Milan

View of “Dieter Roth and Björn Roth,” 2013–14. Foreground: Björn Roth, Oddur Roth, and Einar Roth with Davíd Por Jonsson, The Relatively New Sculpture, 2013. Background: Dieter Roth, Solo Scenes, 1997–98.

View of “Dieter Roth and Björn Roth,” 2013–14. Foreground: Björn Roth, Oddur Roth, and Einar Roth with Davíd Por Jonsson, The Relatively New Sculpture, 2013. Background: Dieter Roth, Solo Scenes, 1997–98.

Dieter Roth and Björn Roth

Pirelli HangarBicocca

View of “Dieter Roth and Björn Roth,” 2013–14. Foreground: Björn Roth, Oddur Roth, and Einar Roth with Davíd Por Jonsson, The Relatively New Sculpture, 2013. Background: Dieter Roth, Solo Scenes, 1997–98.

“Islands,” which comprises one hundred works in 48,000 square feet of demanding postindustrial space and marks Vicente Todolí’s trial run as HangarBicocca’s artistic adviser, is a massive show, big enough to encompass Dieter Roth’s total lifetime undertaking of smashing and annihilating boundaries, whether temporal, spatial, or conceptual. Making radical contributions to performance, sculpture, painting, poetry, graphic design, publishing, filmmaking, and music, Roth seemed to aim more than any other artist at an ensured permanency or—better yet—immortality. Supporting that legacy, Roth’s son and collaborator Björn acts as heir, successor, and curator of his father’s oeuvre. In Milan, he has transformed the former AnsaldoBreda rail-engineering plant into a vast laboratory, both a new home for his father’s production methods and a steady and continuous work-in-progress environment.

At the entrance, an impressive installation engages the visitor and introduces the Roth dynasty’s intergenerational drafting process: The Relatively New Sculpture, 2013, a site-specific, walkable scaffold overlooking the entire exhibition, made by Björn with his own sons Oddur and Einar Roth and some other close collaborators. Along its path they arranged broken musical instruments to be activated during performances, creating unexpected melodies and epitomizing Björn’s role as conductor within his father’s abundant body of work: He has orchestrated and organized an orderly chaos from his father’s deliberate and blithe helter-skelter mess.

Within the uninterrupted flux of Roth’s production, a certain number of monumental pieces fall inside an emblematically self-regarding (one could even say self-fetishizing) paradigm, from the well-known functioning Economy Bar, 2004–2013, a concrete illustration by Björn, Oddur, and Einer Roth, with others, of the disruption between art and everyday life in Dieter Roth’s work, to Solo Scenes, 1997–98, 131 monitors featuring a nonstop screening of the artist’s last year of life.This paradigm continues in the imposing installations that re-create his places of work: Floor I, 1973–92, and Floor II, 1977–98, from his studio in Mosfellsbær, Iceland; the Grosse Tischruine (Large Table Ruin), 1978–98, made from his Stuttgart, Germany, studio worktable; and The Studio of Dieter and Björn Roth, 1995–2008, a reconstitution of the artists’ working space in Basel. Some pieces escape the rhetoric of the condition report, though: among them, a remarkable set of sixty rare prints from “The Picadilly Project,” a collaboration with Hansjörg Mayer begun in 1969, a major work of graphic experimentation based on a subversion of the printing process applied to a cheap, popular Picadilly Circus postcard. Roth enlarged and reproduced the image as a lithograph and transformed it through a series of unconventional chromatic and structural interventions, drawing up an overview of that era’s printing techniques. He then shaped the project as an “art on demand” operation through which new editions could be commissioned and made to order, becoming a profitable enterprise—and underlining how clearheaded Roth was, even when seemingly most illogical.

Long-term projects such as the “Piccadillies” again demonstrate Roth’s unwavering will to keep his working process running as long as possible. Though it might seem contradictory, this position is actually enhanced by his incisive and ironic stance toward the art-production system itself and by his use of perishable materials (for instance, in monumental sugar self-portrait towers and chocolate constructions) to highlight his defining belief: The supposed permanency of art doesn’t boil down to noble, eternal materials but rather to the way its memory is scrupulously gathered and preserved. This statement may be best summed up by one last, invisible, and most poetic work, an operation taking place outside the exhibition space: Leftover materials and waste from the show have been stocked in a kind of craft distillery that produces compost—a concentrated essence of the exhibition and of Dieter Roth’s ideas. The work could be understood as conveying a quasi-biblical axiom: “From waste you were created and to waste you should return,” bearing ultimate testimony to Roth’s search for an absolute, unconditional, and utter permanency.

Myriam Ben Salah