art’. I decided to challenge her views and she continued ‘I could do this. She’s just gone and covered a sofa with a crummy old blanket’. Rather than scornfully telling the woman that I sincerely doubted her ability to produce such incredibly glazed ceramic sculptures, I started by telling her that what she had assumed was a sofa was actually a ceramic replica that looks almost identical to a sofa. She expressed surprise, then sheepishness, before admitting ‘well, I suppose that’s quite clever’.
Grasping this foothold of positivity, I went on to talk about how part of the exhibition was about taking a closer look and asking yourself what the artist was trying to achieve. For me, that room is about the process of making, being able to see what the direct human interaction was with visible fingerprints and what is produced at the end; works that are beautiful yet grotesque. The Less Sauvage than Others pieces resemble mirrors but which fail to reflect any clear image. Having talked at length about how the ceramic pieces tied into the exhibition as a whole, the woman, although not entirely convinced, seemed ready to re-evaluate her opinions. For me, this is why it’s such a fantastic and challenging show.
Tellingly, that same lady asked me whether she (Rosemary Trockel) was ‘a very young lady’. I believe you stay young and in tune with the world by refreshing your views and ideas regularly.
The work which I’ve come to love most is one which I might have perhaps dismissed and moved on from on a first view. Ruth Francken’s Four and Seven is a red sculpture which looks to be part of an airplane but which equally resembles part of a rocket or a missile. However, it looks to be cut off and with the phallic shape in mind, it seems to connote castration. The flat end is covered in wires that look to control the sculpture. The shining red finish bears a communist symbol on one side and the cushion that it rests on, with red and white stripes, resembles the American flag.
I read the work as a product of the Cold War struggles but also as a feminist work reflecting the struggle between masculine and feminine. Visitors ask ‘what does it do?’ to which I’ve started to respond ‘what do you think it does?’ and ‘what does it remind you of?’ I feel that there’s more to draw from it. It’s a very loaded work and even the hard surface reflects the light from the ceiling, looking like a spacey solar system or cosmos.
Speaking of which, reflections play an interesting part in the exhibition. In the North Gallery the three vitrines sometimes reflect and often ignore, making what you see through them the work of chance. No one will see exactly the same thing. Trockel’s use of casing and framing is particularly interesting. Her wool canvases appear both open and within Perspex casing as do the paintings by an orangutan from the Cologne zoo. These paintings challenge the conception of who is an artist, what makes it art, captivity and freedom. One out of the three them appears in a case. The brushstrokes are abstract and primitive, encouraging an instantaneous response.
Trockel celebrates the child-like appeal of visual art and indeed, the exhibition has evoked fascinated fixation from numerous young eyes. Even adults have struggled with their instincts when it comes to NO TOUCHING. Trockel wants us to think and engage with the world and her micro-universe is almost like a concentrated exercise in doing so.
My appreciation of the Cosmos has been an organic process of unfurling associations and recognitions, during which I’ve become acutely aware of a lucidity of thought that I didn’t suppose I possessed before but which Trockel has helped to unlock.