Thomas Rentmeister


Peter Friese: PUTPUTPUT – setplacelay. Thoughts on a Spatial Work of Thomas Rentmeister

Catalogue essay from the exhibition “Thomas Rentmeister. PUTPUTPUT setzenstellenlegen”, Kunstverein Ruhr, 16.09. – 08.09.2019; in Thomas Rentmeister (PUTPUTPUT setzenstellenlegen), (cat.) Kunstverein Ruhr, Essen 2020, German p. 5–19, English p. 23–38, translated from German by George Frederick Takis.

The sculptural oeuvre of Thomas Rentmeister, who lives in Berlin and teaches in Braunschweig, is characterized by an unorthodox, extremely sensitive use of various everyday materials. The artist became known through his meaning-generating inclusion of Penaten baby cream, Nutella hazelnut spread, sugar and potato chips, as well as a convincing sculptural use of disused, white refrigerators. This repeatedly gives rise to a new, surprising significatory dimension which builds upon familiar objects and materials even as it opens for us a previously concealed access to the world around us. Proceeding from a monumental work created in 2019 for the Kunstverein Ruhr, this essay will investigate the artistic utilization of these idiosyncratic materials as well as the particular aesthetic experience which is both the facilitating precondition and the distinguishing characteristic of the sculptural work of this exceptional artist.

Material Characteristics. Rentmeister selected so-called ribbed drawn metal for his space-encompassing work at the Kunstverein Ruhr. This material is customarily used in the construction industry as an underlay for wall plaster. For Rentmeister, however, it is certain characteristics of the expanded metal which make it interesting in an artistic context. It has a silvery shine, can be stretched and bent in all directions and shapes, and develops a space-encompassing but airy and transparent, sometimes even filigreed presence. The sharp-edged stretches of lattice each measuring 250 by 60 cm allow the artist to engage surprisingly in unanticipated formal processes. Rentmeister bends, kneads, kinks and stretches the material in a manner that is certainly not customary or necessary in the construction industry. He connects the gridded, now intentionally-shaped forms with each other into a constantly expanding structure. The ceaselessly growing sculpture comes to impart an entirely new definition to the exhibition space. Ultimately, we are confronted with a, in several senses, “multilayered” installation which dominates the entire room and allows various views into its interior as well as special aesthetic experiences which are thereby made possible.

Concept of the Work. The idiosyncratic title of the work, PUTPUTPUT— setzenstellenlegen (“PUTPUTPUT—setplacelay”), might on a first reading cause astonishment or even a smile, but it simultaneously conveys the artist’s self-image and his concept of the work. The English action verb “to put” means at one and the same time to set, to place and to lay down. In this way, the triple-incremented meaning of this short verb becomes an artistic program within the exhibition. What Rentmeister has realized for the exhibition space in Essen is in fact equivalent to a precise positioning, placing and displaying of material. This type of procedure differs fundamentally from a traditional “design process” in which a predetermined, subsequently recognizable form is produced out of a material or substance. From this vantage point, Rentmeister’s attitude evinces similarities with the basic orientation of Minimal Art, with its urge to liberate artistic expression from all presupposed meaning and representational obligation, and its use of materials which, already available and as a rule prefabricated, have proceeded to thematize themselves.

