Thomas Rentmeister

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Katja Blomberg: Tampons and Frying Pans

Catalogue essay from the exhibition “Thomas Rentmeister. Mehr”, Haus am Waldsee, Berlin, 01.03. – 29.04.2007; in Thomas Rentmeister. Mehr, (cat.) Haus am Waldsee, Berlin 2007, German p. 4–7, English p. 74–76, translated from German by Syd Atlas.

Everything that comes to pass is infinitely improbable. (Charles Sanders Peirce, 1878)

What the American philosopher and physicist Charles Sanders Peirce not only surprisingly, but correctly ascertained back in 1878, works well as a motto for Thomas Rentmeister’s work. Not only are original art works inherently unusual in the current world of mass production, but the sculptor, born in 1964 in Reken/Westphalia, brings objects and material from every day life together in a way rarely seen: frying pans and minimalist column shafts, mountains of sugar and shopping carts, table cloths and tampons, tissues and book shelves.

Full of witty irony, Thomas Rentmeister confronts the viewer with his own consumer reality. Content-wise he is criticising consumption with subtle humour. And on the more formal level, Rentmeister is pushing the limits of sculpture, moving within the poles of 20th century sculptural tradition – between constructivism and minimalism, pop and conceptual art. He takes sculpture literally as “mass” and in his recent works, this mass is taken from the domain of luxury and hygiene articles. Stacking and assembling, he goes about his work constructively, as in his recent works “untitled”, 2006 and “Atomium” 2006 or three-dimensionally as in the main installation of the current exhibition when he pours out his material and forms a dune made of sugar “untitled”, 2007.

For some years now, Rentmeister has been using perishable materials such as nougat or Penaten baby cream, sugar, potato chips or tissues to take away some of the static equilibrium and to qualify the idea of perpetuity. Instead of producing finality, he is pursuing a type of sculpture that conveys lightness, temporariness and humour. Perception is to be stretched to its limits, to the thin line at which the aesthetic becomes the repulsive. Space and time are used as components in constituting the form in order to let the overwhelming mass create a feeling which is the exact opposite of pleasure. In this borderline area, he manages to convincingly express, in a particular way, the ambivalence between beauty and revulsion, pleasure and reason, death and life. The previous dominance of colour loses its significance in his recent works and is replaced by virgin white. The texture is clearer, softer and less expressive than before. There are hardly any olfactory stimuli to process. In very subtle and poetic ways, all the works in the exhibit refer to the unprotected body, which regardless of sex or age are just like the outer shell of a sculpture and want to be formed, cleaned and looked after.

Right at the beginning of the exhibit, there is a structural sculpture made up of stacked white linen. Rentmeister developed this piece in 2006 using white tablecloths which he had obtained from a closed down laundry. In this large-scale work, white ironed linen is piled up like stone blocks filling almost two cubic meters of the room. The sides completely stuffed with sugar cubes, cotton swabs, tampons, cigarette paper and cotton show the extensive work involved. The surface is sprinkled with tissues, sugar and laundry detergent. The entire cube seems to be out of a synthetic material, a thick white mixture made of hygiene and personal body care substances. The angular pile created from his selfmade recipe now only distantly reminds the viewer of the minimalist sculptures of Donald Judd. Far more, Rentmeister develops a stringent self-referential art which he narratively charges. Whereas the layers of sheets seem irregularly curved like sedimentary rock or even more like broadly painted brushstrokes, the objects themselves are referring to the daily personal body care of a society which lives a germ free life as a social norm. To accentuate this, the artist sprinkled laundry detergent pearls over the surface. The synthetic odour of cleanliness with which the laundry detergent industry discreetly tries to seduce the consumers lingers in the air.

