Ursula Panhans-Bühler: Sweet Heaviness and Gravitational Sweetness
Catalogue essay from the exhibtiion “Thomas Rentmeister. braun / brown”, Kölnischer Kunstverein, Cologne, 02.02. – 25.03.2001; in Thomas Rentmeister. braun / brown, (cat.) Kölnischer Kunstverein, Ostfildern 2002, German p. 8–48, English p. 50–68, translated from German by Pauline Cumbers.
When you enter the room at the Kölnische Kunstverein where Thomas Rentmeister mounted his first large solo exhibition in Spring 2001 – a minor retrospective of 16 years of artistic work – you are struck by one, possibly two not altogether unrelated sensations: the overwhelming aroma – of chocolate – and the unimpeded stream of air circulating in this wide uniform room. In addition to that, there is the slight rumbling sound merging with the noise of the traffic outside. It is almost as if more attention were being drawn to the rhythmic sequence of the low, narrow-profiled transverse girders supporting the glazed saddle-roof and the row of wide window openings extending from floor to ceiling and allowing the gaze to wander from inside to outside on a connecting bow of light, than to the actual works you came to see.
If your gaze restrains its greedy absorption of those art works for a moment, then two things may stand out: one, variants of the colour that lent the exhibition its name, and two, the anything but possessive relationship between the objects and the space accommodating them. Before the invention of the shrill colour pigments made possible by the production of plastic, our everyday reality had ordained a non-coloured veneer for itself with its greyish-white, grey, and brownish shades. Something of this has been preserved in our metaphor of “the grey everyday”. It seems strange to restrict oneself in an exhibition, especially an exhibition of sculptures, to a single colour, albeit with variations. There have already been a number of shows devoted to the colours blue, red or black. Yellow too, would be conceivable, maybe even green, and perhaps violet, or that difficult colour, turquoise – but brown? Now this has of course to do with the natural shade of some of the materials Thomas Rentmeister has selected: chocolate is brown, liver spots on the skin are brown, and coffee, even if taken black, is actually dark brown. On the other hand, the laconic title of the exhibition is simply “brown”. It would therefore seem to have to do not so much with the colour in any painterly sense, as with the fact that brown is associated with something commonplace, not particularly outstanding, reserved; brown has connotations with earth or things earthy, which explains why in many of his objects the artist has shown a clear preference for various brown tones. The politico-historical associations with our country’s history, the brown shirts of the Nazi era, and the recurrent aestheticized brown rage of the 1970s will not be gone into here.
The second impression has to do with the non-possessive relationship between the objects and the room. None too sublime and sometimes expansive, they spread out on the floor or fall into line with the angle between floor and wall. One smaller sculpture, a relief object, and a photograph are arranged sparsely on the walls. The three floor sculptures in the real sense rise to ankle, knee, or hip height at most. The only one to rise higher than man-size is a large cube, however, its position in the room is aligned to the building’s wall areas, windows and joists, as if it had pointedly found a place for itself in the elongated space. That the individual objects are similar in colour readily creates a link between them.
The impact made by the objects in the room is such that they seem to enhance the nuanced architectural form at its purpose-oriented weak point, namely, the wide, plain floor area which is either subdivided by partitions on which exhibits are hung, or under certain circumstances left free for a sculpture exhibition, an installation, or an environment. Thomas Rentmeister has created a situation in which his overall sculptural construct complements the existing architectonic structure from below, as it were. His rising cube thereby forms a junction between below and above. This may even please the architect, especially as the sculptures also sustain the bridge he has formed between inside and outside by way of the window front.
And so this “brown” exhibition nonchalantly undermines that “white cube”, more stubbornly established in the heads of spectators than in architectural conditions and artistic interventions.
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Let us now turn our attention to the individual works, in particular the most recent and provocative ones: the huge heaps of chocolate on the floor.
