“The artist’s home and studio were stacked with his artworks, cast-off items, including three broken refrigerators with the doors still attached. A separate storage room was piled to the ceiling with jumbled junk, more artworks, damaged electrical cords and worn-out clothing.” More
The exhibition at New Museum (NYC) conjures an imaginary universe in which Trockel’s own artwork shares space with objects and artifacts, spanning different eras and cultures, that map her artistic interests.
Since the early 1970s, Rosemarie Trockel has produced an impressive body of work that includes drawing, collage, installation, “knit paintings,” ceramics, videos, furniture, clothing, and books. She brings together a range of associations and references from art history, philosophy, theology, and the natural sciences. For “A Cosmos,” Trockel places her work in the company of others whom she regards as kindred spirits. Installations created for the New Museum illuminate the intellectual and formal connections between her practice and a range of historical figures including self-taught artists James Castle and Morton Bartlett, and the botanist/mathematician José Celestino Mutis. Objects whose impetus was primarily aesthetic will be juxtaposed with pieces that more conventionally belong to the realm of science. Trockel’s roughhewn glazed ceramics from the past several years will be displayed along with Leopold and Rudolph Blaschka’s delicate glass models of sea creatures created in the nineteenth century. A selection of new work by Trockel can be examined in conjunction with watercolors by the seventeenth-century artist Maria Sybilla Merian, whose impeccably precise yet beautiful renderings of flora and fauna proved invaluable to scientific study.
Henri Pierre Roché, Marcel Duchamp’s Studio, c. 1916-18. Courtesy Jean-Jacques Lebel.
Elena Filipovic / A Museum That is Not
One could say that everything begins and ends in Marcel Duchamp’s studio. His first New York studio is perhaps best known from a series of small and grainy photos, some of them out of focus. They were taken sometime between 1916 and 1918 by a certain Henri-Pierre Roché, a good friend of Duchamp. Roché was a writer, not a professional photographer, clearly. He was the same guy who would go on to write Jules et Jim, arguably a far better novel than these are photographs. But their aesthetic quality was not really what mattered. Duchamp was attached to those little pictures. He kept them and went back to them years later, working on them and then leaving them out for us like his laundry in the picture. Or like clues in a detective novel.
There isn’t a single photograph among them that shows his studio (which was also his home, in this case) cleaned up. Duchamp’s drawers are open, his shoes and pillows are strewn across the floor, dust has collected in the corners. The supposed cold conceptualist, the guy who epilated his entire body because he seemed not to like the unkemptness of body hair (and requested that his partner at the time consider doing the same), the artist of the industrially produced readymades—lives in a pigsty.1 This is not the first nor will it be the last of many Duchampian paradoxes. Still, Duchamp’s sense of housekeeping and the dust that he bred in his apartment is not so much my point as is his arrangement of objects. While he might live with a mess, everything also has its place. The small photographs reveal that the shiny porcelain urinal on view is not in the bathroom (although there might be another one there), or even tucked in a corner—it’s hung over a doorway. The disorder of the room might appear careless, except that a urinal simply doesn’t get up there by accident. Duchamp’s snow shovel is not casually leaning against a wall waiting for use—it is suspended from the ceiling. And his coatrack lies inconveniently and ridiculously in the middle of the room, nailed to the floor. Selected objects in chosen positions.
Remember, this is sometime around 1917, several years after the artist first started to bring everyday objects into his studio. Back then, he had a Paris atelier, which his sister cleaned up when the artist moved to New York, throwing the first readymades into a dustbin, where she innocently thought they belonged…
What in Hecate’s name is Sleep No More? A dance-theater horror show? A wordless, nonlinear mash-up of Macbeth and the darker psychosexual corners of Hitchcock? A six-story Jazz Age haunted house for grown-ups and anyone who’s ever entertained sick cineast-y fantasies of living inside a Kubrick movie? ’Tis all these, and more besides: a deed without a name, to quote an infernal authority. (Also: ’tis sold-out, but set to extend, so get your trigger finger ready.) The UK’s Punchdrunk theater collective — famed for these sorts of immersive, site-specific experiments back on their native sod — has finally brought Sleep to the city that never does, and now, most certainly, won’t: The show infects your dreams.
