Notes on a visit to the Camden Arts Centre’s exhibition Dieter Roth: Diaries, 17 May – 14 July.
Dieter Roth (1930-98) was a Swiss-German artist known for his varied range of mixed-media artwork, often using found materials.
The first gallery has a library-like atmosphere; on one side stand five bookcases, interspersed with lamp lit reading desks. There are five shelves on each side of the bookcases, each housing fourteen carefully dated ringbinders filled with the detritus of Roth’s life – photos, letters, medication packets, cigarette ends, bus tickets and numerous sundry scraps of paper. His one criteria for candidates into these files was that objects should be no thicker than 1/4 inch.
Roth seems to have had the understanding of an archaeologist that it’s actually the objects we use daily to the point of being unconscious of them, the detritus that usually ends up in rubbish pits and landfill sites, that reveals the most about us. These give a more honest portrayal of an individual or society than any official biography or collection of high-end artefacts, through sheer accumulation and by the very fact that they tend to be overlooked and underestimated. The piece raises the question Why keep everything?, but then again, Why keep anything?
In the second gallery, a series of wooden boards covered in stains, notes, paint and doodles reminds me of long-suffering school desks and the kitchen table of a friend whose children have free reign to scratch and sketch over its surface. These, along with the shelves of ringbinders and the journals in a nearby cabinet, are just another kind of diary for Roth, a record of his life.
Gallery 3 houses Roth’s most extreme and ambitious project of documenting his life. He set up video recorders in rooms in his house and studios and for two years captured his daily life. A wall of television sets simultaneously show Roth sleeping, eating, washing up, making phone calls, going to the toilet, and, largely, working. The last video impassively records the empty studio on the day he died.
Later, flicking through the exhibition catalogue, I chanced upon this telling quote by Roth:
D.R.: For me, it’s…it’s like a cancerous tumour, it’s basically an illness. An illness that I have. Now.
I.L-H.: This compulsion to represent your entire life.
D.R.: Yes. That’s my terminal illness. It’ll probably be the cause of my death.
Extract of interview with Irmelin Lebeer-Hossmann, Stuttgart, 20-22 June 1979, published in ‘On Keeping a Diary’, Dieter Roth: Diaries, ed. Fiona Bradley (Yale University Press, 2012), p. 158
I wonder what Roth would have made of social media and blogging had he witnessed the current culture of recording daily life on a massive scale? The questions raised by his pointedly indiscriminate recording and archiving seem more pertinent than ever.
Is the desire to be heard and remembered a terminal illness that we all suffer from to some degree?
Dieter Roth: Diaries runs from 17 May to 14 July 2013 at the Camden Arts Centre, London. Free entry to all.