To make the larger, lighter-brown heap, Thomas Rentmeister emptied more than one hundred large tubs of Nussenia onto the floor, a brand of gooey, sticky, greasily shiny nut-nougat spread, associated with sweet breakfast orgies. This paste does not drip from the knife and keeps its form better than the more viscous honey. If spreading Nussenia on bread is associated with a minor private orgy, then this here assumes the humorous, conspiratorial proportions of a major excess. While being emptied out the glutinous mass has been twisted and turned so that it is distributed in streaks and rings, piled up like dough, forming a wild baroque relief which a Rococo stuccador would find difficult to imitate, interwoven in an orgiastic confusion of greasy, lustrous, yielding furrows, an agitated alluvial landscape expanding out into irregular foothills and little islands, and thus making the core of the construct seem like part of an emerging bubbling, in some measure turbulent continent. Unlike lava, the nut-nougat mass does not solidify, but remains steamily pliant, as it were – a stroke of luck for the sculptor that the proportion of solid and liquid parts enables the form to be maintained over a longer period of time. However, like oil paint, this substance too sweats a little with time, so that narrow islands of fat and greasy damp edges have formed in the course of the exhibition, something which the unruffled spiritus rector of this object accepted with aplomb. He had had no experience with the Nussenia product; for the two floor sculptures produced prior to this one, the Ferrero company had sponsored him, providing him with their somewhat creamier Nutella brand.
The second heap-sculpture is smaller, the material of a somewhat more solid consistency and slightly darker in colour – the artist had this spread, a paste actually used by confectioners, specially made by the Winsenia company in Winsen, so that the group of islands consists of harder lumps comparable to sods of earth, and is slightly higher than the other more expansive floor sculpture.
Although in the meantime these works can only be seen in photographic reproductions, the chocolate continents have consistently elicited, and still elicit, two reactions: “unmistakeably chocolate”, “an unmistakeable smell”, so the commentaries, which lend the heaps a humorous note. On the other hand, the spectators also laughed as if in compliance. It is certainly a heap of nut-nougat cream, but no one can suppress the association with a big heap of shit, as is apparent in the use of the negative prefix “un”. What comes to everyone’s mind does not alter the chocolate object, but certainly lends it a contrapuntal flavour that finds a productive outlet in laughter. At the same time, the fear of excess is transformed into an amusing game to which the chocolate makes its own contribution. If the objects were made of undiluted oil paint, dyed silicone, or some other glutinous material, the taboo association would still be made; one only has to think of John Miller’s object reliefs drowned in brown sauce, or his polyester man with one leg stuck in a (…) heap – chocolate enables a charming shift, reminding us as it does of that pleasure which could well help to curb the aggressive excess.
From a sculptural viewpoint the selected material involves yet another dimension in that it forms the sculpture at will. The movements made while emptying it out merely underscore the material’s potential to take on a form. Consequently, form, colour and material are one, not separate. The sculpture is merely the material in another state, as if it were stored in tubs in compact form and produced a new formal variation each time it was emptied out. What is more, surface and depth are also one here; the image as surface and the material as its carrier are only minimally separate, as demonstrated by the fact that an image of the form can be taken from this skin-less object, as a personal memory or as a technical copy.
Thomas Rentmeister has also added his very own association, that of a glutinous sea of chocolate. This, namely, is how he imagined the strange oceanic brain on the alien planet in Stanislav Lem’s novel Solaris. That oceanic brain was the subject of a research project: to decode its mode of thinking and thus master it. If it remained uncontrollable, one would feel so threatened by it that all one could do was destroy it. A bubbling ocean that appears to ignore time and to throw up odd phenomena to the surface, as if it actually wanted to communicate with the intruding astronauts. As a result, the first person narrator mysteriously meets his wife again, who is long since dead. He would like to both keep and be rid of her, but succeeds in doing neither: when he wants to get rid of her, she proves to be as confusingly indestructible as her later, more trivial variant in Terminator; when he wants to keep her as the person she once was, this too proves impossible as her death keeps getting in the way. At the end of the novel there is a meeting between the narrator and the ocean. The melancholic narrator holds out his hand and the ocean carefully arches, gently enclosing it, though without actually touching it – a narrow intermediate seam remains.
