Amy Barrett-Lennard: Objects. Food. Rooms.
Catalogue essay from the exhibition “Thomas Rentmeister. Objects. Food. Rooms.”, Kunstmuseum Bonn, 19.10.2011 – 05.02.2012; in Thomas Rentmeister. Objects. Food. Rooms., (cat.) Kunstmuseum Bonn and Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts, Cologne 2011, German p. 75–80, English p. 81–86.
Thomas Rentmeister has chosen an apt title for his first monograph, launched to coincide with major exhibitions, of the same name, at both the Kunstmuseum Bonn in Germany and the Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts in Australia.
Apart from being a neat way to classify Rentmeister’s extraordinary artistic output over the past twenty-five years, objects, food and rooms also happen to be the chapter headings from one of the great Modern experiments in verse, Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons.
There are obvious connections between these chapter headings, their contents and Rentmeister’s concerns as an artist – concerns with things external to us, things that nourish us and things that enclose us. There are also other similarities to be drawn between this contemporary German artist’s work and that of one of the most compelling literary and artistic figures of the early 20 th century.
Stein, like Rentmeister, had developed a highly idiosyncratic, playful, repetitive and humorous style. Hers was through stream-of-consciousness experiments in writing, often linked to Cubism; his through highly imaginative experiments in painting, sculpture and installation in which tensions between form, function and fantasy are engagingly tested.
It is quite an uncanny experience to read Tender Buttons after spending time with Rentmeister’s work, and it is no surprise that he was drawn to this text. Stein’s interests in colour and the various qualities of colour, the everyday, the combination of quite disparate elements, and a surreal playfulness – all mirror those of Rentmeister.
Most strikingly, they both reveal a strong desire to manipulate form and space, in Stein’s case, on the page with highly idiosyncratic word-combinations, and in Rentmeister’s, within a gallery, office, park, anywhere in fact he has chosen to place, and place carefully, his works.
Stein’s experimental and, at the time, highly controversial text contains a series of descriptions that defy conventional syntax in a way that Rentmeister’s spatial arrangements of disjunctured objects and materials have defied any pre-defined idiom. Both Stein and Rentmeister have created works that are funny, multilayered and that eschew fixed meaning. Instead they invite a variety of interpretations, engagements and responses.
Of Stein, Judy Grahn has argued that one must “insterstand ... engage with the work, to mix with it in an active engagement, rather than ‘figuring it out.’ Figure it in.” [Judy Grahn, Really Reading Gertrude Stein: A Selected Anthology with essays by Judy Grahn, Freedom, California 1989, p. 21.] The same could equally be said for the work of Thomas Rentmeister.
A CARAFE, THAT IS A BLIND GLASS.
A kind in glass and a cousin, a spectacle and nothing strange a single hurt color and an arrangement in a system to pointing. All this and not ordinary, not unordered in not resembling. The difference is spreading. [Gertrude Stein, Tender Buttons, New York 1914.] Gertrude Stein
Although there is a strong “readymade” aspect to Rentmeister’s early art making, a tendency that reappears every so often throughout his career, it is his connection with minimalism that is most often talked about. And it is this connection with minimalism that one first thinks about in relation to the artist and objects.
Rentmeister even credits the work of Donald Judd as his reason for deciding to become an artist. His systemic arrangements of repetitive modules, three dimensional objects ranging from canteen coffee cups and power sockets to tissue boxes and refrigerators, are certainly more than a nod in the direction of those at the forefront of the minimalist movement. So too are his monochrome “paintings”, constructed of stretched tarpaulin, Nutella or Penaten baby cream.
There are obvious and immediate differences, however, between the work of Rentmeister and that of his minimalist forefathers. For while Judd, Andre and Morris, for example, were concerned with stripping their objects of meaning by placing their meticulously manufactured architectural forms in ways that focussed the viewer almost solely on their collective geometry and their relationship to their environment, Rentmeister takes a far less literal and fixed approach.
Minimalism was undoubtedly one of the most profoundly important and influential art movements of the 20th century, bringing about decisive changes not only in painting and sculpture but also in music and dance. It was, however, decidedly without humour, something that certainly could not be said of the work of Thomas Rentmeister.
