Ellen Seifermann: Minimal Pop. Thomas Rentmeister in conversation with Ellen Seifermann
Catalogue essay from the exhibition „Thomas Rentmeister. Zwischenlandung“, Kunsthalle Nürnberg, 21.07. – 26.09.2004; in Thomas Rentmeister. Zwischenlandung, (cat.) Kunsthalle Nürnberg, Ostfildern 2004, German p. 74–80, English p. 82–88, translated from the German by Lucinda Rennison.
Ellen Seifermann: If we disregard the two-dimensional works and take a look back at your oeuvre from today’s perspective, it seems that two main threads run through it – entirely different in character. On the one hand there are the sculptures from the middle of the 1980s onwards, which are assembled from everyday objects and materials, and on the other hand there are the polyester sculptures, whose specific form – in the classical tradition of sculpture – you carefully and precisely model before casting and polishing it. What is the relation between these two work groups, so different in form and material?
Thomas Rentmeister: Actually, I can only see one main thread, or perhaps a large number of parallel threads; it is true that during the 1990s the polyester sculptures took up a considerable space within my work, but as completed sculptures they are only one among several equally valued groups of work for me. However, by comparison to the assembled works from the 1980s, the production process is extremely complex, which I find more of a burdensome necessity. I would prefer it if I could just clap my hands and the work was finished.
In very simple terms, one might say that the notion of finding was paramount in the case of my works from the 1980s, while forming dominates the polyester sculptures. The Nutella and refrigerator works (since 1999) combine both aspects. Santo*, for example, consists of a pile of 145 old refrigerators that I collected. When I first constructed the sculpture in my studio, I rearranged the refrigerators for weeks, combining them in many new ways until they produced a form that I liked – similar to the way a classical sculptor pummels his clay. The Penaten baby cream contributes its own ironic moment to this comparison.
ES: By plastering the gaps in your refrigerator sculptures with a white mass or paste, you achieve the impression of a compact unit and at the same time you bring painting into play. But why Penaten baby cream, of all things?
TR: I have often been asked this question. Curiously enough, up until now, no one has ever asked: “Why refrigerators, of all things?”
The deciding factor behind the emergence of this group of works was the chance discovery of a kind of absurd logic in the combination of the refrigerator and Penaten baby cream. Certainly, besides this there is also a painterly effect, which results from the merging of the yellowish-white colours of both cream and refrigerator. The fact that Penaten baby cream also contains zinc – that is, a metal – contributes to this logic, as refrigerators are usually made of metal.
The smell of Penaten baby cream – which is inseparable, in the depths of our collective memory, from the smell of babies’ shit –, a combination of scent and stink, is hierarchically confronted with another generally familiar category of smell – that of stale refrigerators. The refrigerator chambers, each with its own individual smell, are encapsulated to make them airtight, using a mass that smells of baby.
But the wonderfully stiff, glutinously sticky consistency of the cream was what delighted my sculptor’s heart most of all. In connection with refrigerators, the remains of ketchup or mayonnaise that often stick fast in the rubber profiles of the doors come to mind. As we all know, it is very difficult to clean these sticky remains of food out of the folds in the rubber. Such everyday experiences 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. At least subconsciously, the viewer of the sculpture inevitably asks himself the question: “Who is going to clean all this up afterwards?” That is the foundation for a large element of the comedy in this work.
ES: Cleanliness or purity also plays a role in some of the other works in the exhibition – for example in the large cube made up of family packs of Tempo tissues, but also in the shiny pink or the black matt polyester sculptures. These works are extremely sensitive. Dust, fingerprints or dirt destroy the aesthetic quality of their outward appearance – a risk faced by almost all your works. Before this background, the wall painting with the slogan “Penaten baby cream protects and soothes”, which initially welcomes the viewer into the room, gains an ironic, perhaps even a cynical meaning.
TR: Well, I hope that my work is not too cynical, but first and foremost, I hope that people don’t get any ideas about smearing Penaten baby cream onto the polyester sculptures.