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As a formal limit, this narrow intermediate seam is characteristic of Thomas Rentmeister’s polyester sculptures, two of which are included in the “brown” exhibition. The smaller, dark-brown work dates from 1994, the larger ochre-brown one from 1993. The third, a wall sculpture, will not be discussed here for the moment.
Thomas Rentmeister’s polyester sculptures caused quite a furore among astonished spectators. At times like living creatures, then again unlike them, they are also reminiscent of objects, manufactured objects such as builder’s helmets, for example, or natural objects such as bubbles, strange snails, shimmering beings from an alien planet hovering somewhere between the organoid, technoid, and pseudo-biomorphic. In any case, beings that evade linguistic appropriation – so that “aliens” becomes an emergency signifier which can “mean” anything and everything, and the world of comics becomes a referential space in which the likes of these linguistically insubordinate beings are spawned and thrive. You smile because they have successfully outsmarted all possible categorisations, yet at the same time you feel troubled, as if these beings were holding untold metamorphoses as trump cards in their anti-anthropomorphic hands.
One thing is sure, however, they initially seem to be leading the card game with all sorts of paradoxes. – As curved objects they appeal to our sense of touch, yet undermine it with mirroring surfaces to which the same verdict applies as to any common mirror, namely, a touch taboo, which has greater consequences than a loss of vision due to a motor restriction of the field of same. – The convex and concave reflections anamorphously bundle the whole room and, due to the dark colour of the surfaces, immerse it in a deep lake, so to speak. It is as if you were in the presence of a sorceress who reads the future from the depths of her crystal ball by referring to a past she has previously guessed. – What you see is duplicated: the sculpture and the reflection, and then the reflection itself as it shifts between surface and depth. – As the room becomes immersed in the colour medium of the surface, the surface loses its colour consistency in the reflection. – The visual forms of the reflection far outstrips the haptic form of the sculpture. In our memory, however, the haptic form is clearer, while the changing forms of the reflections of the room fade. – The curvatures of the perfectly spherical sculptures alter infinitely slowly as the spectator moves, while the reflections react to this at the speed at which the surface reflects the light. The former seems to comply with the impression that the sculptures are slowly creeping, whereas the reflections can move to and fro swiftly, as if weightless. – The objects draw a material projection upon themselves, while the imaginary projections remain in the realm of the uncertain. What emerges is an enlivening, magical interplay: through the reflections the sculptures seem to be reacting to the spectator’s movement, as if their curved mirror-eye was not letting him out of its sight. – The sculptures adhere tightly to the floor as if by suction, some early form of gravity, but if this plug failed to hold they could close to form bubbles and sail away, weightless. On the other hand, their surface is always more or less eccentrically curved, suggesting not only an imperceptible movement away, but also a conflict between static matter and moving energy. Their eccentric gravitational pole thus refers to a concept of gravity that goes beyond the suction, like for example in an expandable water-filled rubber hose or an old wine skin. – And the final paradox: the sculptures are low, much lower in any case than the spectator, although their round-plastic form is often relatively expansive; on the other hand, they also function like visual magnets in the room. Due to the fact that they mirror it, a tension emerges between their comparatively modest location and the room as a whole. That is why Thomas Rentmeister does not overpopulate a room with these oddly radiating suction-magnets, and is careful about where he positions them.
