The Fruitmarket Gallery in Edinburgh is currently a sanctuary away from the intensity of the various summer festivals. Last time I was there I saw Martin Creed’s playful exhibition. This year I saw the work of Dieter Roth (1930–1998), a man who saw little separation between art and life, and whose works drew on his own existence. This exhibition, Dieter Roth: Diaries, looks at Roth’s obsessive cataloguing and recording of his daily activities in books, drawings, paintings, sculptures, assemblages and audio-visual installation pieces. This show is the first time Roth’s work has been seen in Scotland since Richard Demarco’s exhibition Strategy Get Art at the 1970 International Festival.
The entire ground level of the Fruitmarket is filled with 128 Cathode ray TV screens forming Roth’s Solo Scenes (1997-8). The gentle curve of the installation allowed me to sit and observe every screen at once. In 1997, with knowledge of his impending death, Roth started to videotape nearly every aspect of his life. Each of the 128 screens shows a different video, in which Roth is the sole protagonist. However this isn’t simply a display of narcissism—instead it feels much more voyeuristic. The camera is utterly still, and the videos are almost entirely silent apart from occasional mutterings. Roth is being judged by the viewer as he is seen pottering around, drawing, naked after a shower, and sitting on the toilet.
The idea of a diary, of planning and recording was extremely important to Roth—he kept one throughout his life. The Fruitmarket displays a number of his diary books, some open—complete with delicate writing, drawings, scribbles—all dog-eared. Upstairs another glass case displays the ‘copybooks’, facsimiles of diary pages, that Roth had made and bound, and gave to friends and relatives. Intimate and mundane articles, shared with others.
The upstairs room of the Fruitmarket also holds one of Roth’s more unusual forms of diary. Between 1975 and ‘76 (and returning to the project in 1992) Roth created a carefully catalogued daily archive of found objects less than 10mm in height. His so-named Flat Waste (1975-6/1992) occupies rows and rows of lever arch files in storage cabinets. Contrasting with the meticulous record is the objects themselves which have an absurd Dadaist or arte-povera feel to them; receipts, napkins, letters, bits of fluff, boxes of film. A few of the folders are open and set up for visitors to turn through. The trust on behalf of the gallery reflects Roth’s own openness and approach to the archive.
Roth believed that by presenting his method to people he could act as a leveller, he abhorred the idea of art that would belittle viewers. This incredibly simple exhibition works because people can understand the artist, and his desire to share. It’s a shame Dieter Roth died in 1998, only a few years before the boom of the web. The art he produced feels very much like an analogue version of the Internet today, and I am sure that he would have greatly enjoyed the advent of the curated self.
Dieter Roth: Diaries is at the Fruitmarket Gallery until the 14th October 2012