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What Is it Like to Be What You Are Not? Rosemarie Trockel's Diverse Practice

A survey at Moderna Museet Mälmo shows how the artist has insistently challenged notions surrounding authenticity, identity and selfhood

In a rear gallery of Moderna Museet’s turbine hall, a handwritten note on a sheet of A6 paper asks: ‘What is it like to be what you are not?’ It’s a difficult question – one that cannot be definitively answered – and it sits at the core of Rosemarie Trockel’s exhibition, ‘The Same Different’. The show’s title appears in the same note, enclosed in a rectangle and triple-underlined as if offered in response.

Curated by Iris Müller-Westermann, Trockel’s show hinges on how we might inflect this phrase, which is to say: how we negotiate the tension between its terms. In this somewhat austere presentation, the majority of works – spanning 30 years and including videos, ceramics, prints and yarn-stretched canvases – are displayed in pairs, a didactic device that’s surprisingly effective in inviting comparison not only between groupings, but among the various originals, reproductions, sketches and completed works on view.

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Rosemarie Trockel, A Day in Bed, 2018, Courtesy: the artist and Sprüth Magers, Berlin/London/Los Angeles © Rosemarie Trockel

Simultaneously, however, the exhibition makes clear that, in Trockel’s case, such distinctions are dubious. Take Lucky Devil (2012): a stack of square pieces of fabric torn from the artist’s iconic machine-knit paintings, which have been encased in a Perspex cube topped with a king crab. Nowhere is this ambiguity as to original and reproduction more obvious than in two huge, monochrome, hand-knit paintings that are shown alongside their respective ‘studies’: After the Hunt (2013) and Till the Cows Come Home (2016). Rendered in a shade evoking Yves Klein’s International Klein Blue and knitted by Trockel’s long-term collaborator, Helga Szentpétery, the latter evidences its making through subtle variations in the stitch. These traces of manual labour inscribe the female body and authorship in ways that trouble the French artist’s ‘Anthropometry’ (1960–61) series, for which he used women’s naked bodies as paintbrushes. What is it to be what you are not, just so.

Other concerns play out in two large-scale photomontages: Cluster III – Death, So Adjustable (2015) and Cluster – One Eye Too Many (2018). These tight arrangements of framed prints – works in their own right, from snapshots to screenshots, documentation to collage – dominate the main hall. Each image could occasion its own essay. Homesick (2017), for instance, is a black and white portrait of a female model (the daughter of Trockel’s German gallerist, Monika Sprüth) donning an earring adorned with the face of philosopher and political theorist Hannah Arendt. A barcode in the picture’s bottom-left corner suggests that the image was appropriated from the cover of a fashion magazine, but an ISBN search yields a 2002 edition of Arendt’s book, The Human Condition. Defamiliarizing tactics such as these are deployed throughout each of the ‘Cluster’ works, as in the exhibition as a whole.

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Rosemarie Trockel, Cluster III - Death, so adjustable, 2015. Courtesy: the artist and Sprüth Magers, Berlin/London/Los Angeles © Rosemarie Trockel

Because it recurs so often, one figure provides a focal point. Adam (1995/2014) shows a person in a wig and suspenders, with an exaggerated spike protruding from their left breast pocket, as though impaled. They appear twice in Cluster III – Death, So Adjustable and re-appear in a rear gallery in the form of a small, untitled gelatin-silver print dated 1995. Although Trockel herself is not pictured, Müller-Westermann refers to this as the artist’s self-portrait, a reading to be taken seriously given the question at hand and the fact that, throughout her career, Trockel has insistently challenged notions surrounding authenticity, identity and selfhood. Following this, Adam dramatizes a violent interrelating of self and other that embodies both at once.

As art historian Anne Wagner notes in an essay from 2001: ‘Trockel puts our assumptions concerning likeness and connection under ironic and questioning stress.’ In this era of increasing polarization and binarism, there are arguably few lines of inquiry more urgent. So, what is it like to be what you are not? Staging empathy, but doing so without offering reconciliation or togetherness, Trockel’s exhibition ingeniously forces us to reframe the question: What is it like to be what you are?

Rosemarie Trockel, 'The Same Different' runs at Moderna Museet Malmö until 3 March 2019.

Main image: Rosemarie Trockel, Yellow Mood (detail), 2013. Courtesy: the artist and Sprüth Magers, Berlin/London/Los Angeles © Rosemarie Trockel

Matthew Rana is an artist and writer living in Malmö.

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