Martin Roth (1977–2019)

Martin Roth, In July 2015 I shipped debris from the Syrian border to use as bird litter (IV), 2015.

I FIRST MET MARTIN ROTH five years ago, while he was helping install Pierre Huyghe’s big show at LACMA. Human the dog didn’t have the right papers to work in Hollywood, so we took her for a walk in the canyons of Griffith Park, where she promptly befriended a pug wearing a vest nearly the same shade of fuchsia as the paint on her leg.

Martin’s work had the gentle, elusive grace of its author. Even in recent years, when his projects had stronger ties to current political events, his approach left more questions than answers. For his show last year at the former Eldridge Street gallery yours mine & ours, he addressed the 2017 mass shooting in Las Vegas through the conceit of desert holly, a plant native to Nevada that Martin found and retrieved from shooter Stephen Paddock’s starkly landscaped suburban home. Rather than fetishize Paddock or the act of violence itself, Martin slipped stylized blooms of the medicinal plant—known for its healing properties—into a replica of the carpet from Paddock’s Mandalay Bay hotel room. For another piece a year earlier, he developed an algorithm that calibrated the strength of growth lights over a field of lavender, planted in a makeshift greenhouse in the Austrian Cultural Forum’s basement in Midtown Manhattan, to correspond to the Twitter activity of, and engagement with, a number of unidentified controversial accounts—one could guess this was Donald Trump, Alex Jones, Fox News, etc., but again, like with Paddock, Martin didn’t want to give them any more power by naming them. The PR spin was that he was translating the toxic churn of Twitter into a salve, but Martin was never one for single-sentence explanations, even if that was how he himself chose to title his works (a gesture that glibly underlined the distance between his action and its immediate translation). He frequently turned to animals and plants in his art, with an emphasis on care that had some pinning him for an animal-rights activist or one more crusader against the abuses of the Anthropocene. He probably wouldn’t have objected to being classed in the latter camp, at least not too loudly—he was always so polite—but he was also deeply invested in the human element. The natural world may have offered him insight and respite, but it also provided another means of conveying information about the human experience.

To return to the lavender piece, one could see it as an imperfect conversion of “the feed” into another kind of process, one assumed to be natural and right, even if it was fed by internet vitriol. For an installation at the now-closed Louis B. James Gallery, Martin bought some frogs from the Chinatown markets, later releasing them uptown in Central Park. He was interested in this clash of animals bred for food adapting to the new circumstances of their “natural habitat.” When his classmates at Hunter College failed to read such gestures as anything more than PETA-flavored animal rescues, Martin responded in a manner that still makes me smile: He took a busload of his fellow students to Rockaway Beach and proceeded to “free” them there.

In 2013, Martin got permission from artist Reto Steiner to drill holes into one of his room-spanning roof sculptures, allowing a set of fruit trees to grow through it. (That he was even able to convince Steiner speaks volumes to his soft-spoken persuasiveness.) The piece was to be completed when one of the trees dropped its first piece of fruit into the work’s inverted eave. I think this is how many of us felt (and feel) about Martin: There was so much more fruit yet to fall.

Kate Sutton is a writer based in Zagreb, Croatia, and coeditor of international reviews for Artforum. She is the author of the essay, “The Opinions of Trees,” published in Roth’s monograph, In the spring of 2017 Martin Roth published a selection of his works (Black Dog, 2017).

Human the dog.