Actually, the wall painting emerged in an entirely non-cynical way: when I had installed my first refrigerator sculpture whiteware at the Nationalgalerie im Hamburger Bahnhof in Berlin two years ago, empty Penaten baby cream tins were left all over the room. The workers at the museum, who had helped me set up the exhibition, came up to me one by one and each asked me to sign one of these tins – and to begin with, I did so. But something about it disturbed me. When I had thought about it, I realised that it was the lid with the motto you mentioned above and the logo. At that time I could identify myself with the cream as a substance, but not with the packaging, because I associated that with corporate identity, which I viewed as a failing. But the more I became aware of it, the more this dislike gradually turned into a liking. The liking increased because the company that produces Penaten baby cream, Johnson and Johnson, was not at all interested in material sponsoring (we had tried to initiate this beforehand); on the contrary, it reacted in a rather sceptical way to this use of their carefully cultivated and treasured product in the context of contemporary art. This behaviour made it easy for me to like the logo and the motto, since I was not hampered by a troubling affirmative sponsoring mechanism. First of all, therefore, I produced a screen print using the slightly modified motif taken from the lid. This led to the idea of a large wall painting, in which this motif was painted on the wall like a sunrise – three times in a row, each successive image turned around its central axis.
ES: Penaten baby cream in various forms almost seems like a leitmotif in the exhibition: it is there as the reproduction of the coloured logo in the wall painting and in screen prints, as a malleable sculptural material, and as a ready-made – in the form of a shopping trolley filled with the tins as they are sold in the shops. I don’t want to compare the way Penaten baby cream is thematised in your work directly with Joseph Kosuth’s strict object definitions (e.g. One and three chairs from 1965), but I would like to know whether there is such a thing as an analytical strategy in your work?
TR: The comparison with Kosuth is an obvious one, but my way of working is only partly analytical. Initially, the product Penaten baby cream only interested me as a sculptural paste. On the other hand, the idea of adding to my own artistic repertoire with the Penaten logo in the form of a screen print – creating irony with respect to ‘super cool’ Andy Warhol by using a baby product – could be seen as a strategic decision. However, I do not make that kind of decision systematically. In my experience, the best works (or those that I consider my best) always happen by chance and as a result of instinct – that is, without any kind of analytical planning. A good example is the children’s shopping trolley, which I found abandoned on the pavement. In a supermarket, I expect I would not have noticed it.
ES: The shopping trolley from the year 2003 is typical of many of your works; since the middle of the 1980s, they have emerged from a spontaneous impulse or from playful activity. On the other hand, you sometimes experiment stubbornly for a long time until the appearance of a work finally tallies with your very specific idea. Only last week, you wrote: “Finally, the black sculpture is the way I wanted it to be; really fine, a virtual matt.” Why virtual?
TR: By virtual, I mean without any structure. I tried to give the sculpture the matt surface of cloth, in which the reflections of a bulge blend into velvety-soft modelling. One is actually familiar with this effect from 3D programmes. By the way, using those it is possible to set the degree of reflection of a virtual body to ‘infinitely variable’ – up to highly-polished. Whether matt or glossy, such an absolutely structure less surface does not exist in reality – that is an ideal notion. Nonetheless, I have – especially in the case of my polished polyester sculptures – attempted to come as close to a virtual appearance as the material world permits by means of perfect craftsmanship.
ES: Although you do not employ it yourself in production, the possibilities of computer technology influence the appearance of your works, especially the surfaces and forms of the polyester sculptures, which you give a hyper-artificial appearance, one that seems alien to reality. These apparently virtual objects contrast to objects that are certainly composed of everyday, familiar materials, but have also been artificially alienated - like a large cube made of 2.800 family packages of paper tissues, for example. With this sculpture you have created an intellectual short circuit between Minimal and Pop Art: as if Andy Warhol’s Brillo Boxes were to dissolve into the strict form of a sculpture by Carl Andre, you permit two opposing art-historical tendencies to collide, causing sparks to fly.
TR: Precisely, and the result is Minimal Pop.
© Ellen Seifermann and Thomas Rentmeister