The polyester sculptures, the room, and the spectator form a complicated “triangular situation”: the inflated, smoothly ground, polished sculptures mirror the room as their “interior”, as though turned outside-in. If one imagines an infinite space, an intuitive experience we all have, then one’s own physical boundary emerges by being turned inside-out, as it were; the infinite is confined in an enclosed interior. This may well comply with Thomas Rentmeister’s description of the formal border of his polyester sculptures, which he claims technically require an almost 5 mm thick material border. He would prefer this border surface to be made out of nothing: “pink air” is what an inventive child remarked on seeing one of his polished polyester sculptures; later, as an exception to the rule, the artist called the work by this name. The child surely did not mean just materialized air, or the air locked into a soap bubble, although these come close to such an inframince (infra-thin) border, to use Duchamp’s term. However, their fragile, soapy-water consistency makes them unstable, although for a fleeting moment they interrupt the continuum of the air. A description of the phenomenon of being turned inside-out is also to be found in the novel Die Schnecke am Hang (The snail on the slope) by Arkadi and Boris Strugatzki, authors of a tragicomic science-fiction story much admired by Thomas Rentmeister. In this book it is the feared alien-like “corpse people” who instead of turning around in a room like normal creatures, reverse inside their own skin, so that they suddenly turn their back on the astonished hero of the novel before “sliding away”. These strange creatures are obviously not bound by gravity: “graceful and agile, self-confident and privileged, they walked weightlessly, taking no superfluous steps, determining the spot where their feet would tread swiftly and unfailingly.” Let us imagine Thomas Rentmeister’s quasi-comic aliens as having only assumed their form by dint of a transformation that involved turning their infinite space inwards. This lends them a limited body surface which recalls that imaginary process by turning the empirical space inwards as a reflection, while at the same time articulating their external formal boundaries. Anamorphous distortion and mobility, a strange time-space relation, forces the mirrored space into an almost uncontrollable expansion/movement. This may sound highly futuristic, but given the emotional ambiguity of the arrow of time peculiar to these aliens it is not really all that far-fetched.
A comparison with monochrome painting may help to clarify this concept. Monochrome painting often has to do with the phenomenon of shifting from the limited field of a picture surface to the experience of an infinite space without a surface, demanding of, or allowing the spectator to experience an unusual state of weightless hovering, a suspension of gravity. When Thomas Rentmeister humorously explains the genesis of his polyester sculptures by claiming an interest in “inflating monochrome painting to the point of rendering it absurd”, this description is altogether apt. Moreover it refracts the high-brow aspect of monochrome paintings in the low-brow aspect of his comic aliens. This game with the sublime aura of monochrome painting does not, however, make fun of it, but treats it instead in a comically amusing way. Something that is monochrome and curved shifts to being something tactile and in so doing renders the sublime humorous: something curved admits to being restricted, challenges our tendency to grasp; we no longer plunge into the sacred plane with pathos. Aliens are bodies and not unbounded spaces. They may be derivations of infinite space, but they have the tangibility of form in common with us. – To put it in topological terms: at some time or other, each one of us necessarily submits and accepts, by way of a transformation, that state from which monochrome painting promises an imaginary escape, albeit temporarily.
Thomas Rentmeister’s untitled comic aliens represent an intermediary state. They inflate themselves in a way that is more optimistic than boastful. They give our sense of touch a chance, at least when our eye reaches out to them, and cling on by suction to their resistant earthly surface – Duchamp’s “hole weight” comes to mind – whereby that adhesive suction suggests an early form of gravity, prosaically: an earthly falling to the ground.
The spectator has to come to grips with the room in which he finds himself, his medium, and the tense confrontation with the strange object or sculpture which functionalises the mirrored room as its – tactile – defence; noli me tangere. It is almost as if it were afraid not so much of being sullied by a touch, as of bursting like a fragile soap-bubble, even before a finger is able to puncture it. The empirical space encloses both the spectator and the sculpture it houses. In turn, the sculpture again draws both room and spectator onto its surface as an imaginary interior and the room they have in common becomes the sculpture’s special defence area through being reflected.
The spectator experiences a paradoxical two-in-one: the tangible curve of the sculpture, its specific sculptural form, and the visual reference to the room in which he finds himself, present in the reflection that shows him as a spot on the image. Visually, his own image is embedded more in the space around him than in a normal mirror, i.e., he is not as seduced by the – potentially narcissist – possibility of pure self-referentiality.
