PRINT September 1991


Most of the reasoning of women and poets is done in parables. Now think of a spider.
—Denis Diderot

If another and later species comes to reconstruct the human being from the evidence of our sentimental writings they will conclude it to have been a heart with testicles.
—Georg Christoph Lichtenberg

A woman cannot speak of her pleasure.
—Jacques Lacan

ARACHNE, OVID TELLS US in Book VI of The Metamorphoses, was a motherless girl “with neither family nor proper place” who angered Pallas Athena by daring to rival her at the loom. This presumptuous girl, whose “art alone had given her rewards,” knew herself equal to Athena, and with breathtaking arrogance “she denied the goddess was her teacher, / And took offense when art was called divine. /‘Let her compete with me,’ she cried. ‘If she/ Does better, I shall give up everything.’” Looking at the results of the contest, “not even Pallas nor blue-fevered Envy / Could damn Arachne’s work.” This didn’t stop the deity, ever jealous, from taking mortal offense: she destroyed Arachne’s weaving and struck her four times in the face with a shuttle, effectively bringing about the suicide of one who’d “rather hang herself than bow her head.” Then, feeling a “twinge of mercy,” Athena lifted up the dead “bad girl” and turned her into a spider, doomed to live forever, “the tenuous weaver of an ancient craft.”1

I was reminded of Ovid’s brutal parable of the “spider artist”2 as I walked among the 60-odd works of art in Rosemarie Trockel’s recent retrospective at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston. It’s no coincidence that one of Arachne’s sisters has been given a home in the vitrine of an untitled piece from 1988, silently weaving her web, and reminding us of the girl who challenged authority only to pass from willful artmaker to mindless performer of women’s work, from living woman to eternal feminine. The spider’s weaving also brings to mind Trockel’s knitted “paintings,” those witty parodies of Minimalist canvases rendered in a medium long associated with the female. But concrete allusions aside, Arachne’s tale of revolt and protofeminist artmaking (the tapestry she wove illustrated “the oldest western stories of seduction and betrayal”3—the Rape of Europa, Leda and the Swan, etc.) provides an apt metaphor for this German artist’s strategies and a loose modus operandi for reading her work.

Trockel herself has declared an interest “not only in the history of the victor, but also in that of the weaker party,” and has noted that women “have historically. . . always been left out.” Speaking of her knitted balaclava masks, 1986–90, she has emphasized that they “consist not only of what they say or intend to say, but also of what they exclude. They have absence as their subject.”4 These statements may be generalized to apply to all of Trockel’s work to date, which seeks to represent the hidden, the overlooked, the unrepresented—the gendered female. Jacques Lacan, as Hélène Cixous writes, would bar woman from the Symbolic, placing her “outside language. . . excluded from any possible relationship with culture and the cultural order.”5 Trockel, I would aver, wants to put her back, to return her to the realm of subjectivity.

You may complain that such a reading would reduce Trockel’s complex, enigmatic, evocative work to questions of gender (and in these postfeminist times, haven’t “we” all heard enough about those?), would marginalize it by excluding it from more spacious territory, or, even from the deconstructionists’ genderless zone of the authorless text.6 On the contrary, to speak of Trockel as a woman artist, a spider artist, in no way disallows the poetic resonance of the objects that she makes, or detaches them from the world in which they claim their meaning. In her catalogue essay for the current retrospective, Elisabeth Sussman asserts that “what has to be underscored. . . is Trockel’s gendered consciousness, which establishes the different and the ordinary within a discourse of the body.”7 While agreeing with her, it seems to me that it is the “gendered consciousness” of the artist herself that is of most importance, allowing us entry into the work whether its subject be male, female, or some combination of the two.

Take, for example, the oppositions that run throughout Trockel’s art, giving it a tension that is part of its strength: plus/minus, active/passive, hard/soft, outside/inside, male/female, mind/body, one could go on. As Gaston Bachelard notes in The Poetics of Space, “Simple geometrical opposition becomes tinged with aggressivity.”8 And so it does here. Trockel knows that in a world of oppositions, a world where women are seen as everything men are not, all is not equal, everything does not “add up.” In a 1987 carpet, knotted in her signature plus and minus design, one notices after a few minutes not only that the pluses and minuses do not balance, but that the silk tassels on the side of “loss” are much longer than those on the side of “gain.”

There are other oppositions also at work, more subtle but no less final. Hanging in the vitrine with the busy arachnid in Untitled, 1988, is a man’s white shirt, its surface pricked through with pinholes. (The sort of pin found in new shirts, a dressmaker’s pin, rests over the left breast, getting, so to speak, to the “heart” of the matter.) The neck label reads “Justine Juliette COLLECTION DÉSIR,” a reference to those ill-matched siblings created by the Marquis de Sade—Justine, virginal and too good to live, and Juliette, libertine and too evil to die. In the Sadean universe the sense of opposition is total. “The dichotomy between active and passive, evil and good,” Angela Carter writes, “is absolute, and, what is more, perceived as unchanging.”9 To escape victimization, however, a woman can become an “accomplice” in crime, like Juliette, who knows exactly what she’s up to: she may be a monster but she has the mind and the will to make her own choices. Justine, for her part, chooses nothing. Everything just happens to her.