Minimal? But on the other hand, Rentmeister’s procedure and underlying attitude differ from those of adherents to Minimal Art. In the case of the work for Essen, his method consists on the one hand of not cutting up the strips of the lattice-work with metal shears in a “creative” manner, but of retaining them in their entire length. But at the same time, he bends and reshapes this material with his hands, which are protected by leather gloves. He brings the prefabricated, basic elements into shapes which arise out of the material itself as it is being worked on, then joins them with each other in a manner that creates meaning at that very moment. The turning over, bending and stretching of the metal lattices, each of which is used in its entirety, gradually gives rise, over the nine days of a continuous, open process, to a gigantic spatial sculpture. Its interior can be seen to consist of numerous sections, cells and opposing corridors with shifts in direction. These divisions bear witness to the manual, entirely “creative” labor of the artist and ultimately add up to a plastic continuum which almost entirely fills the left half of the exhibition space. These palpable traces of human handling of the material and the concomitant irregularities distinguish Rentmeister’s attitude from that of the pioneers of Minimal Art. They as well made use of prefabricated materials, but they left them in their anonymous, mechanically produced and sometimes serial character. Donald Judd, Dan Flavin, Robert Morris and Carl Andre (to name the best-known representatives of this artistic orientation) placed great value in the fact that their works should show no personal handwriting or signs of having been worked on which could be made the equivalent of “expressive values” or “contents.” Rentmeister’s sculptures, on the other hand, contain creative interventions, reshapings and distortions; they evince a hybrid, combinatory nature which is typical for him and which—constantly, intentionally and sometimes humorously—undermines the purity requirements of Minimal Art. This is evident, not only for the installation in Essen, but also with regard to other works.

Poor Art? In addition to the similarities and differences with regard to Minimal Art, the oeuvre of Thomas Rentmeister also stands in relationship to another European art movement which likewise is a part of art history. The reference is to Arte Povera, whose chief representatives in the Italy of the 1960s began to take materials such as wood, stone, straw, glass, soil and fire along with pieces of furniture, musical instruments and sometimes living animals and plants, and to combine them into surprisingly new works in which it was a matter, not only of a “poor material aesthetic” derived from everyday life, but also always of poetic energies, acts of literaturization, and connections reaching deep into cultural history. Even if Mario Merz finds inspiration in the agrarian culture of northern Italy and the numbers of the Fibonacci sequence, the oeuvre of Jannis Kounellis displays clear links to ancient culture and, with Giuseppe Penone, nature and culture enter into a visually vivid and meaningful mutual relationship, nonetheless a common attitude becomes apparent in spite of the varying approaches of these artists: they are always concerned with contents, with relationships to art, literature and philosophy, so that they are engaged in seeking a typically European profundity with regard to cultural and intellectual history, an orientation which the American-influenced Minimal Art sought to avoid from the very beginning.

When Attitudes Become Form. In spite of their differing intentions, both Minimal Art and Arte Povera display a common characteristic: viewers are stimulated by these works to discover relationships, to formulate cross-references, and to activate not only visual, but also intellectual capabilities. In other words, to take up a position with regard to the work which is not only limited to “disinterested pleasure” but also, in the ideal case, considers itself to be a component of the work and of the concomitant aesthetic experiences. Indeed, several international positions of art in the 1960s—among which may certainly be numbered Fluxus, Concept Art and the oeuvre of Joseph Beuys—have this sort of radical, participatory approach. These artistic orientations seek to make the viewer part of the works themselves. This gives rise to works which neither depict something in a mimetic sense nor represent it in any other manner and which do not aim in an abstract sense at personal expression, immediacy and spontaneity, but instead at the participation of the viewers. The objective of these artistic procedures and attitudes, which could be observed in both Europe and the USA as well as even further afield, was to bring art and life into a fertile even if dynamically charged relationship. Even if much of this seemed to be an afterglow of the old (failed) avant-gardist dream of rendering art and life indistinguishable from each other, these not merely coincidental common features offered a picture of their times, namely the 1960s which in other areas, especially politics, were in fact quite turbulent. Back then, the young Swiss curator Harry Szeemann was one of the first to recognize this commonality amid difference, and to summarize it in 1969 with his epochal exhibition When attitudes become form. It presented works and ushered them into a dialogue which, charged with tensions, subjected the manner in which art had been understood up to then to a radical questioning.

