Thomas Rentmeister

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​Renate Wiehager: "Pink Air": Ready-made

Catalogue essay from the exhibition “Who is afraid of Yello and Fred?”, Bahnwärterhaus, Galerien der Stadt Esslingen, 02.02 – 23.03.1997; in Thomas Rentmeister, (cat.) Städtische Galerie Nordhorn, Nordhorn 1998, German p. 8–11, English p. 42–45, translated from German by Lucinda Rennison.

“Hey, that’s pink air!” This spontaneous cry from a child seeing his works exhibited in the summer of 1997 at the Bahnwärterhaus, Esslingen obviously pleased Thomas Rentmeister so much that he repeated it to me several times. I would interpret the child’s exclamation in the following way: the amorphous, flesh to pink coloured polyester sculptures by Rentmeister appear to the child to be the kind of autonomous, fleeting forms to which air would concentrate itself of its own free will, with its own individual choice of colours – this means that the naive perspective would correspond to Thomas Rentmeister’s creative, aesthetic starting point; he once described his polyester sculptures to me in conversation as “ready-mades”, reinterpreting for himself the historical idea of the ready-made (the translation of an everyday object into art by means of defunctionalisation, giving it a title, presenting it in an exhibition context etc.). According to his interpretation, the way from the foundation of a pictorial-plastic body to a three-dimensional final product is seen as the organisation of self-forming processes in which the artist has only an observing, controlling role to play; he himself is a medium coordinating latently existent plastic impulses, leading them to their own preconceived shape. To use less formal words, I see Thomas Rentmeister in the role of the magician perhaps; appearing before us with empty hands, he casually grasps at the air and presents an opaquely shining ostrich’s egg or a glistening soap bubble to an astonished public. Something which does not only appeal to children.

This is, admittedly, an associative, playful introduction to a text about the sculptures, pictorial objects and ready-mades by Thomas Rentmeister. For me it is a first attempt at approaching an oeuvre which has developed in considerable stages over the last ten years; in slow, clear steps: from small objects made of everyday things, similar to those by Fischli/Weiss (1983/84), to sculptures with “ready-mades” such as a watering-can, tissues, toy cars, filled coffee cups, multiple electric sockets and the series “Farmers’ sculptures” and “Household goods sculptures” in the mid-eighties, to the “Boxes” and the “Foam sculptures” with an air-filled vault above them (1988/89), to the deformed found objects in plastic, the lorry tarpaulin pictures, the MDF Boxes and finally to the recent polyester sculptures. But the image of the magician who makes things visible which are always present in the atmosphere – if not perceptible to us –, offering them to our senses of sight and touch, appears to me to be the crux of Rentmeister’s artistic work. That is, inasmuch as he grants plastic shape to his sculptures and pictorial objects only so far as they in turn give the fitting volume to existent, both internal and external energetic impulses and “air circulations”.

The concept of volume here should, however, not be misunderstood in the sense of classical sculptural volume. It is true that the polyester works by Thomas Rentmeister come about as conventional sculptures do, inasmuch as the artist designs the form as a plaster model and then casts it. But his way of working – repeatedly viewing the plastic object from a distance, circling around it at length in changing light conditions, touring around the plastic form in space and checking all viewpoints and perspectives – ultimately, this working process leads to an unconventional form which often surprises the artist himself. The sculpture appears to move from within, it is as if it were to find its own form from within itself. If one walks around the sculptures, they constantly alter their shape; it is impossible to fix them in space. This lack of clarity, the impossibility of a complete physical perception of his sculptures is also a feature, in a modified way, of a large work such as the untitled, square “box” made of painted steel plate with an internal ventilator: the work is monumental and at the same time immaterialised, inasmuch as we – standing in front of one of the side walls – can experience the limitations of the sculpture as the end of the room in which we ourselves are standing.

At every exhibition, therefore, it is decisive for Thomas Rentmeister to find the correct position of the sculpture in the room. This is a question which must be well thought out, and his lack of compromise with regard to this requirement may, in cases of doubt, lead to a sculpture being withdrawn as unsuitable even if it has been conceived for a specific room. In the case of Rentmeister’s works, the difficult aspect of their exact positioning in space depends primarily upon their – in tactile terms – highly sensitive, reflective surfaces. These become a kind of projection screen or reproducing surface for the whole of the surrounding space, including its sources of light and architectural conditions. It is these reflecting surfaces which awaken the impression in the viewer that the borders between the sculpture and space are not quite clear, that the sculptures attain no real solidity in space.

My impression is that Thomas Rentmeister’s central aim is that “transformation of omnipresence made visible” about which Roland Barthes wrote as a significant example of the myths of the everyday in his text entitled “Plastic” in the mid-fifties: “Despite names recalling Greek shepherds (polystyrene, phenoplast, polyvinyl, polythene), plastic – the products of which have recently been gathered together in an exhibition – is essentially an alchemic substance. The public stands in a long queue at the entrance to the hall to see how the magic process par excellence, the transformation of material, takes place. Plastic is less a substance than the concept of its endless transformation, it is, as its common name indicates, omnipresence made visible. And precisely this makes it a wonderful substance: each time, the wonder lies in a sudden conversion of Nature. Plastic remains entirely permeated by this amazement: it is less an object than the trace of a movement.” (Roland Barthes, “Plastique” (1957), German/English in: “Mythen des Alltags”, Frankfurt/M. 1964)

The perhaps most instructive document concerning Thomas Rentmeister’s transformation of and interpretation of the term ready-made and his concept of handling the plastic as the organisation and coordination of organic, quasi-natural processes of self-formation is an untitled video from 1989. At the same time, this functions as a link between two aspects of his work previously followed separately: on the one hand, the trying out of plastic, forming processes with traditional means, on the other hand, the inclusion of ready-mades. With close camera detail, the three minute video shows two champagne bottles, and only the arrival of a person who obviously removes a fastener at the back of the bottles makes the leap in dimensions clear; the fact that these are blow-up plastic dummies the size of a man. In the remaining course of the video, the viewer is witness to a slow, apparently magic softening process which transforms the bottles into animally squatting, reflecting bodies.

The description of this video work leads me back again to the concept of volume. When applied to works by Thomas Rentmeister, this is not to be understood in the classical sense of the displacement of space. Instead, the surfaces of his sculptures function like membranes, like the stretched, fragile coating of a soap bubble – that is, like a permeable boundary at which an exchange of immaterial substances and energies, an exchange of the internal and the external is organised. It seems to me that this offers a link with Rentmeister’s lorry tarpaulin pictures: they reject the conventional viewing of images and every connection with abstract, monochrome tendencies insofar as they – as a presentation of their pure materiality – guide our imagination towards the question of what lies beneath the surface. The lorry tarpaulins, taken directly from the roll and not yet creased at all, are stretched over a strong framework. In this way, the pictures become bodies which – thinking back to the original usage of the material – one may fill in one’s mind.

In order to vividly characterise the nature of Rentmeister’s sculptures, one could think of air halls; spaces which owe their stability to the air pressure caused within plastic covers, whereby this filling of air must maintain a slightly higher pressure than that of the surrounding space. “Pink air” – Rentmeister’s liking for this naive association corresponds to both a factual and to a virtual aspect of his sculptures. Factually, an exchange of air from inside to outside and vice versa takes place through the ventilation holes and slits of his “Boxes”. Viewing his polyester sculptures, we perceive the excess pressure of air, which keeps the form stable in space and at the same time makes it appear mobile and potentially liable to change, as virtual energy.

© Renate Wiehager

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