File Note 79: Dieter Roth - Camden Art Centre

Essays by Sean Ashton and Gina Buenfeld



Solo Scenes Images References Quote Biography Credits

Solo Scenes

If I were to answer your question of what I did today by saying that I got up at eight-thirty, went to the toilet, made my breakfast and cleaned my teeth; that later, before starting work, I went through the usual procrastinations of making a tower out of the small change that lay on my desk, with the largest coins at the bottom and the smallest on top; that at some point around twelve I knocked over a cup of tea; that afternoon found me shuffling from one room to another on various domestic pretexts I’ve since forgotten; that at four-fifteen I changed the ink cartridge on my printer then did my exercises, showered, put on my clothes and came here to meet you—if, instead of telling you what was most interesting, most eventful about my day, I simply told you everything and left you to decide, would that be acceptable? 

This, I feel, is how Dieter Roth gives us his day in Solo Scenes (1997–98). I exaggerate slightly, but I must try to do in prose what he achieves in video—to emulate what Andrea Büttner calls ‘the language of a singular private life, a language of anti-ambition’.1 During the last year of his life, Roth set up video cameras in his home and in his studios in Iceland, Switzerland and Germany, allowing them to record whatever occurred. The unedited footage is shown on 131 screens stacked on three shelving units. What do they show? They show Roth existing. I use that verb because I think we are meant to look, not at the particular activities he’s engaged in, but at their human cause. I go so far as to say that we’re meant to forget that the protagonist is a person named ‘Dieter Roth’. This is particularly evident at those moments when he appears to become nothing but a body, a living appendage of his environment, when he is seen looking up from his book and staring into space, squatting on the toilet, waiting for the hot water tap to warm up, eating, sleeping, loitering in hallways. Domestic scenes are juxtaposed with those that show him about his artistic business, reminding us that the hands that wield the tools of his trade—his Pentel pens and his hole-punch—are the same hands that prepared his breakfast, picked up the phone or unzipped his trousers to take what might well have been the quarter-millionth piss of his life. I’m not being facetious: the poignancy of Solo Scenes lies in our knowing that, with just a few months to live, there would only be so many ablutions taken, so many lunches consumed, so many strokes of the pen performed by Dieter Roth. Roth was famously loath to discriminate between artistic and non-artistic activity, and there is a sense of him upping the ante here. ‘Was he only making solo scenes or was he also recording his final moments?’ 2 Dieter’s son, Björn, asked himself on viewing the first ten videotapes of Solo Scenes. Whatever, the recording was done neutrally, without sentiment, with a detached interest in his own animality, as though Roth had come to regard himself, not so much as an artist as an artistic organism that just happened to have assumed human form.

For all his volubility as a diarist, Roth was suspicious of language’s ability to transparently represent thought. There is only ‘saying’, only iteration:

…what we say is only what we say. What I’m saying now, it’s not even certain that I have thought it. It’s just what I’m saying now. Who knows what people think…You can’t know at all. At the most, you can see what you say, and not even that: when you say something, then you’ve only heard it again. You don’t really know what you’re saying: you have to hear it. 3

 There were three stages to Roth’s diary-keeping: one book for appointments, ‘what I have to do, and what I believe I have to do’; another ‘where I write down what happened on particular days, where I’ve been and what I saw, which people I met, which books I’ve read’; and a third in which Roth tried to reflect more rigorously on his cultural diet—for example, ‘what I think of [Georges] Simenon, or what I experience when I read [him]’. This last stage was the hardest. ‘I’ve only described a couple of days this year so extensively’,4 Roth admits in an interview with Irmelin Lebeer-Hossmann. Perhaps Solo Scenes represents a fourth stage, one embarked on in the face of language’s impotence. Though adequate for reflecting on past events, language had somehow failed to document the continuity of human existence. It’s possible that Roth saw in video the possibility for a different kind of writing, one that, rather than reflecting on past events, could keep pace with them as they unfolded in real time.

