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The Fruitmarket Gallery’s ambitious Festival exhibition, Dieter Roth, Diaries,running until 14 October, reviews the work and the intellectual tradition of one of Germany’s great late-twentieth century artists.  The Fruitmarket Gallery has also produced a major new publication, Dieter Roth: Diaries, to accompany the exhibition.
Dieter Roth (1930-2012) saw himself as the beaten, hunted, damaged survivor of the horrific Hitler years and his work reflects both visions of chaos and an almost-obsessive search for order.
Throughout his career, Roth kept diaries: not even one diary at a time, but at least three, one noting appointments and plans, one noting what occurred at these and one reflecting on the noted events.  Yet that intensely orderly system went astray and every diary contains doodles, sketches, notes, jests and verses.  Parallel to the diaries was his Flat Waste collection which contained a miscellany of ephemera, all less than 1 cm thick, stored in ring-binders and arranged chronologically.  These folders contained airline tickets, cigarette packets, bottle tops, even deconstruct ted cardboard boxes, all grist to the obsessive collector’s search for material, a haunting view of the detritus of life.
For him the diary was an unmediated artistic medium which eliminated pretension and any competitive ‘trumping’ of other artists.  His statement that he hoped “simply to portray my misery, so that no one had the feeling that I’m bigger or better,” and his conviction that life and art are inseparable, produced some of the wonders of this exhibition.  It also catapults him into a modernist, confessional genre, along with artists such as Louise Bourgeois and Tracey Emin where art is created from the banal and meaningless ephemera of daily life.  Roth’s vision however,  entirely without irony, is rather that of the hunted survivor.
This exhibition invites minute and detailed exploration but two elements stand out.  The double-sided drawings 2 x 97 mutually accusing angel-destroyers and whiny swines (1980) were originally bound in a copybook but now form part of a private collection from which they are on loan to the exhibition.  These 25 abstract portraits which combine self-portraiture with a swine theme, create troubling images of regret, self-denial and, among several, self-loathing.  This is an artist who exposes his life as art but without fondness for himself or for the life he portrays and entirely devoid of vanity.
Perhaps the most imposing and haunting of the works in this exhibition isSolo Scenes.  Solo Scenes was created in 1997-98, the last year of Roth’s life and subsequent to his diagnosis as suffering from a terminal heart condition.  This also is a diary of sorts, comprising 128 monitors which broadcast loops of film of Roth carrying out every-day acts.  These scenes, dressing, drinking coffee, changing the cartridge on his printer, reading, reflecting, drawing, show a frail elderly man, always alone, focused on the seemingly mundane tasks of daily existence.  They are shot in his three bases, Germany, Switzerland and Iceland.  Each monitor is carefully labelled with date and venue.
These scenes illustrate a solitary but determined pursuit of the instincts which had driven Roth’s life.  It is impossible to remain unmoved by his honest, heart-breaking vision of increasing frailty and by his continuing commitment to creating art even from his own mortality.
The above article was first published in Lothian Life on 26 August 2012:

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