Rosemarie Trockel, Less Sauvage than others, Contribution for a children’s house, 2012, Bronze, © Rosemarie Trockel, DACS 2013, Courtesy Sprüth Magers Berlin London
The contemporary German artist Rosemarie Trockel, calls her current exhibition: “A Cosmos.” It’s a bold claim to announce that you have created a universe (though the title does take the indefinite article as opposed to the definite). Pre-Socratic thinkers used the word kosmos to signify “order,” though for us moderns it has come to mean the universe or outer space—”the set of all things that exist.”
This show at the Serpentine, which has just come from the New Museum, New York, is a veritable Wonderland of objects that would do Alice proud. Born in Schwerte, Germany, in 1952, Trockel is part of a generation of pioneering women artists who were concerned with developing a feminist language that was democratic and non-hierarchical. She came to prominence in the ’80s with her knitted paintings—produced by stretching threads of wool across canvas or wood in monochrome and patterned abstractions. Here she reconfigures relationships with the selected art works within that now-familiar 20th-century trope, whereby the viewer becomes a part of the artwork, and the artist the subject rather than object.
“A Cosmos” reflects her interest in creating a dialogue between different discourses. Her own work is placed in the company of other artists—both historic and contemporary— who have largely been ignored. Many of the pieces create an arena for inquiry within disciplines such as natural history, natural science and geography. Watercolors painted by the pioneering botanist Maria Sibylla Merian sit alongside intricate models of marine invertebrates crafted by Leopold and Rudolph Blaschka, initially created as research tools for naturalists who had no access to living specimens. Among the most intriguing of these “found” objects are a series of tiny notebooks from the Spanish artist, Manuel Montalvo. Full of microscopic OCD drawings of birds, fish, pigs, maps and people; they cover the pages of these Lilliputian volumes with an obsessive calligraphic language. Worn and leather-bound they look as if they might emanate from some 16th-century monastery. In fact, Montalvo, who was something of a recluse, only died in 2010. Works by self-taught artists, such as Judith Scott and James Castle, sit alongside Wladyslaw Starewicz’s pioneering 1912 animation, The Cameraman’s Revenge.
Juxtaposed with all these strange and exotic artifacts are Trockel’s own artistic contributions that defy any signature style. There is collage, video, photography, ceramics and a whole array of minimalist striped “paintings” made of bright lines of wool. Given that this tradition of abstract art was largely a male domain, and its language intellectual and heroic, Trockel has subverted these iconic works by creating objects of surprising beauty that are craft-based and relatively easy to make. The exhibition constantly reframes questions of classification and hierarchy, theories and bodies of knowledge, as well as issues of self-definition, to ask what art is and what constitutes an artist. What Trockel has attempted to create is a sort of map of associations that mimics memory and thought processes.
Walking beneath the rotunda of the darkened central gallery is like entering the Victorian Pitt Rivers ethnographic museum in Oxford. Strange objects abound in glass vitrines: a tacky Barbie-Doll style ballerina reminiscent of Degas’ little dancer, an array of roughly constructed paper birds, a prosthetic leg. On the wall are a series of “expressionist” paintings, entitled “Less Sauvages than Others,” that turn out to have been “painted” by the orangutan, Tilda. Presumably these have been included to question the nature of creativity, an action that we consider something unique to humans.
Trockel has produced a sort of psycho/art/geography, returning us to a kind of Kunstgeographie shaped by the German explorer and naturalist, Alexander von Humboldt, who created a wunderkammer for the 19th century American polymath Charles Willson Peale that is recorded in The Artist in His Museum, 1822, to be found in the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, Philadelphia. This highlights the 19th passion for the categorization and understanding of the natural world. Eschewing a linear retrospective, Trockel’s concerns range from the insatiable curiosity of the Enlightenment to the readymades of Marcel Duchamp. This is an exhibition full of juxtapositions and allusions.
But it will not be to everyone’s taste; it will annoy some who’ll see it as pretentious and ticksy but delight others who will enjoy its surreal and surprising relationships. As single artworks what Trockel produces is not that interesting. But the sum of the whole is a real challenge. It speaks of inquiries into the very processes of human thinking, and asks questions about what it is that forms the body of knowledge that defines the western world.