Stephan Berg: Are You Sure That the Refrigerator Light Really Goes out When You Close the Refrigerator Door?
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. 51–54, English p. 55–58, translated from German by Michael Wolfson.
What is one to make of this heap? Nearly circular and yet somehow sprawling everywhere, methodically ordered and layered to some extent and yet in accordance with some completely obscure criteria that make the results seem irritatingly well-considered and disorganised at the same time. A blunt conical hill consisting solely of white fabrics and substances that, however, categorically contradict the purity and abstract absoluteness we generally associate with this “non-colour”. White underwear, granulated sugar, sugar cubes, icing sugar, flour, cotton wool, polishing threads, pieces of broken Styrofoam, Styrofoam granules, washing powder, Dualite, tissues, toilet paper, Megaperls laundry detergent and Penaten baby cream are combined to form an entity that confronts us as viewers with particularly intimate and readily concealed sides of our social and physical existence in a simultaneously amusing and irritating manner. As the centrepiece of an exhibition space devoted by the Kunstmuseum Bonn to Thomas Rentmeister, this untitled piece from 2005 features a number of different aspects which altogether are important for an overall understanding of his oeuvre. For one thing this concerns Rentmeister’s systematic reflections on the elementary principles of the sculptural act. In the process, the heap represents a central manifestation form in his work. Its complementary counterpart is the cube or block which is usually produced in an additive stacking process. In its layered and simultaneously sprawling appearance, Rentmeister’s heap is a balancing act between form and formlessness. It articulates a form of processual flowing that stands in stark contrast to the stereometric severity of the “cube” while also expressing the potential of its possible decomposition at the same time. The combination of the formed decomposition of form with the non-colour white in addition to the body and consumption-oriented material mix of everyday items simultaneously indicates a reference to Minimal Art as well as a clear denial of Minimal Art’s rigid promise of absoluteness.
Rentmeister is a sensual, and in the process profoundly humane polluter who replaces pure form with thoughts about the connection link between social existence, the body and sculptural expression. In its accumulation of body-oriented objects, the heap comprises the whole paradox of how we deal with our own social and physical body: On the one hand he shows us our obsessive desire for purity and cleanliness that finds its symbolic correspondence in the whiteness that aims at disembodiment. That is the argumentation context that would preferably make everything that is intrinsic about the conditionality of the body, the whole of its sweaty, smelly frailty be forgotten. On the other hand, however, this heap with its combination of sugary, sexually-charged consumption and assimilation fantasies that likewise suggests the necessity of excretion it transports by means of the toilet paper, leads deep into the realm of affect-regulated physicality. Dirt, lust, consumption and purity are coupled here to form a socially-charged sculptural discourse whose massive heaping of material simultaneously draws peculiar but nevertheless very productive parallels between material abundance and piles of rubbish, between the promise of infinite consumption and the recognition that all of this has to be disposed of one day. There is a calculated superfluity in this white heap, a visual feeling of satiation oscillating between a slight sense of disgust and fascination, which pretty exactly simulates the state we experience after enjoying too much cream cake.
This balancing act between seduction and repulsion, between the aesthetic and the unpleasant is an important operating principle and motor behind Rentmeister’s work. It finds its central expression in the pieces made with Nutella spread that has formed a basso continuo in the sculptor’s production since the late 1990s. In the first of these pieces from 1999, the artist covered a small plastic shelf with a dense layer of this sticky mass in such a way that it resembles thickly applied oil paint. The result is a hybrid encompassing a formerly functional object and an abstract three-dimensional painting that simultaneously surrenders its original form to some extent to the formlessness of the Nutella spread, thus visualising Rentmeister’s subversive dealings with rigid structures of form.
