Rosemarie Trockel, A Cosmos, Serpentine Gallery, London

 

Last month German painter Georg Baselitz dismissed female artists on the grounds that they lacked the instinct for creative destruction. His compatriot Rosemarie Trockel was a case in point. He said condescendingly: “There is a lot of love in her art, a lot of sympathy.”

“Love” and “sympathy” are not the first words that spring to mind on encountering this new exhibition of Trockel’s work, which has already travelled from Madrid to New York. Perhaps “derangement” and “taxonomy” would be more apt.

Cosmos refers to all that exists, and at times this exhibition feels like an attempt to include all that exists, or, more precisely, once existed – because many of the botanical and zoological artefacts mixed in with Trockel’s own work are dead.

The Cameraman’s Revenge is a 1912 film by Wladyslaw Starewicz that shows dead beetles brought back to life by the magic of stop-motion. The plot is loopy: a beetle goes to a nightclub called The Gay Dragonfly because “the dancer there understood him.” She is the club’s namesake and an extra-marital affair ensues. 

This is just one of the curiosities in Trockel’s “cabinet.” Inspired by the German idea of the wunderkammer (wonder room), she rejects hierarchical distinctions between fine art, outsider art, and craft. The latter has been historically demoted and labelled feminine, and here Trockel takes issue.

Many of her own works are explicitly feminist, such as Replace Me (2011), a digital print of Courbet’s The Origin of the World (1866), in which a tarantula conceals the nude’s pubic region.

Others are more subtle. I See Darkness (2011) is one of the wool series for which Trockel is best known. Black yarn is stretched across a square of white perspex in vertical lines which, from far away, create the illusion of a monochrome painting. Up close, the yarn doesn’t stretch all the way; it is truncated. Weaving was traditionally women’s work. 

Cologne-based Trockel, 60, has mostly defied the market imperative to reproduce a signature style of art. Her range is baffling - from a doomed-looking armchair called Atheismus (Atheism) (2007) to abstract painting.

Other artists’ work – notably, a creepy doll by Morton Bartlett – are included in her own installations, echoing themes of simulated life.

These themes remain loose, however. The experience of visiting this exhibition is akin to wandering around the attic of an eccentric relative whose fetishes span 19 century blown-glass jelly-fish and dismembered mannequins.

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