Theodor Adorno, in Minima Moralia, speaks of Princess Lizard, the type of woman whose attractiveness lies in her total “lack of awareness of [herself], indeed of a self at all.” The bourgeois imagination, he continues, “needs poverty, to which it does violence: the happiness it pursues is inscribed in the features of suffering. So Sade’s Justine, who falls from one torture-trap into the next, is called ‘notre intéressante heroine,’” our interesting heroine, precisely to the degree she achieves a state of absolute passivity.10 Looking at the things Trockel makes, it’s no secret which sister she prefers. In the “Justine Juliette COLLECTION DÉSIR” works, I believe, she is holding open this choice of knowing, of entering the realm of the either/or and accepting the dare of empowerment by donning the man’s shirt and adopting the prerogatives it implies.11 Sussman makes an eloquent case for the importance of thinking and mind to the artist, citing the frequent trope of the head in her oeuvre.12 And Trockel herself, in a 1988 knitted piece, declares with Descartes, “Cogito, ergo sum,” I think, therefore I am. (Knowledge, as they say, is power.) But body being equally crucial to Trockel, we know that she has other things on her mind as well.

Sade’s writings may finally be about power more than desire, but the transactions delimited there are carried out in the sphere of the boudoir, and sex is the medium of exchange between bodies. For Sidra Stich, writing in the catalogue, the Justine Juliette label “anchors the shirt in a zone where women, whether good or bad. . . are utterly subservient to men, functioning primarily as sex objects.”13 The man is perforce the sadist, the woman his masochistic victim. Yet the Sadean alternative posits at least the possibility of the transaction going the other way; and even normative sexual relationships may not be so “nice.” All, at any rate, as Michel Foucault pointed out, involve power. There has been a tendency among some feminists, as the German writer Barbara Sichtermann complains, to imagine a “cream-puff sexuality, in which two smiling faces and four open arms embrace. . . .The fiction [has developed] of a peaceful/female sexuality.”14 Art objects have the ambiguous virtue of ambiguity, and it is ultimately impossible to be certain about Trockel’s position here, given her general willingness to be provocative. What is clear, though, is her reluctance, like Arachne, to bow to authority, and the evident, if often covert, violence that runs throughout her oeuvre.15

Much, in fact, in Trockel’s work is fractured, broken, or very easily may be. There are the turquoise shards of glass in Untitled, 1989, precariously taped to the shelves of the first-aid box the artist found in the garbage. Or the bottom half of the resolutely male mannequin in Untitled, 1987, clothed in knitted leggings ending in socks; the fragile pig’s-bladder “skull” in Ohne Titel (Bubikopfschneiden) (Untitled [Cutting a bobbed hairstyle], 1988); the eggs mounted at the ends of the implements (tools or weapons?) in Untitled (Vendetta), 1988; and so on. After a while, this sense of fragility, and its implications of mortality, make one feel nervous, threatened. It is not so much that we are witness to violence as that it exists, in its potentiality, everywhere. Even woman’s work may be dangerous, as is proven by the knitted balaclavas, an essential in any urban terrorist’s wardrobe—whether male or female.

Sussman, reminding us of the many women in the German terrorist movement, considers Balaclava, 1986–90, “a reversal of woman’s silence or passivity.”16 Noting that these ski masks cover the wearer’s mouth, one could as easily maintain that they are meant as a sign of woman’s muteness—her inability to speak. Trockel’s aforementioned statement of her intention here—Balaclava is to record an ”absence“—clues us to the possible admission of a female subject. Looking at the knitted hoods themselves, however, wouldn’t do it: this is the one clothing-related piece Trockel has made that would effectively ”mask" the wearer’s sex.