Since 2000, the nut-nougat spread has also been freely dispersed across a floor without any linkage to specific objects. Fatty and luminously oily, it is rolled out over the floor in the shape of brown cowpats or is distributed across the space as individual smeary clumps. This was quite a sensation, not only optically but olfactorily as well, and as such it was also quite an impertinence. In this concentrated and staged treatment, the sweet spread quickly also triggers slight feelings of disgust, and as his Mr. Clever from 2005 clearly demonstrated at the latest, Rentmeister does nothing to hide these works’ scatological subtext. In this piece, the white of the porcelain toilet bowl together with the flushing cistern contrasts the fatty brown Nutella spread with which it is filled to the brim. It becomes clear in works such as this that Rentmeister is not primarily concerned with liberating materials and objects from their original functions and transforming them into a free sculptural substance. He wants instead to find the point where the sweet, the beautiful suddenly turns into the disgusting, the repressed and the inappropriate. Despite the classic sculptural questions subsequent to Minimal Art that the artist occupied himself with, this work is nevertheless also clearly targeted at the tabooed sides of the social discourse on the body, demonstrating as such a structural proximity to Erwin Wurm’s inquiries about the body.
Rentmeister likewise carries out his investigation concerning the point where the pure and the impure combine in a curiously ambivalent interval of form and meaning in the group of refrigerators that has had a firm place in his work since 2002. In the process, numerous examples of these household appliances have for example been combined to form large block-like minimalist sculptures or deconstructively piled ensembles, whereby Penaten baby cream often serves as a grouting material. The additive procedure takes up the seriality of minimalist sculpture on the one hand and very directly references a basic sculptural principle on the other, according to which a sculpture results from either an accumulation or a subtraction of material.
An early relative of the refrigerator pieces is an untitled work from 1985 in which Rentmeister produced a 10 × 13 × 10 centimetre large sugar cube from individual sugar cubes which he glued together into a durable form. The fact that the urine-coloured yellow tone of the grout between the sugar cubes already substantially lessened the appeal of the sweet visual appearance of the block of sugar cubes – in addition to negating its potential consumption – demonstrates the fully developed paradoxical ambivalence strategy with which Rentmeister still works today. The path from the sweet whiteness of sugar as a foodstuff to the cool metallic whiteness of the refrigerators is not far to the extent that, as Thomas Rentmeister has himself said, refrigerators are the place “where the food of the human beings live”. Because sugar can very directly awaken the desire to devour it – which, however, is subsequently vigorously prevented by means of its specific artistic treatment – the externally dismissive, cold refrigerators function metaphorically as bodies that accommodate everything required for the human being’s physical survival.
If one takes a closer look at Rentmeister’s reference to the refrigerator as food’s home, it more recognised an allusion to a relationship between refrigerators and forms of housing as realised by the artist in his Gemütlichkeitshütte (2005) or Kiosk (2006), which are also in Bonn. The kiosk made from white blocks of aerated concrete, roughcast, house paint, roofing felt and wood simulates a house form only to the extent that one can take it seriously without ever entirely being able to forget its intrinsic quality as an abstract white cubical minimalist sculpture. Gemütlichkeitshütte [roughly translated as “Cosy Cottage”] is similarly ambivalent. Made out of light tongue-and-groove lumber, without a door but with opaque bull’s-eye windows through which only a weak light penetrates to the outside, it radiates the vestiges of rustic domestic warmth that increasingly takes on an absurd quality as a result of the permanent murmuring of voices and music that can be heard coming from its inaccessible interior and which suddenly get louder at certain intervals. Despite its residual warmth, this cabin is in fact just as much a freezer as the refrigerators that have been neatly assembled into blocks in an additive process. Its iciness is reflected on all the formulations of absolutist rigorism since modernism and up to Minimal Art’s “specific objects” as well as on to the expulsion of the human being from pure form postulated there.
However, where Minimalism insists that the object embodies nothing else other than itself, Rentmeister continuously works with the dialectic between appearance and content, or of you will with a narrative, psychosocial charging of the coldness repertory’s pure art-as-art. This is expressed in the cabins and refrigerators as the sovereign dialectic between a hermetic exterior and an interior that, particularly because it is inaccessible, can and should become a place for a wide range of diverse projections and associations. And the artist also marks the transition from the hermetic severity of the “specific object” to the social body filling the grouts between the refrigerators with Penaten baby cream. In doing so, not only is the metallic coldness and hardness of the freezers softened and warmed at the same time with the cream but a stream of associations is also triggered that ranges from soothing skin care and babies’ bottoms to the aspects of smearing.