And what does Rentmeister have to do with this? Without making explicit reference to pioneering artistic-curatorial achievements such as these, which in the meantime lie half a century in the past, there is also in Rentmeister’s oeuvre a radicalness in the handling of highly varied materials which are not especially typical for art. The positioning of a work without a pedestal, so typical for his oeuvre, and the meaning-engendering combination of extremely heterogeneous materials indicate an attitude that favors the possibility of a contemplative mode on the part of the viewer which proceeds associatively and generates interconnections. The manner in which Rentmeister’s sculptural oeuvre unites disparate elements in such a way as to generate meaning clarifies the integral role played by the viewers who, here as well, function as the completers of the individual works. In fact, Rentmeister’s oeuvre evinces certain characteristics which it shares with Minimal Art, Arte Povera and related artistic movements—without seeking to be understood, in the sense of a quoting or even appropriating endeavor, as “art after art.” So doubtlessly there are definite characteristics of Rentmeister’s oeuvre which demonstrate that it contains points of reference to positions of recent art history. But upon closer inspection, it becomes clear that there are fundamental differences which lead to the specific nature of his oeuvre.

Refrigerator and Penaten Baby Cream. Both the aforementioned links to what has come before and clear differences and independent aspects may be identified in an exemplary manner in a significant work from 2004. The initially anarchic-seeming but precisely controlled hybrid combination of disparate elements may be found here once again. The same is true for the possibility of an almost playful attribution of meaning by the viewers. So what is actually going on with this work? Five hollowed-out refrigerators are arranged here into a sculptural ensemble. The white, external shells of the disused appliances are arranged into a composition in which they seem to interpenetrate each other. At a first glance, this dynamic arrangement could seem to be formally reminiscent of a postmodernist architectural ensemble à la Frank Gehry or of a crystalline formation growing out of the ground. But something else, something very remarkable, catches the attention. There where the white cuboids abut or seem to interpenetrate each other, Penaten cream was used in abundance. And in fact, Thomas Rentmeister took the white cream normally used for skin care and filled all cracks, gaps and intermediate spaces with it, something which was also perceptible in olfactory terms in the direct vicinity. This typical, mild lemon aroma is still familiar to most Germans from their childhood and most certainly triggered various memories and associations among the viewers.

Hard and soft, solid and pastose, geometrical and amorphous. Let us take a closer look: the white mass was applied with different spatulas like fine-particle wall plaster and maintains an astoundingly stable shape in its new role. The skin-care cream, which long ago was deliberately named after the Roman tutelary deities who guarded the household, on the one hand corresponds quite well to the surface and color of the refrigerators; on the other hand, in a haptic sense it plays the role of a counterpart quite worthy of being deemed painterly. Rentmeister is successful on an aesthetic level in bringing the combination of household appliance and skin-care cream, hard and soft, angular form and amorphous mass into a stable equilibrium and maintaining it there. Liberated from their original function, refrigerators and Penaten cream can now be perceived in a new (art-specific) context upon another (symbolical) level. It is even possible to reason about them in aesthetic terms—even as they continue to be recognizable as what they actually are. Precisely because of their palpably contrary natures, they become, in the sense of the Comte de Lautréamont, an autonomously dynamic source of energy that facilitates a flow of associations and sequences of thoughts which are downright subversive. Notions such as warmth and chillness, interior space and exterior space, nature and technology, but also protection, care, shelter and healing can thereby be readily associated and, in free mental interplay, can be developed further into metaphors for the state of the world, even if this was never inscribed into them as such.

Play with Meanings. Rentmeister’s use of different materials, their pure and purposeless but always surprisingly meaningful utilization creates the foundation for his works which, even though open in significatory terms, are nonetheless precisely formulated. In contrast to the works of Minimal Art and the wishes of its representatives, an aesthetic encounter with them leads as a rule to a free play of meanings. And differently than how it was intended by Arte Povera in its own time, these meanings are not necessarily established upon the canon of the cultural history of the West but instead arise only in this or that way in the framework of an associative vantage point which weaves a relational texture. These meanings are not fixed in the sense of a canonical decree but vary, evolve and sometimes, upon being contemplated, shift into their opposite. This characteristic is a symptom not 32 of arbitrariness, but of a deliberate procedure which is well-considered with regard to the individual work. In this way, even Penaten cream, refrigerators, cotton swabs, potato chips and Pattex glue become carriers of meaning which, upon being ingeniously combined, formulate sculptural compositions with a complex relationship to the present and a high degree of expressivity. So let us return to the work on display at the Kunstverein Ruhr and pursue our thoughts further in this regard.

