Dieter Roth: Diaries at Camden Arts Centre

Dieter RothThe Dieter Roth that visitors meet at Camden Arts Centre is an oblivious artist, the retrospective of the German-Swiss native, reveals an unknowing creative. This sense is particularly clear in Solo Scenes, 1997-8, a collection of videos of the artist ‘at work’ displayed in the last room. These videos track Roth’s movements in the final two years of his career; by which point you would have thought, Dieter would visibly hold the posture of an artist, but he doesn’t. He still seems entirely unaware, and in front of these my suspicions were raised about the functions of his work, and the attitude he had towards being an artist.

Each video in Solo Scenes runs on an old television set sat in an MDF scaly structure and is a living self-portrait. On the whole, Dieter is seen at a desk either in Hamburg or Iceland, making a note of one thing or another. He is always doing, rarely sleeping, but hardly ever obviously making, and crucially, he never catches the camera’s eye. Even when the camera moves to a close-up in an act of inspection, he remains nothing but consumed by his task, and as such they fail to become introspections. He is completely absorbed in the rhythm of his self-made routine: a routine of recording his living.

Nothing significant happens in these videos, their pace is slow and considered. The artist steadily makes, does, documents. To me then, Solo Scenes and the other most dominant series in the show – Flat Waste – both bring to light a man who created work as a self-satisfying activity rather than to be and be sold as art. Facing these records, it looks as though the artist was motivated by the purpose routine gives people, as his son Björn suggested in an interview about the body of work. Björn felt that his father used Solo Scenes specifically as a means of distracting himself from the threat of death.

In all the work in the exhibition, it is the process of creating that dominates the character of the work. Some would go as far to say that the majority of Diaries is only a work in progress. However, these are more than just evidence of a compulsive collector, Roth hoards ideas. They are evidence both of a creative at work and an everyday man, a man who has to sometimes simple sustain himself, on cigarettes and apples, as the files of Flat Waste store testament to. Then there’s the Old Bali Tischmatten (Tablemats), which are tattered rectangles of chipboard, tattooed with ideas, thoughts, impressions; hung up against the wall like a mural to the workings of Roth’s brain. More than just hoarding the left overs of life, these repetitive tasks are the hoarding of sparks of inspiration.

It’s unclear whether Dieter Roth was attempting to make the mundane appear more significant by recording them, or whether the various forms of diaries exhibited at Camden Arts Centre had simply become a ritual by which he allowed himself time to let ideas be found and stewed. I think it would be fair to admit that it does feel that Dieter Roth spent a long time making something out of nothing. However, it would be foolish to say that artists in general do anything but this.


Dieter Roth, Diaries is on at Camden Arts Centre until 14 July:

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