Shame and intimacy; protection and grooming of the body are the themes which are subtly addressed in this simple provoking work. It is possible to compare in form Rentmeister’s works in 2004 in the Museum zu Allerheiligen in Schaffhausen and 2005 in Museum Boijmans van Beuningen. Tissues in their original packing were constructed to form a giant cube filling the room. The writing and colours added up to an abstract pattern, but still remained legible as advertising. In the works of 2007, the artist refrains from using any references to the world of brand names. Pure white content without brand names neutrally refers to the human body and its cleaning (cotton), healing (sugar cube for medicine) or its destruction (cigarette paper). Because of the endless availability of the materials, each viewer feels personally addressed and stripped naked in that he is reminded of his own body. An emotional relationship between space, sculpture and the viewer comes into being.

In the exhibition at the Haus am Waldsee, Rentmeiser continues the thought process demonstrated in the spring of 2006 in the Museum am Ostwall in Dortmund using masses of raw eggs, peanut flips and potato chips. For the Berlin exhibition, a five ton heavy pile of sprinkled sugar exuding a cool and neutral beauty both in colour and odour was created in the main exhibition room. In comparison to the pile of salty snacks, sugar is incomparably more flowing in its consistency. In addition, the crystalline surface breaks the light into a soft, glowing white and makes one think of a gently flowing landscape of hills. The energetic movement of Rentmeister’s early nougat works as painterly gestures which could stand on their own are in contrast to the current sugar dunes which have an underlying serenity reminiscent of other times. The pure whiteness allows the “sugar dune” to appear almost floating. It reminds one of snow, not sand or excrement. It is beautiful and disgusting at the same time and at its highest point there is a serious disturbance in the form of a stuck shopping cart – deadlocked just like the consumer. It’s orange-coloured handle looms strangely out of the sugar heaps. The thought of abundance is immediately awakened followed by the question of how much sugar a person really needs to survive?

Rentmeister’s “sugar dunes” are comparable to his refrigerator Penaten baby cream installation in that object and material don’t logically fit together. Just as a refrigerator and Penaten baby cream stand for protection and grooming, sugar and shopping carts can be indication of the body being on the one hand made up of the energy coming from nourishment, and on the other had being made up of this nourishment which more and more leads to sickness through overindulgence. By the exaggerated use of immense units of material, Rentmeister transforms formal beauty into something threatening.

How erotic Rentmeister’s use of materials can be is demonstrated in another work which was also created for the Haus am Waldsee exhibition. “Atomium”, 2006 is made out of delicately connected cotton swabs, twisting out into the room like metal scaffolding. Cotton pads, tampons, sugar cubes and peppermint lozenges comment, this time in small format, on the light-footed construction. When one looks closer, it is obvious that the materials for intimate grooming are put together with yellow glue giving the impression of having been used. Repulsion, shame and beauty are once again lying at close quarters. In a formal context, it refers to the Russian constructivism of the 20’s in the 20th century when abstract construction in a room dealt with fighting and not playing like today.

Today Rentmeister playfully takes the brand names and discloses their content in front of the viewer. They lack any individuality. By exaggerating, he awakens in his work our sense of what is possible and steers our fantasy into unfamiliar realms. Rentmeister’s mostly untitled pieces act not only as a reflection of our society, but also evoke uneasiness. Experiences and feelings inherent in consumerism are directed back to the viewer. This is also the case in his newest “frying pan work” which like a caricature blows white cement mush up into omelette towers. Rentmeister bases the circumference of the shafts of his cement columns on the diameter of the used frying pans. He produced the cement shafts in a special factory so that they would appear as flawless art objects in a minimalist formal idiom. In the exhibit space, these art objects are again called into question by the unusual bases in the shape frying pans. The “too much” makes one question what actually the disruptive factor is. Is it that the pans are “ready-mades” or that the sculptures are being used as a unit of measurement for the room? Or both together?

In his works, Rentmeister always simultaneously challenges on the emotional, material and intellectual level. He humorously sets up extremes and surprises, but remains distant as a person. He lets the viewers have their own individual experience. As with Donald Judd, the random sensual reality of art is experienced as the only reliable reality.

© Katja Blomberg

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