Stich maintains that Trockel “focus[es] on clothing as a site of gender conflation,” and many of the artist’s clothing works do appear, on display, unisexual.17 Ironically, though, once a person puts one on, it becomes “sexed,” gendered. Knitted clothes conform to the body wearing them—note the word “conform”—and reveal its sex; they are a second skin. The leggings, for example, will obviously look different on a man than on a woman; ditto for the sleeveless and hooded pullover, 1988, or the crew-neck sweater, 1987, with its allover pattern of hammers and sickles. Rather than deny sexual difference, these garments seem to emphasize it. A 1986 knitted dress puts Woolmark logos over the breasts. (The Boston show, in its wall labels, argued for Trockel’s use of clothing as a symbol of fashion fetishism and of male sadism and domination. This seems like a projection to me; only the Woolmark dress lends itself to so reductive a reading, and here the objectification is accomplished not in the dour terms proposed, but with Trockel’s usual wit.) In the photograph Ohne Titel (Können Bäume weinen?) (Untitled [Can trees cry?], 1990) Trockel seems to parody the Judeo-Christian preoccupation with difference: a naked couple is seen from the neck down, their genitals hidden by oversize fig leaves. Well might a tree cry, “denuded” for the sake of covering human nakedness, human shame, victimized by a culture so obsessed with difference that it cannot bear to look at it.

To the extent that other works of Trockel’s suggest androgyny, I am willing to agree with the curators that in this they are subversive, but I don’t feel that these pieces actually go any farther than the knitted clothes in annulling gender distinctions. The fetishes in Komaland (Comaland, 1988), for example, are overtly both male and female, penis and vulva, residing in overdetermined tension within one object. But there is almost too much female and too much male, not a bland, tepid blending of the two. Speaking of Untitled, 1987, a vitrine in which Trockel has placed two small sculptures, one an ape’s head and the other a fetish object, Sussman contends that Trockel, “through a deconstruction of evolution,” is imagining “an alternative sexuality, unified in a fantasy of sexual wholeness that is both male and female.”18 It seems to me that while Trockel is frequently concerned to transgress gender boundaries, accomplished in her work by a ferocious meeting of male and female within the space of one body, or one object, the results almost never form a totality. In her work the part must speak for the whole, reminding us that the latter is, in fact, always a fantasy.

If the notion of unity is a patriarchal sham, wherein, as Simone de Beauvoir writes, “Man represents both the positive and the neutral, as is indicated by the common use of man to designate human beings in general; whereas woman represents only the negative,”19 then perhaps it is crucial to emphasize the part/the thing that is female, and so to represent what has, until now, been invisible. Much has been written about Trockel’s incorporation of items of domestic (female) labor into her work: brooms (Untitled, 1986), electric burners (untitled works from 1987 to the present), irons (Untitled, 1988), and scrub brushes (Poetic Illegality, 1989) among them. In speaking of these objets trouvés, Marcel Duchamp’s and/or Joseph Beuys’ names are, inevitably and not unfittingly, dropped, as if reference to their antiart practices would explain everything about Trockel’s strategies. I myself have imagined some of her works to approach the deliberate strangeness, eroticism, and inutility of the Surrealist object: think of Man Ray’s Cadeau (Gift, 1921), the iron with tacks on its bottom, or Meret Oppenheim’s Fur Teacup, 1936. But looking, for example, at the scrub-brush shoes in Poetic Illegality, I note a literal raising of the defiled that would have interested neither Duchamp and Beuys nor the Surrealists. The brush, scrubbing implement par excellence of the Putzfrau (char), has been transformed by Trockel into a patten, the shoe form that, in its more modest manifestations, kept my lady from muddying her feet and, at its most extreme, guaranteed that she couldn’t venture into the muck unaided. Voilà, Trockel has metamorphosed an object of use into something useless except to show the commodity value of the female. But while this transaction is going on, so is another: the simultaneous transmutation of the degraded low/no-value brush into an art object, that supreme commodity, and thereby a redemption, if ironic, of women’s work. Even the title could be read as signaling a recognition of the “poetic illegality” of making art in this way, and of Trockel’s resolution to do it—and be damned.

In Untitled, 1988, two flatirons and the wax cast of a lingerie mannequin have been arranged on a tall wooden platform, almost an altar, that solicits contemplation of them. The irons in particular—old-fashioned specimens recast in gray metal, their frayed cords pathetic and forlorn—would be of no use to either press clothes or burn anyone (not even the wax lady whose breasts are in such dangerous proximity to their cold surfaces). These things are like the relics of a cargo cult: divorced—twice over by being recast—from their original use and meaning, they have, in another context, become almost sacred, at least beautiful.

Trockel likes to put her objects on pedestals, thereby, Stich says, “exaggerat[ing] the aura of authentic representation.”20 The vitrines, too, function to legitimate whatever is in them as worthy of notice, as functioning, above all, within the precincts of art. As the medieval reliquary protected the sainted body part from decay, preserving it until the Last Judgment, so Trockel’s vitrines hold the things within them in a delicate equipoise that seems predicated on a later moment of animation. The artist herself has made a silver reliquary of her own finger, in the late Gothic style (Das Intus Legere durch die Sondergotik [Silent reading in the Mannerist Gothic style, 1988]), a joke perhaps on the “sainted” artist and the “complete or total understanding” (Thomas Aquinas’ “Intus Legere”) promised by the products of her “genius,” or a mock-serious acknowledgment of Aquinas’ demand that we seek “Intus Legere” through “knowing,” a composite operation of body and soul, rather than by the Platonic mode of mind alone.