What emerges is a mutual correspondence. Just as the sculpture becomes a two-in-one, tactile surface and optical possibility of distance, so too the spectator becomes two-in-one: a reflected image, but no longer separate from the room in which he actually is. As a spot on the image of the world that is being reflected back, the spectator finds a correspondence in the sculpture, which for its part is a “material spot” both in the room and in the image of the spectator. The isolationist sculpture-spectator relationship, with all its exclusive projective consequences, is pushed gently in the direction of something more real, the particular situation in this particular place.
What in minimalist sculpture is opposed to the presence of the spectator – who has not been caught out by a (narcissistic) self-projection – as non-referential, as the immediate presence of a specific object, is replicated here on both sides, as it were, to achieve a more complex relationship, a sublimely visual “discussion” that leads from the, for both, exceptional situation of silence to a situation of “eloquence”. And even if this interplay is charged with an unavoidable doubt – are they “just” objects or are they not at least miming something living – the fact is that something alien which is enlivened makes a more disturbingly strange impact than something alien which is not enlivened. Moreover, aliens thrive on the much mulled over question of whether they actually come from some faraway place, or perhaps from our very own alien space. In any case, the do-not-touch distance here not so much salvages a fetish, as maintains the tension of difference. Something that would never happen to a brilliantly designer car; it is occupied, albeit only virtually, and speeds away, intoxicated.
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In the 1980s Thomas Rentmeister began to engage with American Minimalism, particularly with the relationship between high and low art. If Minimalism was a reaction to the dissemination of the concrete through advertising and TV, with Pop-Art providing the low and Minimalism understood as providing the high response, then Thomas Rentmeister’s “impure” Minimalism leans toward the latter. His is not so much a disrespectful denigration, as an “aiming below Minimalism”, as can be seen from his later works. Rentmeister follows the trail backwards to before the moment when – to put it in general terms – the theme Minimalism addresses can become established: objectivity, as pieces of the world quietened down into non-subjective, neutral phenomena that are indifferent to us; liberation, from a magically-emotional state of being involved in everything.
If one studies Thomas Rentmeister’s works chronologically, the importance of his debate with Minimalism becomes evident. Originating in poetically humorous, imaginatively contingent, musically sculptural ideas, his works then moved on to the realm of object art or object collage. Commonplace items such as kitchen utensils, tools, implements and functional objects of all kinds are almost always involved and diverse allusions made to famous modernist works.
Rentmeister addresses three issues: the air that makes the objects hover slightly, poetically, musically; the reference to the everyday, integrating humorous things in places where they are least expected; and the tension between suspension and gravity, to say nothing of his enormously intuitive gift as a sculptor. Examples of this are an approximately 160 cm high object dated 1983: a bent curtain rail as a long bow on a lamp stand, “earthed” in a curve, held down by small everyday items “pegged” onto it. Or a small object from the same year made of plaster, wire, plastic sheeting, newspaper, matches and paint: an abstract angel that not only has wings, but also heavy wing-like earth-fins.
There are points of reference in Rentmeister’s artistic development: Eva Hesse – his 1985 square canvas with flies in serial spots of oil, or his slim-lined object with heavy eggs hanging in a delicate transparent plastic sock, also 1985; and a musically-poetic Suprematism à la Tatlin – his 1986 work featuring objects around and on a ladder linked in a lyre-like arrangement, and a blithely cheerful neo-dadaist Suprematism from the same year with commonplace implements forming a precariously balanced tower around a steady ladder.
Minimalism – for example, that of Donald Judd – enabled Thomas Rentmeister to move on to a new formal clarity, the stringency of which he sabotaged from the very beginning with sceptical humour and “impure” ideas: as readymade Minimalism ventilators, air-conditioning elements, jutting corners, truck tarpaulins, chromatically filled coffee cups etc., shatter the integrity of the minimalist objects. How they are positioned also plays a role here. Shoved into a corner or inconspicuously near the wall, they do not aspire to the daring self-glorification of the object in space. An example of this is a 1990 floor object made of polyethylene that seems to transform early wall objects by Donald Judd into a more modest wall-floor object. By contrast, a pure wall object dated 1988 – a rigorously oblong wooden block painted yellow – thwarts the purism of Minimalism with its strange black plastic “packaging edges”.
