“Today, we should be thinking about the artist…” begins (and to some degree, ends) every exhibition at the Artist’s Institute, a downtown project space sponsored by Hunter College. Twice a year, the jewel-box-sized gallery devotes a show to one artist, and this semester the gallery dedicated itself to the work of Rosemarie Trockel. Trockel is the type of contemporary artist that you have to think about a lot to get a grip on her thirty-year career and its vast archive of drawings, videos, photographs and sculpture. She is not an easy read.
Rosemarie Trockel, Less sauvage than others, 2007 (installation view); image courtesy the Artist's Institute.
Yet the Artist’s Institute caters to this type of mind stretch simply by not stuffing the Lower East Side storefront full of Trockel’s work. Instead they pare the exhibition down to one art object and a small white room in which to sit, read, and think about the artist. It’s a gallery of one’s own, in a sense, where the visitor isn’t told what to think or do (look at art, read wall text, repeat). Here is a space free of distractions, with a shelf stocked with books, magazines, photocopies of articles and other reading material, and, of course, that one art object by Trockel.
That work is Less sauvage than others (2007), a disembodied plaster head wrapped in a scarf and resting on a metal platform. There is no information accompanying the work, just the title scrawled in pencil on the wall. The face is hollow and haunting, its features colorless and practically invisible with the scarf cinched low on the forehead and pinned at the back of the neck. Its pedestal—or “body”—is rough and heavy. The scarf suggests the head belongs to a delicate sort, imparting a cheeky pairing with the rough-hewn table.
Rosemarie Trockel, Less sauvage than others, 2007; image courtesy the Artist's Institute.
The work is mysterious and dense until you begin to shuffle through the reading material at the front of the gallery. As I skimmed catalogues and articles, Trockel’s past work and interests emerged. For decades, she has considered questions of sexual identity and the body, often by taking it apart and never putting it back together again. Less sauvage than others takes on much bigger significance through this lens, perhaps more than it should, as every detail of Trockel’s oeuvre becomes a clue. This is active looking and, in part, what makes the Artist’s Space such an interesting concept. The viewer has to make or find his or her own way. The result is a perspective on the work that is self-made instead of imbibed from wall text or an artist’s statement.
Yet the first time I visited the gallery, I felt disoriented. I didn’t know what to do, what to look at, whether to sit down or stand. Free agency can be prickly. It points out how dependent we are as viewers on being told what to look at and what to think about it. Eventually I figured out what to do, or perhaps more fittingly, I did something. I certainly thought about Trockel, but the results were more questions, more puzzlement. There is value in being lost, which many exhibitions to their detriment take great pains to avoid, over-explaining and mapping every corner. There is a middle way, one where a show’s signposts aren’t billboards but provide moments of relief and gentle hints toward a way home; something, perhaps, for the Artist’s Institute to consider.