New York

Rosemarie Trockel

Dia Center for the Arts

First encounters with Rosemarie Trockel have often left American viewers puzzled. The many narrative routes into her work, plus the specificity of her German-language references, can appear unfathomable. Yet this didn’t prevent a favorable critical consensus from emerging here in the 1990s. Indeed, the very notion of missed signals is at the heart of her practice, as demonstrated by a sub-installation in her latest appearance in New York. Two cases displayed maquettes for about two dozen unrealized book and catalogue projects conceived between 1983 and 2000. One book, Looking at Idols, 1984, would have gathered interviews among friends like Martin Kippenberger and Jiří Georg Dokoupil but was scuttled because they “couldn’t find any suitable photo-material.” The failure provides source material for a meditation on the haphazardness of the creative process.

Still, Trockel’s main installation had a sense of cohesiveness that arose in part through the exhibition’s structure: five freestanding walls arranged into a broken-up rectangle, which viewers perambulated to encounter five videos projected onto the walls’ outward-facing surfaces. Protruding aluminum panels on the interiors evoked modernist facades of postwar department stores and office buildings, while the walls’ impassive, generic features were countered by Trockel’s semifictional character, Manu, who, played by Manu Burghart—a Cologne-based member of Trockel’s circle of amateur actors—is featured in the first five videos of the artist’s ongoing series, “Manu’s Spleen,” 2000–. Manu’s Spleen 2, 2002, depicts a demonstration in Cologne against the then pending demolition of two buildings that housed the Kölnischer Kunstverein and the Josef-Haubrich-Kunsthalle, both of which were city landmarks. The Kunsthalle’s undulating relief-style surface, recalled by the Dia walls, was already doomed when Trockel asked actor Udo Kier to read a statement protesting the loss. As Kier explains, while Manu stands silently at his side, it’s time to protest for the very reason that protest is no longer “politically relevant.”

Kier’s ineffective agitprop was followed by the stagebound theatricality of Manu’s Spleen 4, 2002, a nearly eight-minute adaptation of Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage and Her Children. Trockel’s comical mélange of political theater and pop-cultural references from the protest era shuffles together disparate moments of social upheaval. Mother Courage’s rolling army supply station is the centerpiece, with Manu as Courage, spiffed up and modernized in a chic André Courrèges outfit. Mother Courage’s sons, Eilif and Swiss Cheese, are skinny lads wearing leotards with genitals sewn on, while the mute daughter, Kattrin, is morphed into Joan of Arc with a boom box. The sound track shifts when she turns the radio’s dial, calling forth a wide array of recordings that includes John Lennon’s “Imagine” and Marilyn Monroe’s birthday song to JFK.

Trockel’s indulgent literary and musical manipulations were brought down to earth by two other works that trod lightly on the thematic terrain of birth and death. In the brief Manu’s Spleen 3, 2001, a shaky handheld camera captures the protagonist with a pregnant belly at a party. Amid flickering sparklers, she blows out a candle and her stomach suddenly pops, inspiring riotous laughter among the party goers and knocking the wind out of sentimental myths of procreation. Another deft, humorous flirtation with mortality is found in Manu’s Spleen 1, 2000, with its scene of Manu and two friends nonchalantly passing through a cemetery, where she briefly lies down in an open grave next to a well-dressed man playing a corpse; Trockel cleverly sidesteps clichés of dark romanticism.

Such upending of traditional categories is routine for Trockel, who has spent a career developing a visual language that eschews what philosopher Richard Rorty calls “final vocabularies,” or constellations of fixed and unquestioned words, images, and concepts. Like Rorty’s ironist, Trockel is suspicious of immediately comprehensible meanings. Laying bare the inherent difficulties of the communicative act, the spleen in Trockel’s most recent output is not merely an attack on signifying conventions: It forms part of a long-running effort to expand and challenge the terms of dialogue between artist and audience.

Gregory Williams