But ‘events’ isn’t the right word to describe what happens in Solo Scenes. Experience consists not just of events, but of the preludes and aftermaths, the preludes to the preludes, the aftermaths of the aftermaths. Where events begin and end is unclear, and it is this penumbral space that much of Roth’s work occupies. Solo Scenes might be classed as rhopography: the study of the overlooked. As Norman Bryson has suggested, rhopography can only operate on the quotidian. If it focuses on the significant it becomes ‘megalography’. Megalography tends, in its favouring of the spectacular, towards scopophilia. What stops, say, Juan Sánchez Cotán’s paintings of fruit from being scopophilic is that the object of the gaze is treated literally rather than symbolically. Where the rhopographer tries to depict the essence of fruit, the scopophile embellishes it into something else—a signifier of sexual fecundity, for instance. The rhopographer is a chaste disciple of things-in-themselves; the scopophile a promiscuous peddler of subtext.

Rhopography doesn’t edit, since to do so is to assign more significance to some things than others. It must be objective, diplomatic even, in its desire to give everything equal weighting. In order to do this, it must empty out meaning, ‘[pitching] itself’, in Bryson’s words, ‘at a level of material existence where nothing exceptional occurs’.5 In order to foreground the routineness of existence, there must be a ‘wholesale eviction of event’.6 Solo Scenes gives this inanition a temporal dimension, presenting unedited footage of one man’s unexceptional ‘material existence’. Roth’s video document is defiantly literal in its determination to offer nothing but a kind of bare human facture, one that reminds me of these lines from T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets: 

Or as, when an underground train, in the tube,
stops too long between stations
And the conversation rises and slowly fades to silence
And you see behind every face the mental emptiness deepen
Leaving only the growing terror of nothing to think about 7 

The ‘terror’ and ‘mental emptiness’ Eliot describes arises from being left with nothing but the body—nothing but the thing we all share. Carol Ann Duffy glimpses it too in I Remember Me, when the speaker, addressing her reflection in a mirror, comes to the conclusion that ‘It must be dreams that make us different, must be/ private cells inside a common skull.’ 8

Both poets are concerned with the conflict between the personal and the universal. Artworks usually aim at a synthesis of the two, but most end up foregrounding either the idiosyncratic individualism of the ‘private cell’ or the affinity of the ‘common skull’. Perhaps Roth saw himself as making the first kind of work, but something in him—I believe—always tended to deliver the second. The diary was the space in which one impulse counteracted the other, and Solo Scenes, his last major work, is the clearest demonstration of this.


Throughout his lifetime, Dieter Roth worked with obsessive energy — his prolific output included installation, sculpture, drawing, video, assemblage and books. This selection of diaries and other works reveal that for Dieter Roth there was no separation between art and his relentless and impassioned engagement with life.  

Alongside Solo Scenes (1997–98), a poignant and significant autobio-graphical document discussed here by Sean Ashton, the exhibition provides rare access to Roth’s personal diaries—the intimate books in which he made plans, recorded things that had happened as well as more meditative reflections, and a place where he kept ideas, drawings, photographs and poems. In 1974, Roth began to develop a series of works titled Old Bali Tischmatten (1974–1984) which, like his diaries, were sites for impulsive mark-making, urgent thoughts or ideas, attaching photographs and other found images.

Roth often worked in series, where works emerged from a common procedure progressively amassed, inscribing the passage of time spanned by their production. Flat Waste (1975–76 ⁄ 1992) is a large installation of ring binders containing the detritus of everyday life, archived by Roth with only one guiding principle: everything must be flatter than ‘two or three sixteenths of an inch’. With its all-inclusive reach, it recorded the vagaries of Roth’s life: things ordinarily discarded; wrappings of food consumed; receipts of things bought or traces of his daily activities. The process of degradation symbolised by waste materials underlines Roth’s attention to life’s compelling forces—creation and decay, impermanence and the ultimate disappearance of life.

