City Gallery

Stephen Cain, ‘One Woman’s Escape’ , Evening Post, 6 August 1993.

Internationally acclaimed German artist Rosemarie Trockel is perhaps best known for producing knitted “paintings”.

Her knit-works, however, are just part of an overall strategy of using unusual materials, usually associated with women. Trockel is not bitter, however. This show is tasteful and witty as well as incisive and aware. Generally, it reads more like the account of one woman’s remarkable escape from culturally defined limitations than a complaint about man’s inhumanity to woman—an uplifting success story perhaps.

Although the range of media employed is extensive, many viewers will, I think, be most strongly impressed by the large computer-knitted Rorschach blots (those ink-blots psychiatrists use to probe personality). Artists these days frequently leave interpretation of their works radically open—meaning, if there is any, becomes the viewer’s responsibility. The weirdly beautiful patterns in these particular works seem to invite viewers to project their own images and meanings, but this seductive game is neatly interrupted by the knitted surface.

Trockel’s art is neither about ascent to rarefied aesthetic realms nor about descent to the twin netherworlds of the subconscious and private meaning, although it plays effectively with these. Essentially political and concerned with reality, it gently persuades spectators to try to see beyond themselves.

It is worth noting that the nature of Trockel’s politics tends to make her sensitive to other oppressed and marginalised groups. The complexity of her work, however, combined with cultural differences between New Zealanders and the artist may make some pieces fairly inaccessible. It may be less than obvious, for example, that the large bright orange rug centrally displayed in the gallery refers to Māori women. This is not a criticism. But, and especially since a rejection of pure aesthetic contemplation is signalled, I would like to recommend that visitors take advantage of the written material and excellent free audioguide to fully appreciate this outstanding show.

Bob Kerr, ‘Rosemarie Trockel and the New Imperialists’ , Landfall, no. 186, Spring 1993. Excerpt.

Standing in the Rosemarie Trockel exhibition listening to the long opening speeches of the new Wellington City Gallery, three separate people expressed their boredom and hostility—not about the speeches coming in from the foyer over the PA system but about Rosemarie’s exhibited works. They seem to have a capacity to get right up some people’s noses.

Rosemarie Trockel is the international component of the gallery’s opening show. Her work explores issues of culture and gender. She exhibits domestic objects usually associated with women: brooms, stove tops, knitted clothing, balls of wool, carpets. Her stove tops are no use for cooking; they are reconstituted in the gallery as ice-cold minimalist art works. Her woolly jumpers have neck holes for two heads. Her knitted balaclavas have no holes for the mouth and on close examination the cheerful coloured patterns are made up of swastikas and Playboy bunnies. She is also exhibiting large knitted patterns based on the Rorschach ink blot test …

Rosemarie Trockel’s art can be seen as exploring issues of the social and sexual identity of women. It can also be seen as part of this cosy international salon of new imperialists. She can be read in Cologne or in New York or in Melbourne or in Wellington. She depends on the patronage of airlines and governments to get around this international circuit and she appropriates cultural artefacts from the locals when she arrives. Part of her exhibition included a large red carpet laid out on the gallery floor with a row of poi tacked on at each end as a fringe. The disgruntled spectators at the launching are not stupid or ignorant: they know when they’re being lectured to by an Elite, and they know that culture is something that every group possesses even though the dominant power-group believe they own the monopoly franchise. The show is more concerned about the need to promote international curatorial and artistic careers than it is about a dialogue with the owners of the gallery, the people who walk in the door. It represents an avantgarde that is really the rearguard fighting to maintain power for itself and its paymasters.

Lawrence McDonald, ‘Rosemarie Trockel’ , Art and Text, no. 47, 1994.

The former Wellington City Art Gallery has reemerged as the City Gallery, behind the facade of the old public library. 1993 is officially Suffrage Centenary Year in New Zealand, so it’s not surprising that the City Gallery has chosen to fill the vastly amplified space of its four new galleries with exhibitions of work by women. One of these galleries hosts Rosemarie Trockel’s first exhibition in the southern hemisphere.

As befits an artist who has studied anthropology, sociology, theology, and mathematics, and whose work traverses several disciplines of the social and natural sciences, curator Gregory Burke has placed Trockel’s work in the gallery immediately behind the library facade with the Western knowledge categories of philosophy, religion, sociology, and science engraved into it.