The whole may finally be a dream, like that of the resurrected body. Nevertheless, the part—watched, attended to—may disclose some truths about that terra (mis)cognita known as the female, reveal the workings of the spider artist, who knows her power, and is willing to use it.

Deborah Drier is a senior editor of Artforum.


1. Ovid, The Metamorphoses, trans. Horace Gregory, New York and Scarborough, Ont.: New American Library, 1958, pp. 163–67.
2. Nancy K. Miller, Subject to Chance: Reading Feminist Writing, New York: Columbia University Press, 1988, pp. 80–81. Miller speaks of Arachne in chapter 4, “Arachnologies: the Woman, the text, and the critic,” in which she proposes to use her story “as a possible parable (or critical modeling) of a feminist poetics” and a way to read women’s writing by restoring to it a “gendered subjectivity.”
3. Miller, p. 82.
4. Rosemarie Trockel, in Jutta Koether, “Interview with Rosemarie Trockel,” Flash Art no. 134, May 1987, p. 40.
5. Hélène Cixous, “Castration or Decapitation?,” 1975, in Out There: Marginalization and Contemporary Culture, ed. Russell Ferguson et al., New York: New Museum of Contemporary Art, and Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1990, pp. 348–49.
6. See Miller’s “Arachnologies” for a brilliant argument in favor of restoring the woman as author. Although Miller is concerned with narrative writing rather than the visual arts, much of what she has to say is relevant to the art discourse as well.
7. Elisabeth Sussman, “The Body's Inventory—the Exotic and Mundane in Rosemarie Trockel’s Work,” in Rosemarie Trockel, ed. Sidra Stich, exhibition catalogue, Munich: Prestel-Verlag, 1991, p. 29.
8. Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space, 1958, trans. Maria Jolas, Boston: Beacon Press, 1969, p. 212.
9. Angela Carter, The Sadeian Woman and the Ideology of Pornography, 1978, New York: Harper, Colophon, 1980, p. 142. Carter’s polemical tour de force argues that by empowering the female sex, Sade “put pornography in the service of women, or, perhaps, allowed it to be invaded by an ideology not inimical to women” (p. 37).
10. Theodor Adorno, Minima Moralia: Reflections from Damaged Life, 1951, trans. E. F. N. Jephcott, New York and London: Verso, 1989, pp. 169 and 170.
11. The shirt and label appear in another 1988 work, Ohne Titel (Bubikopfschneiden) (Untitled [Cutting a bobbed hairstyle]). And in a 1988 multiple, a pressed and boxed shirt bears a black-ink launderer’s mark, “J & J,” for a touch of domestic sadism. All of these shirts are men’s—they button on the right—but Trockel’s mock advertisement for “Male-Tested Fashions,” 1989, features a woman’s shirt that buttons on the left. Sidra Stich, in her catalogue essay “The Affirmation of Difference in the Art of Rosemarie Trockel” (Rosemarie Trockel, p. 16), suggests that the latter work lampoons the use of a grinning, eroticized female to sell men’s clothing. Rather, the laughing, active woman is here assuring us that the shirt she is proffering has been “tested” by the guys—the pipe-smoking fellow wearing a shirt and tie in the upper-right corner —and so will fit us women just fine.
12. Sussman, pp. 31–32.
13. Stich, p. 16.
14. Barbara Sichtermann, “Violence and Desire,” in German Feminism: Readings in Politics and Literature, ed. Edith Hoshino Altbach et al., Albany: State University of New York Press, 1984, p. 110.
15. See Sussman, pp. 33–36; Holland Cotter, “Rosemarie Trockel,” Arts 65 no. 6, January 1989, p. 81; and Ken Johnson, “Tales From the Dark Side,” Art in America 76 no. 12, December 1988, pp. 140–43.
16. Sussman, p. 34.
17. Stich, p. 16.
18. Sussman, p. 32. While I may not agree with everything Sussman has to say, her essay is, on the whole, exemplary, especially in its linking of James Clifford’s notion of “ethnographic surrealism” to Trockel’s artistic method (pp. 29–31).
19. Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex, trans. and ed. H. M. Parshley, New York: Bantam Books, 1952, p. xv.
20. Stich, p. 14.

“Rosemarie Trockel,” curated by Sidra Stich and Elisabeth Sussmann, ran at the Institute of Contemporary Art Boston in the spring. A slightly different version of the exhibition can be seen at the University Art Museum, Berkeley, California, until 8 September. Thereafter the retrospective will appear at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, 28 September to 10 November; the Power Plant, Toronto, 17 January to 1 March 1992; and the Museum Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, Madrid, 30 March to 17 May 1992.