Who could not help but smile at Rentmeister’s choice of objects and materials and the way he determines their presence in our presence as a viewer. From a collection of dead flies (apparently gathered on a daily basis by his grandmother) glued to a canvas, to a neatly stacked block of Tempo tissue packs, to a found plastic shelf covered in Nutella, to a collection of white underwear housed quite grandly beneath a large perspex cover – Rentmeister is at play here. Most importantly we are asked to play too, to bring our own memories, associations, fears and fetishes to his work – and to enjoy the sensorial and emotional pleasures that his work evokes.
Rentmeister himself has explained that although rooted in minimalism, his work does contain humour and is definitely not “clean of meaning” [Quote from lecture by Thomas Rentmeister about his work at the Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts, 16 April 2011.]. This assertion might first appear to have lost something in translation, however it begins to make more sense when we take into account that Rentmeister’s work has been dubbed “Dirty Minimalism”, a term coined by Ursula Panhans-Bühler in reference to the artist’s sceptically humorous and distinctly “impure” approach to minimalism. [Ursula Panhans-Bühler, “Sweet Heaviness and Gravitational Sweetness”, in Thomas Rentmeister. braun / brown, (cat.) Kölnischer Kunstverein, Ostfildern 2002, p. 60.]
He wryly takes this notion of cleanliness/uncleanliness a little further in his growing predisposition for incorporating personal hygiene projects into his works – white ones at that! This is perhaps most charmingly portrayed in 2005, in Rentmeister’s homage to Reiner Ruthenbeck (untitled, 2005), a pile of crumpled dirty white tissues, produced while the artist suffered from a particularly nasty winter cold.
Since the Penaten baby cream (a very common German nappy rash ointment) used to great effect smeared between the cracks of assembled refrigerators, Rentmeister has increasingly turned to materials found at the local pharmacy – cotton swabs, cotton balls, make up removal pads and tampons.
The use of these largely feminine hygiene products can initially leave one feeling a little uneasy, especially when employed quite cavalierly by a male artist steeped in the overtly masculine oeuvre of minimalism. But perhaps in the way that Stein’s Tender Buttons has been read as a feminist reworking of a patriarchal language, Rentmeister too might be considered to be reworking a visual language by prioritizing objects of a highly feminine nature.
Another distinction between Rentmeister and that of the minimalists is his incorporation, celebration even, of branding and logos. Fearful not was he of building large cubic structures from hundreds of boxes of tissues, their brand displayed in a boldly repetitive and mesmeric fashion, nor was he adverse to filling a child’s shopping trolley with tins of Penaten baby cream and later reproducing an only very slightly modified version of the Penaten logo as a series of large wall paintings.
It has already been noted that in this way Rentmeister has successfully “created an intellectual short circuit between Minimal and Pop art” [Ellen Seifermann, “Minimal Pop. Thomas Rentmeister in Conversation with Ellen Seifermann”, in Thomas Rentmeister. Zwischenlandung, (cat.) Kunsthalle Nürnberg, Ostfildern 2004, p. 88.] resulting, as the artist succinctly puts it, in “Minimal Pop”. [Ibid., p. 88.]
One cannot talk about objects in relation to Thomas Rentmeister without commenting on his polyester sculptures. These he began in the early 90s and continued with quite steadily for another 10 years. They are fascinating works, mainly produced in a spectrum of skin tones from brown to pink to white – with the occasional forest green and sunset orange thrown in for good measure.
They are highly seductive if somewhat unnerving in-animate objects that appear to possess the attributes of an alien life form. Their highly polished and reflective surfaces and their rounded protruding forms give them a strangely ephemeral quality that belies their solidity. They appear as if to have only temporarily landed in their current position and that at any moment they may depart and arrive at another site, in some other form.
Rentmeister has commented that it is the surface that is the essential aspect of these works and that if he could he would “leave out everything concealed beneath it and let the sculptures lie around in real space like virtual shells or infinitely thin-walled soap bubbles”. [Udo Kittelmann, “A Foreword or the Brown Period”, in Thomas Rentmeister. braun / brown, (cat.) Kölnischer Kunstverein, Ostfildern 2002, p. 6.]
