Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Dieter Rot Sets In

by Alastair Johnston

wait, later this will be nothing: Editions by Dieter Roth, edited by Sarah Suzuki et al, New York, Museum of Modern Art, 2013, 96 pp., 108 illustrations, paperback.

    Funny how things come in threes. Last year I wrote on Booktryst about Ian Hamilton Finlay, the Scottish artist (concrete poet and landscape gardener). Finlay's son Eck got a laugh out of my review, calling my take, "IHF: the Dolce & Gabbana Years"! I noted that he had dismissed Dom Sylvester Houédard (ironically the first person to champion Finlay in print in Britain, in an excellent piece in Typographica 8) as "anti-culture" and "nonsense." Then I received a copy of Notes from the Cosmic Typewriter by DSH and reviewed it last week. Both of these pieces mentioned the publisher Hansjörg Mayer and both also mentioned the Icelandic concrete poet and book artist, Dieter Rot. So by some curious coincidence, Saturn cheap-day Return, or whatever you want to call it, I am back looking at the 1960s and the movements that promised so much then.

    It has been 50 years and those of us who remember the 60s are old codgers thinking nostalgically about the explosion of art, fashion and music that signaled our coming of age, and how much grimmer things got, from "Free Love" succumbing to AIDS, acid trips becoming the nightmare of drug wars with crackheads and cough-syrup slurpers pervading all corners of society, to the great liberating joy of rock-n-roll, punk & new wave, succumbing to disco then becoming the tired pablum of Justin Bieber  & Britney Spears. What went wrong? we cry. Stop babbling, gramps, say the youth, and drink your Ensure.

    Dieter Rot (or Roth as he is called here) was born in Germany in 1930. Though he operated at the same time as Op Art, Actionism and Fluxus, he went his own way and, like another German, Kurt Schwitters, he created his own one-man art movement. And he did it out of Germany, moving from Switzerland to Iceland in 1955. His biggest influence was Marcel Duchamp and he worked closely with British pop artist Richard Hamilton as well as the printer and typographer Hansjörg Mayer. There is one constant in Rot's output and that is editioned works, whether books or prints, but otherwise he changed means of expression constantly.

     The title of this monograph suggests the transience of all things, and points to the fact the Rot used cardboard, Sellotape, newsprint and other non-archival material to make his art. (Schwitters too liked bits of acidic newsprint and so many of his artworks are now uniformly brown whereas they once had sparkling red and yellow passages.) Rot's art or anti-art was ahead of its time, though obviously Duchamp and Cage are big influences. He took sheets of overprinted waste paper from a printshop floor and bound them into books. Of course there is an unconscious element in there and the random juxtaposition of fragmentary found images would be a constant in his work for the next two decades. He made masks out of black paper by cutting holes in a sheet at random then overlaying it on a printed page. He also die-cut holes in randomly assembled pieces of print matter.

   Rot's Daily Mirror Book of 1961 is a good example of his conceptual art: he cut random 2 centimetre squares out of the British tabloid Daily Mirror then perfectbound them -- the result is a "book" with pages, text, fragments of ads and imagery that is an archaeological slide of a moment. It also signals a new form: the Artist's Book. (Later he recycled this book, taking some of the pages and blowing them up to be much larger, for Quadratblatt, 1965.)

    Another artwork, less obviously a book, but no less an "artistsbook" is his Litteraturwurst, which he created in different incarnations throughout the 1960s. He took a book or newspaper and ground it up, added gelatin, lard and spices, and stuffed it into a sausage skin. You could slice your own text from it, like congealed alphabet soup (though not so vegetarian). He offered it to George Maciunas as a Fluxus publication but it was rejected. (Thus becoming another of many artworks misunderstood, even by their intended audience.) His point was, we consume literature like sausage and it too ends up as shit. He made litteraturwurst out of Marx, James Joyce, Goethe, Hegel, Günter Grass and many other authors he felt needed this treatment.

    Roth loved playing jokes on the artworld. Not like those clowns Richard Prince, Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst who are merely naughty boys in art class saying "But Sir it is art, my mammy says so…," but in a more subversive way. He made a bunny rabbit shaped like a chocolate rabbit you might consume at easter. (Remember the Swiss love chocolate probably more than they love sausage.) It's called "Karnickelköttelkarnickel (Bunny-dropping-bunny)" -- which is amusing in itself. It was manufactured, out of rabbit droppings, in an edition of 250. Not only does chocolate resemble shit, but a lot of art is really shit, he seems to be saying. He called his collected poems The Collected Shit, forestalling any criticism, and retained all the errors in his German that his students at R.I.S.D. (who were tasked with assembling the work) introduced. He stepped in an artwork of his contemporary Joseph Beuys (a bucket of lard), but the more celebrated artist graciously allowed his action as a "collaboration." 

    A self-portrait has a Duchampian title, "P. O. TH. A. A. VFB." (written in Dymo tape on the pedestal), it stands for "Portrait of the Artist as a Vogelfutterbüste." His lumpy ugly sub-Giacometti self-portrait bust is made of chocolate and birdseed. His intention was that the work would be left in a garden to be consumed by the birds and vanish as the artist himself does. Of course it ended up in a museum being worried over by conservationists. From the gloom of Beckett to the exuberance of Paolozzi you can see a mirror of the times in his work.

    Rot's increasing use of food was problematic, not just for posterity, but even during its existence. Cupcakes in the shape of a motorcyclist were given out at a gallery opening … and eaten. An installation of pieces of cheese which were supposed to slide down a wall towards open suitcases became rancid and maggoty in a few days and eventually the gallerist's husband drove the art to the desert and abandoned it.

    Roth didn't like the Fluxus artists ("A good thing they are modest, he said, because they have no talent"); he doesn't seem to have liked anybody very much ("James Joyce is kitsch"), apart from his collaborators Hansjörg Mayer and Richard Hamilton, but he created some very amusing and provocative artworks, some in multiple editions, and many of which stretch our concept of what a book is or can be.


  1. Very nice post--get's to the meat of the matter.

    One other foodwork of his, now at the Getty, kept in a refrigerator, is a cheese-paged book that was supposed to decay, but is prevented from doing so by the conservators and curators.

  2. Paradoxical, inasmuch as cheese itself is the result of decay.


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