The exhibition itself contains a well-balanced selection of work from 1985 to the present, which displays Trockel’s ability to work within a wide variety of artistic forms. “Knitted” paintings, photographic works, wall sculptures, poetic assemblages encased in vitrines, and a video installation are all featured. Equally remarkable is Trockel’s capacity to engage the viewer by varying the scale of her pieces. The large size of the five industrially knitted Rorschach paintings in wool literally blows up the question of the multiple psychological projections involved in such testing; not to mention playing on the public/private divide by setting down occasions for mental association by means of industrial method.

But Trockel is as much at home with the miniaturised poetics of I Am Stumped, which in reduced fashion recalls the dense compressions of Duchamp’s Box in a Valise (1941). Similarly, her grouping of multiples in museological specimen cases recalls Broodthaer’s cryptic poetry of the object. I’ve always Wanted to Be Something Special (for someone who doesn’t write about her work or give many interviews, Trockel comes up with some great titles), a Snoopy-shaped doorstop, like the kind sold in flea markets, slyly merges women’s craft with Pop art references.

In terms of concept and design, the most impressive sector of the exhibition is given over to an installation which serves to interrogate domestic space. The bold conflations of product design and Neo-Geo abstraction of the stove wall sculptures look down on a huge red rug made by Christchurch’s Dilana studios to the artist’s specifications. The poi-shaped tassels at the top and bottom of the rug are echoed in the poi-twirling motion of the film sequences Poi Poi, Toi Toi and Pearls shown on the facing middle video monitor. The monitor to the right continuously plays Trockel’s Tierfilme (Animal Films, 1978–90), in which, among other things, she confronts and confounds the will to zoological knowledge in 43 fragments covering 45 minutes. The left-hand monitor plays a 1932 film, the darkest and the grainiest of the three, Functions of the Brain, showing experiments by Pavlov on animals (and the exhibition also includes a still photograph on plexiglass from this film). Overall this installation manages to suggest a great deal about the positioning of women in relation to technology and to experimental sciences and ethnographic practices.

Accompanying the exhibition is a well designed catalogue with good reproductions of all the works, thorough documentation and three essays in dual languages (English and German). The first two, by the curator Gregory Burke and German artist and writer Jutta Koether, are useful, informative and intelligent discussions of the intricacies of Trockel’s works (Burke) and her working methods (Koether). The third and longest essay, Robyn Gardner’s Dark Italics: Anxious Allegories of Modernity, does not address Trockel’s art but rather nineteenth-and twentieth-century German politics, history, philosophy, and science. Gardiner’s erudition is not in doubt, but the relevance of this free-floating litany of familiar proper names (mostly Frankfurt Schoolers and postmodernists) on this gloomy tour through the dark side of modernity, to the art on display is not particularly clear. Surely there are more appropriate parallels to Trockel’s unusual talent for intruding Conceptual and Minimal art strategies into domestic, scientific, psychological and ethnographic spaces while still managing to foreground questions of gender.

Felicity Fenner, ‘Between Self and System’ , Sydney Morning Herald, 8 April 1994. 

Of the large number of German artists who came to the fore in the 1980s—some on the crest of the new expressionist painting, others in the wake of the conceptual hero Joseph Beuys and a younger generation working with post-modernist puns and appropriation—Rosemarie Trockel is one of the most interesting.

Her ideas combine intellect with idiosyncrasy in works that provoke, parody and poke fun at the cultural institutions in which she, as a woman artist in the western world, operates. Born in 1952, she belongs to an internationally high-profile generation of German artists whose work probes the darker side of its political and social heritage.

Trockel’s work was last seen here in the German-curated 1990 Biennale of Sydney, The Readymade Boomerang. A row of upturned household brooms summed up the conflicts and contradictions of juggling roles as woman and practising contemporary artist. The broom motif paid homage to Beuys’s Ausfegen (Sweep Out) performances of the early 1970s, while subverting, through inversion, the traditional notion of a woman’s role in the home and women artists’ roles in a male-dominated art hierarchy.

In an astutely selected survey exhibition organised by Wellington City Gallery (New Zealand) and now at Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art, Trockel’s interest in the parallel between gender stereotyping and household hygiene is continued in a series of wise and witty works spanning the artist’s professional career of 10 years. For Australian contemporary art audiences, the exhibition throws new light on those Biennale brooms, revealing a complex multitude of interpretations beyond the obvious feminist art pun. Their ordered placement against the white wall parody the Western tendency to prioritise rationality over instinct; to identify, label and classify physical and psychological phenomena—a process that inherently undermines the value of spiritual and instinctive responses usually associated with the feminine consciousness.