The artist likewise examines the paradoxical connection between the soft and the hard, the flowing and the stiffened, and not least between warm and cold in the large group of polyester sculptures he has made since 1991. They are the most elaborate and in a certain sense also the most abstract works in his oeuvre, into the overall logic of which they nevertheless seamlessly fit. The polyester forms with their polished surfaces that are as smooth as glass which he made from plaster casts and mixed with coloured pigments land in the exhibitions spaces like friendly but completely mysterious aliens, whereby they occasionally also seem to hover over the floor on which they are situated. With their luminous and reflecting surfaces, they awaken associations to “inflating monochrome painting” (Rentmeister) or the inventions of a complex biomorphing. As if the orthogonal severity of minimalist sculpture had been twisted to the point where they mutate into an organic blob, they unite the enigmatic strictness of form consisting solely of its own surface with a patently arrogant lust for an almost baroque-like playfulness. This is particularly true of the works in the series made after 1998 in which arm and leg-like tentacles have increasingly been growing from the rotund polyester bodies.
Unlike Rentmeister’s other groups of works, the polyester sculptures argue with a physicality that they disclaim at the same time. Their luminous shining expansion notwithstanding, their presence is always precarious. Like the skin of a balloon that is just about to explode, only air and emptiness lurk beneath the extremely taut exterior. This goes well with their hyper-smooth, mirroring surfaces that equally seem to derive from the depths of digital processing as the repertory of forms, thus allowing them to be read as a paradoxical statement on an increasingly dematerialised world. At the same time, the artist upholds at least an associative connection to the world of the sweet and edible to the extent that he often draws from a repertory of cream, caramel and chocolate tones for the colouring of these sculptures.
If these works primarily seek the point where the materialisation of the sculpture entirely references the extremely taut surface, the rest of his work by all means argues with the equation of material and mass. As opposed to the heaps of materials comprising sugar, Nutella spread, peanuts or potato chips, the polyester blobs represent the paradoxical counterpart, as it were: casings, behind the expansion of which there is no equivalent content. And their cool mirroring purity likewise represents the flip side of the defilement and filth ensembles with which Rentmeister otherwise undermines our social contracts regarding hygiene and cleanliness. He had already begun this in 1983 by means of a constellation of eggs and hair and continuing on it in works that encompass a heap of used paper handkerchiefs (2005), a chain made of fingernail and toenail clippings on a canvas painted with acrylics (2007) and a dirty heap of sugar that has been swept, seemingly thoughtlessly, into a corner (2007). Here at the latest we also arrive at the theme of transience that discretely but nevertheless unmistakably permeates broad sections of his oeuvre. And furthermore: the cut hair, the fingernail and toenail clippings and not least the paper handkerchiefs containing nasal discharges combine to form a melancholy portrait of the absent human being, a manifestation of all his excreted, dead and cut-off residues that taken as a whole closely relate these works to the still life and its vanitas metaphoric.
And incidentally, the exact same thing can be said about the huge pile of sugar into which a supermarket shopping cart has been plunged so far that it is almost fully immersed in the white crystalline mountain (untitled, 2007). It literally depicts a paradoxical impasse that can easily be transferred to the reality of our lives. To do so, one would only have to understand the shopping cart as a symbol for all our consumer-oriented annexation strategies and the mountain of sugar as the visualisation of an overabundance of consumption. This piece then becomes striking proof that our “consumer’s reality” is at risk of suffocating on its own voraciousness. But Rentmeister has achieved something more important, something that characterises his work as a whole, namely to show how reflecting on the expanded dealings with the principles of sculpture can be linked to a questioning of our world’s social paradoxes. And hence how the discussion of form creates contentual virulence.
© Stephan Berg