Serpentine Gallery, Kensington Gardens, London W2 3XA

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Rosemarie Trockel: A Cosmos
Serpentine Gallery, London
13 February - 7 April 2013
Review by Tim Walsh

The incongruity of Rosemarie Trockel’s exhibition ‘A Cosmos’ at the Serpentine Gallery hits quite suddenly. One of the newer works in the show, ‘Music box’ (2013) is a small, split box frame with three compartments. Inside one is a photograph of a chimpanzee dressed in a suit and Panama, an unlit cigarette between his fingertips; in the next lies a waxy, black liquorice-like plait (a proto-‘Mosquito Fighter’, shown later in the exhibition made of woven silicone tubing). In the top box a white cast hand with wool looped between its fingers holds open the pages of a book to an image of a spider’s web and the words ‘WHAT IT IS LIKE TO BE WHAT YOU ARE NOT’. On the opposing wall hang aquatint etchings of a Wood stork and American flamingo circa 1838 by Robert Havell. The collective noun for a flock of flamingos is a flamboyance - which is appropriate, as Trockel is definitely that; on top of tangential, erratic, exuberant, confident. Incongruity is her bread and butter.

What’s particularly apparent in ‘A Cosmos’ is the rapid-fire nature of Trockel’s mind and her output - a significant amount of work in the show has been made in the last few years and lurches from one discipline to the next, and mixes them together too. Perhaps this is why the work of others sits so comfortably shoulder-to-shoulder with her own: stylistic, conceptual and material jumps are hardwired into her practice, in addition to liberal appropriation.

Some of the most intriguing works come from others - Wladyslaw Starewicz’s 1912 35mm film ‘The Cameraman’s Revenge’ is a stop-motion animation starring the preserved carapaces of insects in a silent soap opera accompanied by a jaunty soundtrack. Beside this Ruth Francken’s ‘L’anticastrateur’ (1973) delicately symbolises what the press release calls Trockel’s ‘subtle yet charged feminist perspective’, a silkscreen print of a pair of silver shears bound together by rope, their function denied but potential still apparent, like a shotgun locked behind glass. Via Judith Scott’s mixed media hunks of bound wool, ‘A Cosmos’ segues into Trockel’s seminal knitted paintings - equal part retort to the solipsistic drippings of macho-dominated modernist canvas painting and deep engagement with the material possibilities of wool. This gallery draws focus to the heritage of optical art like Bridget Riley, as well as (to a degree) Daniel Buren, especially in the newer knitted stripe paintings, made with soft, fuzzy-edged fibres that can’t help but push against clean lines.

In what the exhibition curator Lynne Cooke calls the ‘Ceramic Room’, Trockel manipulates great lumps of thick, knotted clay that subvert any expectations of fragile pottery - some look like bulging coral blooms (‘Made in China’, 2008), others an open chest cavity midway through heart surgery (‘Louvre 1’, 2009). In ‘Shutter 1(a)’ a heavy tablet of the stuff has been pressed into the opening/closing mechanisms of a curtain of blinds, slopped in a blood red glaze, fired and then wall mounted. Then again, ‘Replace Me’ (2011) is a giant, meticulous ceramic replication of a low-slung modernist couch - a nice foil to the visceral works grouped around it. Trockel makes particular point to note some of these works are vitrified ceramics in the labels and list of works. On a scientific level vitrification is the process where amorphous or disordered matter (in this instance raw clay) transitions into a solid form when placed under pressure, heat and concentration.[1] Cooke opens her accompanying catalogue essay with a pointed (and hefty) quote from Svetlana Alpers, discussing the conditions under which a scientific specimen like a spider crab is ‘put under the pressure of a way of seeing’, becoming instead a point of pure ‘visual interest’.[2]

At this point all these influences, materials and styles become a bit too much (in the best way possible) - it could easily slip into deranged ramblings. But this is where Trockel’s joy is - in collapsing forms and letting herself get up to her elbows in the muckiness of the expanded field; throwing ideas at the wall with speed and seeing what sticks. Underpinning this flexibility are serious conceptual concerns that hide in the mix, like the specimen/object transition touched on above. Her politics are here in the same breath - no gaps between the fine and decorative arts, outsider art inside, the ‘natural’ in lieu of industrial. You could be tempted to call the whole experience an index, but then that’s too structured and too loaded, taking out the pleasure of how untethered she is. Instead, let’s hope Trockel would be happy with what Georges Bataille would famously say on l’informe (the formless):

‘for academic men to be happy, the universe would have to take shape. All of philosophy has no other goal: it is a matter of giving a frock coat to what is, a mathematical frock coat. On the other hand, affirming that the universe resembles nothing and is only formless amounts to saying that the universe is something like a spider or spit.[3]

Bouncing between those broad suppositions is where Trockel gravitates - the setting, structure and reach of the show might appear informe, but the objects themselves also function in their formal roles plus their relation to each other, like planets held in orbit. Or, instead, we’ve been drawn to Trockel’s own alternative system, a cosmos where normal scientific parameters don’t matter; a loose web floating in space that catches things, shows them and then lets go.

[1] Michael I Ojovan and William E Lee, ‘Connectivity and glass transition in disordered oxide systems’ Journal of Non-Crystalline Solids, October 2010
[2] Svetlana Alpers in Lynne Cooke ‘Modelling A Cosmos’, Rosemarie Trockel: A Cosmos[exhibition catalogue] October 2012, p31
[3] ‘Formless’ by Georges Bataille, Documents 1, Paris, 1929, p. 382 [Accessed online 10 March 2013]

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