Often taking ready-made objects as their constructive starting point, her “pieces” (they deliberately slip through the categories of painting, sculpture, even installation) juxtapose domestic icons with sociological and scientific systems of classification. Though the tools of the trade differ, it is a philosophical approach shared by the Australian conceptual artist Robert Macpherson, who juxtaposes everyday objects with equally obscure systems of coding, usually herpetological classification (the location and naming of frog species) and, more recently, vernacular farm-produce signage.

For both artists, it is the slippage zone between self and system that is of interest.

At last year’s Venice Biennale, a large orange woollen rug installed on the wall of the Cordiere was alternately praised and dismissed as an ironic comment on the cool sterility of minimalist painting, a feminising of the minimalist aesthetic, an object, of tactile seduction but cerebral vacuity. Rosemarie Trockel also made a large woollen orange rug last year, but it’s on the floor where rugs belong and smoothly vacuumed, the pinnacle of domestic order. On the wall next to it are two hot-plate “paintings”, black spots on fields of gleaming white, fields of enamelled steel, taking the mickey out of modernism by extending the domestic parallel down the vacuumed hall and into the kitchen, the traditional hub of female activity. (The only food Trockel ever serves up, however, is masticated chewing gum, which she presents to friends, cast in silver and ceremoniously mounted on jewellery display cushions.)

The stove-top pictures are clever, funny, frightening intersections between art and life. From a distance they resemble modern, “neo-geo” abstractions, the type that shot a number of young painters to fame in the early 1980s. Trockel has parodied their limited aesthetic achievements, stripped them of any ideological glamour and made the surfaces shimmer with a virginal austerity, all without putting a foot out of the kitchen. It is the modern housewife’s response to Duchamp’s porcelain urinal that caused such an uproar three generations ago.

Her studies in religion and mathematics, undertaken before attending art school, are evident in the quasi-spirituality of the hovering hot-plates, reminding us that cooking is fundamentally a process of calculation and inspiration.

Religion and mathematics are, furthermore, the wheels upon which society (especially the art world) turns.

Trockel is not averse to self-directed mockery, either. A ball of red knitting wool with a cyclops glass eye peeping through its soft surface comes complete with a laminated museum label reading “’I See Red Wool’ Tinted Wax 1985.” It is a neat send-up of museum pigeonholing and of her own status as a watched, collected and celebrity artist. It is placed in a museum vitrine, along with other mock artefacts, a precious icon of the late twentieth-century cultural casserole.

Wool and balls are Trockel’s staple diet of material and metaphor. Her woolly paintings have nothing in common with the rustic ingenuity of the Royal Easter Show’s regional offerings. Like the stove-top pictures, they approximate the grand scale of contemporary painting, even the abstract motifs within them.

Phallic and facial features can be discerned, the Freudian analyst would have us believe, among the navy ink-blot shapes woven into the surface.

In the exhibition’s catalogue, another Cologne artist and writer, Jutta Koether, explains that the woollen paintings were initiated partly in response to a German critic’s claim that women could not create art, other than to show a connection between women and weaving. Taking him at his word, Trockel has symbolically sewn together the strands of prejudice, machismo and pseudo psychology that shape popular modes of perception and preconception.

At the very end of the exhibition, a red-and-white wool-covered lifebuoy hangs in readiness for those, like Trockel, who don’t fit the favoured cultural stereotypes. It also makes an appropriate reference to the MCA’s nautical former life as the Maritime Services Board Building, a history of male endeavour made bearable by the tea-cosy warmth of women’s support. The hole at the centre of the ring, like the black void of the stove tops, is loaded with feminine iconology, offsetting the phalluses and balls dotted throughout the exhibition.

Beyond this simplistic feminist reading, however, the ubiquitous balls of Trockel’s work invoke a sinister side of scientific exploration.

In the current quest to perfect methods of genetic engineering, reason and ethics take a back seat to cleverness and competitiveness. The balls at the end of her smooth orange rug are dangled hypnotically on an adjacent video screen, in a meeting of psychoanalytical and biogenetic imagery; on another screen Ivan Pavlov’s 1932 film Functions of the Brain heightens the link between genetic science and cleanliness, an ominous link exploited by the Nazis and now filling our own TV screens in horrific footage of modern-day ethnic cleansing. As in much contemporary German art, this darker side of its political heritage is never far beneath the veneer of quirky and cutting humour. Rosemarie Trockel’s ability to convey post-modern, feminist and political dialogues in deft lateral movements of the psyche is as smooth as it is spooky and provides a number of inroads for those willing to penetrate the cool hysteria of her packaging.