Sleep allows its “guests” great freedom. Presented with a bone-white Venetian beak mask (the kind favored by plague doctors in the Renaissance), you’re invited to gawk, shame-free, at whatever you see, to rifle through drawers, files, Rolodexes, and even coffins. You and your fellow voyeurs, enskulled in your morbid headgear, quickly become part of the creepy scenery. More to the point, you’re a ghost. (N.B.: This doesn’t exempt you from actor contact — in fact, you’re practically guaranteed to be interfered with at some point in the approximately three hours it takes to survey the space and absorb the long arc of the story.) Fending for yourself in the fictional “McKittrick Hotel” (a pointed Vertigo reference that dizzy or claustrophobic types should take to heart before booking), you’re given the run of six misty, intricately detailed floors, with more than 100 rooms full of (and this is a partial list) clues, red herrings, hair samples, teeth scattered like gaming dice, magic spells, animal bones in carefully labeled bins, a mass of old-fashioned desk fans that turn on and off at random, rotary-dial phones that have actual dial tones, grisly private eye photos of corpses, bloodstains that appear and disappear, patchy ad hoc taxidermy posed for maximal menace, and a ballroom stalked by moving trees. And all the while, you’re carried on perfectly modulated aural swells of Bernard Herrmann pastiche, courtesy of sound designer Stephen Dobbie.
Along the way, you’re guaranteed to stumble on what Punchdrunk’s directors, designers, and choreographers (Felix Barrett, Maxine Doyle, Livi Vaughan, and Beatrice Minns) refer to as “situations”: a man who may or may not be Duncan, right king of Scotland, being murdered in a sheikh’s tent. A gelid blonde who may or may not be Mrs. Danvers from Hitchcock’s Rebecca — here in loyal service to Lady Macbeth — spooning milky poison down the gullet of a soused, super-pregnant woman who very well might be Lady Macduff. The presumed Lady Macbeth herself is poised above her bloody bathtub, or climbing a mountain of antique furniture like a rabid ape. (Maxine Doyle’s wall-crawling choreography — two parts parkour to one part The Fly — helps the actors doff their humanity with ease; their sexuality, however, remains fixatingly intact.) And then there’s Macbeth himself, conjuring the Weird Sisters in a strobe-lit demon disco. “If it’s all too much,” a docent tells you at the beginning, “there’s always the bar.” I made use of it.
The show’s influences spider far beyond the Bard and Hitch: Players of puzzle-horror first person video games like BioShock will find the Sleep experience highly gratifying (and the notion of becoming a camera highly familiar). The amateur cryptographers of Lost will be be similarly pleased, as will the Escherheads who fetishized Inception. “Did I do it right?” I wondered afterward, having realized I’d missed half the plot points my fellow travelers had stumbled upon — and they’d, in turn, missed half the things I’d seen. Upon reflection, though, I don’t think there’s a right or wrong way. (If you’re interested in a strong story, though, I’d recommend you follow a specific actor, especially when someone plunges out of a room with purpose.) But this is the nonsense math of nightmares, a perfect Chinese box that invites you to look for solutions that seem designed, never to come fully into focus. I’d recommend a quick skim of Macbeth if you’re really interested in the whodunit aspect; full enjoyment of the atmospherics, though, requires no cramming whatsoever.
I’ve felt theater overwhelm me before, but until last Tuesday, I’ve never felt it pass through me. At the end of my story, a witch-queen in a red dress found me rifling through her study, held out her hand, and whisked me down to the ballroom, just in time for the climactic execution. It was a lovely evening in hell, one I’ll be recovering from for some time.
Text by Scott Brown