The “brown” exhibition includes three objects by Thomas Rentmeister from this post-minimalist period: two repeats and a kind of update. The oldest of them, dated 1985, consists of piles of canteen cups filled with coffee and condensed milk and looks like a kind of clownish travesty aimed at debunking three decisive Minimalist principles: serialism, industrially-manufactured commodities, and mathematical limes-to-infinity sequences. The clown triumphs with a clever space-time reversal. The act of pouring milk into a cup of coffee until the coffee has the desired lighter shade becomes a process of pouring milk into various cups of coffee until the coffee has the “desired” shade. It is an open question whether the brighter shade is still indebted to a wish once a functional act becomes an abstract formalist one. This could possibly be translated into the formula: a – desire-driven – priority of space over time becomes an altogether modern – detached – priority of time over space; a one-above-the-other becomes a one-after-the-other – a highly comical minimalist approach, either way. As in an earlier presentation, the resulting outline of the floor sculpture snuggles up reticently to the corner of the room, on the edge yet still very much part of the atmosphere.
The second sculpture, untitled, 1988, is a 215 x 214 x 214 cm cube made of steel plate painted brown. No matter how often we are told that a container is empty, as soon as it appears locked, we suspect it of harbouring a secret. And almost like a betrayal, here this box reveals its trivial secret through the ventilator. There is indeed something inside it, but certainly not what we would have secreted there, namely, air, lent an indifferent voice by the humming of the ventilator. Thomas Rentmeister had two things in mind with his closed steel container. First, he saw it as a model for a possible future sculpture in the public domain that would render the concealing of what takes place behind the closed walls of production containers absurd, namely, money-making. Then he was constantly reminded of Uncle Scrooge McDuck’s safe with its small window at the top – the position of the ventilator in his sculpture – from which Uncle Scrooge was able to watch and take aim at the Beagle Boys Inc., who were after his money. Given the seriousness of this sculpture, however, one could also say, “money or air”, thus paraphrasing the demand for “money or blood” which in the 1980s Fischli & Weiss put in the mouths of a pair of crooks made of raw clay on their way to commit the ideal robbery. If you get air when you expected money, at least you have made a life-saving exchange.
If we now turn to the third object from Thomas Rentmeister’s minimalist period, a repeat of the truck tarpaulin projects with a work from the year 2001, we realise that air is pursuing us. In 1990 the artist produced a number of these in shrill colours which he destroyed after several months, keeping only three, in earthy brown and cream tones. The object in the “brown” exhibition takes on a slightly reddish tinge in the light and fits into the section of wall between two of the large windows. The brand-new tarpaulin, straight from the roll, is stretched over its wooden frame “as taut as a drum head”, so the artist’s instructions. Visually, it could be taken for a painting, which of course it is not. But one could be reminded of Blinky Palermo’s fabric paintings: two pieces of monochrome fabric sewn together to make a horizontally divided picture. Here it is a single piece of polyester fabric coated with PVC so that reflections on its matt shiny surface, including those of the spectators, dissolve. A real drum head, usually made of animal pelt, is intended to be rapped and beaten and thus produce tones using the hollow space as a resonance chamber. According to Thomas Rentmeister, if you tap them carefully with your finger tips his truck tarpaulin pictures also make sounds – donnng. The amusing idea that inspired the polyester sculptures – that of “inflating monochrome painting” – readily suggested itself: the “taut like a drum head” makes a body of it, albeit a rectangular one. The tactile aspect of the surface seems more important than the monochrome aspect of the material, although no one is likely to actually touch the truck tarpaulin objects.
