Art review: Dieter Roth, Diaries, Camden Arts Centre, London


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The Independent Culture

In the early 1980s, German-Swiss artist Dieter Roth was close to death due to his excessive drinking and eating. He spent time in a health clinic in Switzerland, and emerged 30 kilos lighter. His life was saved but he had another problem: his exquisitely tailored Viennese suits no longer fitted him.

A more conventional man might have given the clothes to a charity shop, but Roth (1930 – 1998) was an artist who used the defunct and discarded stuff of everyday life as the raw material for his art. The plus-size suits appear in the Clothes Picture series (1984-7), which are “diaries” in the broadest sense – multi-media forms of self-portraiture and autobiography that lend insight into a frantically creative mind.

This exhibition is characteristic of Camden Arts Centre’s general brilliance. It is pedantic, rich, and tragicomic in the sense that it illuminates Roth’s (failed or successful?) attempt to overcome the passing of time through obsessive documentation.

The Clothes Pictures are visually fantastic. In each, a suit has been arranged on a plywood board in a way that suggests human road-kill; it appears as though the man inside the clothes has simply been flattened out of existence. To make matters worse, this absent presence has been doused thoroughly in opaque white glue, which runs and pools over the expensive material, exposing a patch of tweed here and there, at times mixed with baby-pink and powder-blue pigment.

The glue is fascinating: it is both creamy and plasticky, rippling like the folds of the fabric itself. The suited figure appears buried alive in this mysterious substance, but the overall impression of these works is one of cheerfulness – at least, a gallows humour kind of cheerfulness. 

Flat Waste (1975-6/1992) is an elegantly curated installation. One wall of the gallery has been transformed into an archivist’s paradise. Shelves of ring-binders are filled with trash no more than 1cm thick, collected by Roth religiously over a year. The viewer can flick through more trash in the ring-binders laid open under the type of angle-poise lamps that Roth kept in his studios. Here are his cigarette butts, his torn envelopes – tokens of a life.

A wall of TV monitors show Solo Scenes (1997-8). They are films of Roth in his studios: sleeping, washing, drawing. He died during the making of this work, and so the darkness that encroaches upon many of the shots appears all the more poignant.

17 May – 14 July