Ribbed drawn metal. Why is this particular material, normally used in the construction industry, so interesting for an artist like Rentmeister in 2019? Why does he have recourse in his installation in Essen to something which, because of its characteristics and utilization, was previously only part of a reality lying beyond the realm of art? Let us take a closer look: expanded metal has existed for more than a hundred years. It was developed in order to attain a light but quite solid material which is also malleable to a certain extent. Its use as a support for plaster in the construction industry can be seen as its original and actual purpose. In the sense of this functionality, it disappeared as a rule beneath a layer of external plaster, for which it not only served as an ideal, porous basis, but also acted as a stabilizer. The manufacturing process resembles that of cold-rolled sheet metal. Shifted openings are punched into this thin metallic panel which has been placed under tension. This occurs without loss of material through the use of comblike knives which are capable of perforating the sheet metal at regular intervals. Because the sheet metal, which is less than 0.5 mm thick, is worked upon while being under a quite strong tensile stress, the successive incisions open themselves so that the metallic panel is significantly expanded lengthwise. This gives rise to the characteristic, often diamond-shaped grid structure even while leaving no waste products. The length of the mesh, depending on the type of knife, can measure less than 1 mm or be as much as 30 cm; the expansion of sheet metal perforated in this way can be from twofold to twentyfold. And a further, special physical feature numbers among the essential characteristics of the material: precisely through the procedure of the so-called “colddrawing” and the concomitant embrittlement, this grid of expanded metal acquires an enormous strength and surface stability. Its perforated and expanded edges are as a rule razor-sharp, which is also the case with the latticed panels utilized by Rentmeister.

Not good not evil. This stability and the sharp edges were doubtlessly determining factors in the selection of expanded metal for use in the fortifications along what was until thirty years ago the border between East and West Germany. The macabre, on two levels of meaning “painful” significance of the material, which was utilized in the German Democratic Republic up to 1989, is enhanced by the fact that it was produced in West Germany. Before it was capable of fulfilling its deterring or, in some cases, even physically injuring purpose, it had to be purchased and imported by the East German regime. This example, which gives rise to truly mixed feelings, is not intended as a condemnation of or disdain for the material in a moral-ethical sense. The fact is that there are entirely different types of use which make it clear that expanded metal (as we already know from the construction industry) can also be used in a proverbially “good” sense. One example of a positive possibility for expanded metal is its functionality in the medical field. There in the case of stents, what is in principle the same grid structure produced by incisions and extension is used in order to keep peripheral arteries open. And at the latest, the surface perforation typical of skin transplants shows that the invention created around 1900 has even been capable of having a positive influence on medical research and practice. When Thomas Rentmeister makes use in his sculptures of this material which is so ambivalent with regard to its utilization and its significance, he is definitely not interested in whether it was employed for good or evil purposes; what he wants to know is which possibilities it continues to keep open on the basis of its described physical characteristics, and what it is capable of achieving in an artistic sense. To all possibilities known up to now with regard to using or interpreting this material or transferring it into other areas of life, there comes the new artistic one. This possibility, when thought to a logical conclusion, not only gives rise to further ambiguities, but also facilitates a complex perceptual and experiential possibility which is reserved for art.

