Dieter Roth at the Fruitmarket Gallery.
Notebook (detail), Dieter Roth, 1967, © Dieter Roth Estate
On entering the Dieter Roth show at the Fruitmarket Gallery in Edinburgh, we are confronted with a bank of screens (Solo Scenes, 1997-8), 128 of them in all, making the whole room flicker eerily. It is like a CCTV control room, except instead of strangers on streets, the artist himself appears on every screen, inviting us to survey his habits and his life as he potters around the rooms of his house. His image is multiplied out; a crowd of Roths populates these screens, yet he is alone in every image. Watching the TVs seems somehow voyeuristic – we are party to his private moments, in bed, on the loo, reading, cooking – yet Roth has turned the camera on himself, he is his own voyeur. This is not about narcissism since Roth does not flatter himself, but appears with all his flaws and foibles on display: this is confessional. It is, in fact, a bold and telling introduction to a show that is all about diaries, and an artist who marked out his own life through ritual, habit and collecting.
In the second room there is a case of Roth’s appointment diaries, which he kept throughout his life. Pages are open, showing appointments, doodles, poems, splatters of paint. The scruffy edges of these little books point to how the artist carried his diary with him at all times, stuffed in a pocket. To me, they are curiosities, a little glimpse into the intimacy of someone else’s inner life and daily routine.
Upstairs are more books, mainly copybooks, bound by Roth himself using photocopies of his drawings and writings, an unkempt sort of self-publishing. His drawings occupy that space between abstract and figurative, lines curl round and swallow each other: there is something uterine about these squiggles. I am quite overwhelmed by the volume of copybooks, a self-made library that seems to grasp every last thing Roth created and pin it down for friends, posterity and the art world. Roth’s inner-life is bound up in these books, and I have a great sense that I will never comprehend it all.
The messy rooms on the screens of Solo Scenes told us that Roth was a hoarder. But what better way to hoard legitimately than through your art? Next to the copybooks, there are ringbinders full of plastic wallets, each with some useless scrap inside: a bit of ripped cardboard, an unstruck match, a sneezed on tissue, a filled-out form, a hotel welcome leaflet, a torn postcard, a squashed cigarette packet, a receipt, a bottlecap, a beer mat. The list goes on and on through wallet after wallet, binder after binder, an overwhelming archive of detritus. In this piece, Flat Waste (1975-6/1992), Roth collected all the bits of waste that were under 1 cm thick and archived them: each binder contains the waste of one day, and the artist continued the project for a whole year 1975-6 (returning to it again in 1992 to fill in the days missed or lost from the first time round). Two seemingly opposed aesthetics collide: the ‘aesthetic of administration’ of Conceptualism, alongside the aesthetic of abject detritus used by movements such as Arte Povera. The language of office organisation is used to categorize and store the bits of stuff that usually populate the edges of our lives, raising them up to a an odd status, not through artistic reverence or visibility, but through the act of everyday storage, in which Roth seems to be saying that these things are worth keeping, but not worth seeing. Though a number of binders remain open so that we can peruse their contents, most remain on the shelves, their contents unknown, but guessable. The eco-angel in me tells me that Roth is highlighting the amount of waste one human being can produce in a year, and this is just the flat waste! But the art historian in me thinks that this is probably not about our responsibility for the planet: this is autobiography, the life of Dieter Roth mapped out in leftovers, the footprints left after he’s walked by.
Dieter Roth Diaries is on display at the Fruitmarket Gallery from 2 August 2012 – 14 October 2012