ROASTBEEF; MUTTON; BREAKFAST; SUGAR; CRANBERRIES; MILK; EGGS; APPLE; TAILS; LUNCH; CUPS; RHUBARB; SINGLE; FISH; CAKE; CUSTARD; POTATOES; ASPARAGUS; BUTTER; END OF SUMMER; SAUSAGES; CELERY; VEAL; VEGETABLE; COOKING; CHICKEN; PASTRY; CREAM; CUCUMBER; DINNER; DINING; EATING; SALAD; SAUCE; SALMON; ORANGE; COCOA; AND CLEAR SOUP AND ORANGES AND OAT-MEAL; SALAD DRESSING AND AN ARTICHOKE; A CENTRE IN A TABLE. [Gertrude Stein, Tender Buttons, New York 1914.] Gertrude Stein
Some anthropologists say that if you really want to understand a culture then you must examine that particular society’s attitudes to sex, death and food.
What might Rentmeister’s use of food say about our attitude to it, or what would our responses to Rentmeister’s use of food reveal about our culture/s?
In Australia, like Germany, we enjoy, for the most part, a healthy abundance of food – in fact we are even being told by our health authorities that we are facing an obesity epidemic from too much of it, or too much of the wrong kind.
Rentmeister’s dunes of white sugar drifting over a shopping trolley or his voluptuous mounds of Nutella, several tonnes worth in some instances, or his iridescent red sea of paprika flavoured potato chips can’t help but speak of this type of excess, an excess quite simply of guilty pleasure.
There are undoubtedly formal qualities belonging to these substances that are highly attractive to this artist and in some cases some obvious scatological associations. The sheer volume of these foodstuffs and their placement within the often strictly “food free” environment of the gallery, does allow a kind of visual disassociation. We are, after all, used to encountering such nourishment in more modest quantities and at the kitchen table.
However, one’s meandering imagination in the presence of one of Rentmeister’s brown lavalike landscapes is soon re-focussed as our olfactory nerves quickly remind us of the true nature of the material before us. Surely, parents of young children or owners of miscreant pets could only wish that sh..t smelt this good.
It is not only food itself that Rentmeister has incorporated so effectively into his artwork but also the means of cooking and storing it. His cubic blocks, chaotic assemblages and stepped ziggurats of discarded refrigerators “rendered” with sticky Penaten baby cream (offering its own distinctive odiferous experience) confront us with another type of excess. How often has our desire for a new white good overtaken the lifespan of our existing appliance? I recently witnessed a veritable graveyard of such objects, lying rejected at the rear of my local electrical store, as their owners were enjoying the “life changing” functions of a new model.
Rentmeister, if not exactly breathing new life into these once vital household items, at least gives them a certain degree of dignity and respect – in his hands they collectively become a monument to a form of food storage that revolutionised the way we purchase, cook and even farm our produce. To ensure we don’t take this memorialising too seriously, however, Rentmeister has applied the aforementioned nappy rash cream, which oozing out of the rubber seals that surround the doors to these devices reminds us of those pesky bits of sauce that often stick to these hard-to-clean areas. “Such everyday experiences” says Rentmeister “are echoed in the drama that emerges when one smears entire refrigerators – even dozens of refrigerators – with a paste that is surely one of the most difficult to clean off in our everyday culture.” [Ellen Seifermann, “Minimal Pop. Thomas Rentmeister in Conversation with Ellen Seifermann”, in Thomas Rentmeister. Zwischenlandung, (cat.) Kunsthalle Nürnberg, Ostfildern 2004, p. 82.]
From storing and cleaning to cooking, one of Rentmeister’s most sublime works must surely be his arrangement of five frying pans, one of a number of fine works by this artist held within the collection of the Kunstmuseum Bonn. They sit expectantly on the floor and rising from their bases are concrete columns of varying heights, cast in such a perfect fashion to make one gasp at their unfathomable beauty. They are the quintessential anti-pedestal, a wonderfully post-minimalist solution to the minimalist problem of the plinth. They are an omelette gone terribly wrong, a reluctant cook’s best excuse, an architect’s conundrum.