Insight. Particular features of the work on display in Essen are the visible sections or spaces within the large spatial body which, having gradually arisen during the work process, appear in their entirety like an extremely convoluted continuum. Some visitors will be reminded of the famous carceri of Piranesi, because the spatial elements of that artist seem to be linked with each other in a similarly complicated and complex manner. Several chambers and niches contain objects which are recognizable as dark silhouettes but cannot be further identified. Their enigmatic aura remains even after multiple inspections. Pieces of the artist’s clothing, long ago discarded from his daily wardrobe, have been carefully inserted into the spatial sculpture so as to become part of it. At times, these worn textiles seem like strange, dark, crouching inhabitants of the complex metal lattice and its cell-like chambers. Because of the grid structures behind which they are located, the workmanship and materiality of these chambers cannot be clearly recognized, which gives rise to a light-dark contrast between white wall, grid pattern and dark clothing which could almost be called graphic. These black sprinklings once linked to the person of the artist repeatedly draw our gaze through the dense hatchings of the networked metallic grids. With sometimes more, sometimes less acuity of vision, the viewer has pressed forward to reach them. Again and again it is necessary, in order to attain an ideal vantage point, to penetrate the latticed structures of several layers of expanded metal in succession. But as with a maneuver inherent to the work itself, the objects repeatedly refuse to be precisely fixed and identified; they remain amorphous points of reference amid the silver-shining texture.

Phenomenology. If one moves as a viewer in front of this work, makes one’s way through the exhibition space from front to back, sinks down somewhat onto the knees or gazes diagonally through the grid pattern in order to explore new vantage points, there begins what may well be called an “aesthetic experience.” Because it becomes apparent that one’s own physical presence in the room becomes the fundamental condition for making possible various insights which complement each other even while being to some extent contradictory. Of course, a crucial role is played by the metallic lattice whose overlappings seem like the thick lines of a hatching pattern. They constitute a reciprocal sum, produce surprising structures resembling a moiré; they seem sometimes more, sometimes less opaque, only to suddenly become transparent again. Even the slightest head movement is enough to give rise to extremely divergent, merging insights and experiences. There is an important additional factor: the independent activity of our eyes, i.e. our capability to focus on objects lying further back, to make them 37 optically “sharp,” only to concentrate subsequently on something up close, allows for surprising, to some extent disturbing views and realizations. These permanently varying impressions do not remain merely the result of a visual activity but go far deeper. In a sudden realization which remains preserved in our awareness, we become conscious of them as an intentional component of the work. And this has consequences for a henceforth differentiated evaluation of the entire work.

Legibility. It is a matter here both of a special “legibility” inherent to the texture of the work and capable of being achieved by the viewers, and of the reading favored by and arising from this texture. Our gaze does not move disinterestedly across smooth surfaces; it does not come to rest on beautiful and simultaneously unambiguous forms, but instead hooks itself onto the irregularities, the corners, edges, convolutions and corridors of the work. “Reading” in this way, it has no problem shifting from one aspect to the other. In the case of the exhibition in Essen, this means moving from the rough building material as such to its complexly significant, aforementioned aspects. A reading gaze of this sort is able to connect effortlessly with the mind, its stance of doubt and, of course, with the faculty of language. Thereby arising in an ideal case is a combination of intellect and intuition which brings to light analogies, associations and memories on the part of those viewers who respond to the work in its entirety. A texture which, right from the start, rejects unambiguous classifications in the manner described and can therefore ultimately “mean” both one thing and another serves to activate a constructive doubt and, at the same time, promotes not only a visual but also a mental, sometimes even fantasy-filled and speculative spirit of independence and investigation.

Self-perception—Aesthetics and Ethics. In the context of this aesthetic perception, viewers come to understand that it is possible to have these differing experiences with regard to an object which always remains the same. So they not only focus on what they see in front of themselves, but at the same time begin to think about these complex perceptual processes as such. The conditions which make possible the complex experience they have just had reveal themselves to be evident precisely therein and to constitute an important aspect of the overall perception. This includes an understanding of one’s own 38 physical presence in the space and the realization that a viewer situated at a different place in the room must inevitably see the spatial work entirely differently from one’s own point of view. The consequence of this insight is to concede to others the right to see the given situation from a standpoint other than one’s own. Here, however, aesthetic reasoning inevitably evolves into an ethical inquiry into the situation. Such a response grows past a purely subjective, hedonistic contemplation because it is capable of permanently including the perspective and outlook of the Other.

© Peter Friese

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