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Thomas Rentmeister’s transition from his post-minimalist objects to his polyester sculptures can be illustrated by a number of other works which will be briefly mentioned in the following, as they prepare the ground for yet another transition to the more recent polyester wall objects, one of which is included in the “brown” exhibition.
Reference should of course be made here to Thomas Rentmeister’s first work in polyester, a two-part sculpture in a greyish-brown-beige tone which he showed in 1991 at Galerie Otto Schweins in Cologne, a small exhibition venue on Wormser Strasse at the time. For this work he combined the trapezoid of a supporting trough-shaped item with seemingly oval narrow sides and a cone in the shape of a normal parabola. At the upper end the trapezoid form was slightly curved inwards, like the dent that forms in the celluloid lid of a preserving jar due to the vacuum. This two-part sculpture, which the artist himself regards as pivotal to his development, would seem to be announcing the pneuma that was to give rise to the “real” polyester sculptures. The 3-minute Super 8 film Rentmeister made in 1989, starring two piccolo champagne bottles and himself, is also interesting in this context. Initially the piccolo bottles, as the designation indicates, seem appropriately small, that is, until the artist appears between them and they turn out to be almost man-size inflatable dummies, at the back of which Rentmeister fiddles before disappearing from the scene. Much as the artist had bowed, the bottles now take a bow: in slow motion their necks incline forward, their bodies deflate, and they collapse. A humorous study, having associations not just with advertising. Once more it confounds high and low art – again, again, again, the spectators plea for this reversal of inflation; while bowing out, the artist pulls out the stoppers. In fact the VHS copy of this film meant that the taped scene could be repeated endlessly.
Another small, very comical object dated 1990, a Plexiglas dome over socks, plays an ambiguous game with the idea of scent and change of form. The irregularly curved Plexiglas bubble looks as if its spherical perfection has been dented under the influence of heat. It is difficult for the spectator to imagine that the socks under the glass dome have been freshly washed recently. The “attention, art” taboo is not the only thing that prevents one from lifting the Plexiglas cover.
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The dark-brown untitled wall sculpture of polished polyester, 2001, would probably fall off the wall if it were simply a curved “snail on a slope”. Highly irregular, rather soft-edged bulges, dips, and twists are in fact typical of Thomas Rentmeister’s more recent wall sculptures. The floor sculptures also include two multi-part works, but these are agglomerations of similar-shaped bubbles or irregular dents and bumps. From a distance, the small wall sculpture in the “brown” exhibition seems rather contemplative and reserved due to its dark colouring and despite its irregular surface.
Seen from close up, however, and from a moving viewpoint, the uncontrollably anamorphous, greatly refracted, chaotically swelling, dissolving and fading reflections start to make it “come alive”, as if it had been touched gently. The lively interplay of the reflections seems to have an effect on the sculpture’s surface, much as if this visual touch caused it to move and change its form. If you step back from it again, this phantasmatic life disappears and the sculpture returns to its previous state of dark serenity. As if by magic, the state of the sculpture seems like a temporary pause which through interaction with the spectator immediately resolves into a much greater, more agitated and swifter dance-like yet heterogeneous movement. When surfaces are inclined towards one another, reflections can become superimposed and enter into their very own interplay. Much as the somatic body pursues erotic excitement even without the participation of the waking consciousness, matter is only relatively more sluggish than the vivacity of a desire surfing through the surfaces. The changing forms of the erotic dissolve the link with an accompanying consciousness. – And because the spectator’s magic-optical, plastic-imaginary enlivening of the sculpture has something of the taboo about it, one smiles afterwards, embarrassed perhaps, as though caught in the act. In the sphere of desire, innocence is out of place.
At a distance on the opposite narrow wall of the exhibition hall hangs a large perspex laminated photograph, untitled, 2001. Thomas Rentmeister had a photograph taken of a liver spot he has had on his left shin since birth. It was not easy to get a precise, enlargeable Ektachrome from a close-up with little depth of focus. Now the regular dark oval spot sits in the middle of the image as if reminiscent of a special print from Veronica’s kerchief, an association that readily comes to mind in the vicinity of Cologne. The enlarged photograph highlights the refracted scales of the skin’s surface, that merest visual hint of the reticular coruscation to which the skin owes its shimmer and which not only painters are in pursuit of: an inconspicuous eroticisation using the dark tone of the liver spot as the ground.