Currents, currents are not in the air and on the floor and in the door and behind it first. Currents do not show it plainer. This which is mastered has so thin a space to build it all that there is plenty of room and yet is it quarreling, it is not and the insistence is marked. A change is in a current and there is no habitable exercise. [Gertrude Stein, Tender Buttons, New York 1914.] Gertrude Stein
Rentmeister’s practice has, since at least the late 1980’s, encompassed an interest in the re-presentation of architectural elements and everyday built forms.
A fascination with ventilation features early in works that confront us with a form of building service that is usually subtly hidden from view. The formal qualities of these box-like modular structures and their standardised apertures are celebrated by Rentmeister, as perhaps too is their function, that of maintaining a constantly flowing current of air. Rentmeister ensures, however, that we can’t help but feel that the solid and seemingly immovable nature of these objects is strangely at odds with their purpose.
This uneasiness continues in works like Gemütlichkeitshütte (2005) and Tanta Annis Sauna (2002), rooms essentially, that play on a particular German vernacular and which, although possibly quite alien to Southern Hemisphere lifestyles, still evoke a sense of disquiet. Gemütlichkeitshütte, which translates quite clumsily into English as “cosiness hut”, is a small timber structure, stripped of any embellishment or indeed opening, apart from a casement window from behind which one can barely discern some evidence of life and the faint glow of “cosiness”. From inside this impenetrable structure one can detect the low murmur of fireside chatter paired with occasional eruptions of Bavarian folk music and infuriatingly, the opening and closing of a door. The soundtrack stretches and slows on occasion and then takes on a strangely futuristic tone imbuing the cabin, for a moment, with the qualities of a time travel machine.
Tanta Annis Sauna (2002) or Aunty Annie’s Sauna is again a plain pine structure. Sauna-like, though barely large enough to house a grown adult, it sits up on steel legs and hanging down the side of one wall is a strange and disturbingly biological protrusion. Like much of Rentmeister’s work Tante Annis Sauna is inspired by the artist’s own childhood memories, in this instance visits to an aunt whose cellar had been lined with timber panels and transformed into a sauna. While the steam therapy did not exactly appeal to Rentmeister, the act of spooning water over hot stones and witnessing the transformation of liquid into vapour did. This change of state he witnesses again and references in the act of casting the giant aluminium spoon. It is in itself an object that invokes a sense of organic exhaustion and the more dramatic transformation, perhaps, of someone who has spent too much time in the sauna.
The same type of wooden panel used to create the “rooms” described above were employed by Rentmeister to define the perimeter of an existing room, this time in the form of a wall at the Ellen de Bruijne Projects in Amsterdam in 2002. Here he has again referenced an early memory, this time of a popular form of interior improvement in 1970s Germany in which household walls would be lined with timber to create a sense of earthy snugness.
The lining that Rentmeister applies to a wall at Rohkunstbau, Schloss Sacrow, in 2007, is perhaps the antithesis of this earthy snugness. His carefully laid structure made up of horizontally striated layers of freshly pressed hotel laundry, cotton wool, cotton swabs, tampons, sugar cubes, Styrofoam, Tic Tacs, tissues and cigarette paper create a feature wall of quite a different nature, one of overwhelming, oppressive even, cleanliness and freshness.
It is a similar combination of whiter than white materials that Rentmeister unleashes in a far more chaotic sense in his installation created for the exhibition “…5 minutes later” at KW Institute for Contemporary Art in 2008. Rentmeister takes this approach a step further; allowing himself far more than the five minutes allocated in that instance, to create a new work for Bonn and Perth, a large-scale installation of white substances and objects, including dozens of refrigerators. This is a work that accumulates his interests in objects, food and rooms and portrays a combined sense of excess, play and architectural intervention like no other.
It is as if Stein has been able to expand her page to the size of a billboard and throw her words over its surface in a way that confounds and delights us to an even greater degree. It is a work to enter, perceive and digest in equal measure.
© Amy Barrett-Lennard