Just as collected images were introduced into his diaries, found objects were incorporated in other works as well, a sign of the inseparability of art and life that propelled his production. In a group of large-scale paintings, Clothes Pictures (1984–87), the shape and texture of the artist’s body is suggested only by the clothes he once wore glued to the canvas. Roth’s body was often obscured from his self-portraits and in the Clothes Pictures, these auxiliary traces of his existence represent an elusive, unstable identity and the ever shifting subjectivity he spoke of, as a Swiss-German domiciled in Iceland, living an itinerant life.


1 Andrea Büttner, ‘Of this I would have been shy not more than a year ago’, Dieter Roth: Diaries (Edinburgh: Fruitmarket Gallery, 2012) p.81.

2 Björn Roth, ‘Solo Scenes, The Last Year, The Last Work’, ibid., p.134.

3 Interview with Irmelin Lebeer-Hossmann (Stuttgart, 1979), ibid., p.156.

4 Ibid., pp.157-58.

5 Norman Bryson, Looking at the Overlooked: Four Essays on Still Life Painting (London: Reaktion Books, 2001), p.61.

6 Ibid. 

7 T.S. Eliot, ‘East Coker III’, Four Quartets (New York: Harcourt, 1943).

8 Carol Ann Duffy, ‘I Remember Me’, Selected Poems (London: Penguin, 1994), p.12.

Selected by Björn Roth

Dieter was an omnivore of literature, music and visual media. The main reason for this, I think, was his respect for others’ efforts (whether he liked them or not), their enthusiasm, and a lifelong routine of sleeping for only three hours a day, that handed him so much time for studies, while others slept.

This maybe explains the strange range of his likes: from Schubert’s string quartets to Brahms to Monk’s jazz; from Samuel Johnson’s collected works and 18th-Century French diaries, to American detective stories and Icelandic late poetry; from the banal films of Marx Brothers and W.C. Fields to Dieter’s own depressed film projects.

 ‘I believe diaries are primarily an attempt to register a complaint, a shrill howl of complaint. As loud and as penetrating as possible to invoke crying, you know; that people bawl and cry when they read it. For me, it’s about empathy, this lament’ Dieter Roth


Dieter Roth (b. 1930, Hanover, d. 1998, Basel) spent his childhood in Germany and adolescence in Switzerland before moving to Copenhagen and later Iceland where he married and had three children. After separating from his wife he met and settled with Dorothy Iannone in 1967. Roth participated in documenta 4 and 7, Kassel (1968 and 1982) and represented Switzerland at the 1982 Venice Biennale. He has exhibited widely including at: Hamburg Kunstverein (1974); Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago (1984); Vienna Secession (1995); and since his death, Roth Time—A Dieter Roth Retrospective, touring to Schaulager, Basel, Switzerland; Museum Ludwig, Cologne, Germany and Museum of Modern Art, PS1 Contemporary Art Center, New York (2003/04); Dieter Roth: Lest ⁄ Train, Reykjavík Art Museum, Reykjavík, Iceland (2005); Dieter Roth, Martin Kippenberger, Hauser & Wirth Coppermill, London (2006); His books, posters and other publications, Museu Serralves, Porto, Portugal (2008); Dieter Roth Das Tränenmeer, Kunsthalle Luzern, Lucern, Switzerland (2010); Rot – Roth – Ròt, Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven, Netherlands (2011); and Dieter Roth— Selbste, Aargauer Kunsthaus, Aarau, Switzerland and Museum der Moderne Mönchsberg, Salzburg, Austria (2011/12). The Dieter Roth Foundation houses the archive and museum of Roth’s work in Hamburg. The Dieter Roth Estate is represented by Hauser & Wirth.


Solo Scenes
Sean Ashton is a writer living in London

Gina Buenfeld is Exhibitions Organiser at Camden Art Centre

Supported by Pro Helvetia Swiss Arts Council