Modern methods of establishing a person’s identity are no longer orientated around material things; newer passports are missing the “distinguishing marks” entry of the old ones. “Odysseus’ scar” is no longer the sign by which a Penelope recognises her husband when he returns somewhat worse for wear after his warring exploits. It may well be pure chance that the photograph measures 200 x 140 cm, the size of a standard double bed. Yet the iridescent skin in the enlargement forms a link with the polyester sculpture on the opposite wall. What makes human skin visually attractive, before it is touched, is even further underscored in the puzzling wall sculpture of polished polyester on the strangeness of the “Anastomos” of a Rodolfo Wilcock, which was covered all over with mirrors and yet untouchable. And as the human body reacts with physical excitement to its surface being touched, so too the alien in the wall sculpture responds to the visual touch in its own highly excited, mirroring way.
After all, Thomas Rentmeister’s aliens may not be as technoid as they first seem – and also not as biomorphic as we would like them to be. Brancusi’s biomorphic sculptures trigger the memory of an imagined infinite space at the boundary of their intimate contemplation. Arp’s sculptures of perfectly curved plaster were also oriented around an anthropomorphic, if idealised, form. Duchamp’s speculations on an “object made of chocolate”, whose form was indebted to a mould from an altogether different space than our customary moulds, which are a reversed mirror image of the cast form, come much closer to what Thomas Rentmeister’s sculptures are seeking. According to Duchamp, from time to time the invisible mould becomes visible as an "apparition" – on the surface of the “objet en chocolat pax.” – and what is that other than the auratic sphere becoming visible in the state of erotic excitation, and promising more than physical exertion.
Thomas Rentmeister’s sculptures go in search of an experience which cannot be grasped by way of the usual allusions to images of the physical. It is the invisible transformations that gradually turn an alien into a customary biomorphic “mould”, a down-to-earth subject which, when it pleasurably exempts itself from gravity now and then, is not impeded by it. As already indicated, however, his aliens have a time arrow pointing in two directions. It is up to the spectator to opt for both or separate them.
In any case, the heaps of chocolate present something that may easily be overlooked. When poured from the tubs, the material spreads out glutinously. What better way to illustrate the heaviness adhering even to sweetness. At this point, even the irrepressible association with excretions can be productive. The scandalous thing about them is that they remind us of our own transience, and so we gladly make our daily, in part earthly, advance sacrifice before our turn comes, drastically and inevitably. To some extent, our laughter in the face of the heaps of chocolate relieves our anxiety.
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Coda: the cup of milk. Udo Kittelmann, director of the Kölnische Kunstverein, not only had the idea of exhibiting a number of objects in the brown tones so often used by Thomas Rentmeister, he also made the suggestion to include an object that was not brown. This explains the white cup of milk, a kind of burlesque element, as the artist put it, a “coloured exception”, to quote one critic, that also allays any suspicion of monomania. An object made of polished polyester, knee-high at about 25 cm, it is not, however, part of the formal circle of the other polyester sculptures. The sculptural object remains a cup, filled with snow-white milk, shimmering in the daylight; you blow this sea of milk gently so as not to confuse it with a polyester surface. When viewed from the handle, the cup itself assumes a slightly biomorphic form in the shape of a rhombus, as if both cup and contents were approaching you with the form being distorted in the process. Round would be softer, more pliant; trim corners seem firmer, more sturdy. – For this reason, I will include an old story about the difference between slurping and chewing: A child is drinking soup from a cup with a spoon. Suddenly a snake slinks along, rises up, leans over the edge of the cup and starts to slurp the soup. The child hits the snake on the head and says: “Thing, eat lumps too!”
© Ursula Panhans-Bühler