Conversation with artist Thomas Rentmeister

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At first I didn’t find Thomas Rentmeister at all, as I entered the old industrial space that the artist uses as a studio in Berlin-Weißensee on a warm summer day. I made my way past a number of tables with globs of different brown substances on them (it wasn’t until later that I learned this was Croatian Nut-Nougat paste that Rentmeister was testing as a material for an exhibition in a Zhagreb museum) and finally found him, sunk behind a keyboard and professional sound computer, ears covered by headphones. He was following his great passion: electronic music. Possibly it is this cool hobby, among other things, that makes him so popular with his students at the University of Visual Arts Braunschweig (and previously the University of Arts Berlin). Though this could just as easily be due to his modest and sincere nature. In any case, it was a true pleasure for me to meet a man that had made a name for himself in the art world with spectacular art actions. Who had, for example, piled up sugar by the ton to form a dune, from which nothing emerged but the handle of a shopping cart. Or who walled up all the windows in a gallery with blocks of styrofoam, using nutella for mortar. Over the course of several visits I was able to learn a number of things about the background of these unusual pieces, discover the place in which they are created, and follow the artist through his daily routine.

CFL: What’s the best piece of art you have ever made?

Thomas: That was coffee cups in 1985. I had just started studying at the time. I had thirty-four cylindrical cups that you could stack into one another. You would know the kind from hospitals or youth hostels. I set them up along a wall and filled them with black coffee. And then, going from cup to cup, I filled a slightly larger amount of milk into each one. This created a color gradient moving from black to light brown. I was never able to reach that level of quality again [laughs].

CFL: Where did you get the inspiration to work with food?

Thomas: It wasn’t primarily a conceptual idea, to be working with food now. There was simply this coffee cup idea.  It probably had something to do with my grandmother. She always loved drinking coffee and always gave us some, too, when we were kids. She always put a lot of sugar in her coffee. I did it the same way for a long time, but eventually lost the habit. I think without my grandmother that coffee piece would not have happened. My grandmother’s coffee always had this special color. It couldn’t be too light or too dark.

CFL: Was this your first piece using food?

Thomas: That same year, before starting school, I did something with gummy bears. Then there was that sugar piece, that was also before 1985. But even then I wasn’t really thinking about food so much, rather than simply materials and objects. To me it was more about everyday things, food itself wasn’t so important. It was simply material that had certain properties that other materials didn’t have. I mean, look at gummy bears, where else can you find a consistency like that? It’s really pretty particular.

CFL: Does the impermanence of such materials play a role for you?

Thomas: Maybe, but the decomposing quality of materials has been more of a nuisance to me than anything. I would prefer if things were more permanent. I would have just as easily put polyester or paint into those cups. On the one hand. On the other hand it did have to be real coffee. That was important. It is a charged material after all, that you associate a taste, a memory with.

CFL: Food is generally pretty charged with significance. They are deep, existential levels on which food appeals to people. So you can’t quite escape these in your work?

Thomas: Well, it depends. In any case, the food aspect is not the focus. I’m primarily concerned with materials that have a certain sculptural quality. Nutella, for example, the way it lies on the floor.

That I used food in large amounts really started with Nutella. The Nutella pieces directly followed my polyester pieces that I made in the nineties. It was these blob-shaped, high-polished round shapes. At the time many people said it reminded them of nougat pralines or of some kind of chocolate nuggets. That annoyed me a bit. I wanted my art to be strange and agitating, not reminding people of pralines. Eventually there was a turning point, like a switch got flipped. The result was my starting to work with Nutella as a material sculpturally.

There was this small Nutella piece in 1999. I hung a plastic shelf on the wall and covered it with Nutella using a butter knife. I caught some flak from a whole number of people for that, telling me to stick to my guns. Polyester sculptures – got it. But that’s just not interesting. So I worked with Nutella all the more. Later I added other materials to the mix: chips, sugar, but also Penaten creme.

CFL: When you select materials, does it play any role whether they’re mass-produced?

Thomas: That’s exactly the part that interests me. This serial quality, stemming from minimal art. Coffee cups or what have you. That’s pretty important.

CFL: Is your work also critical?

Thomas: I’m not really a political artist. But 2001 in Ludwigshafen, in the context of an exhibition dedicated to Aldi and discount in art I bought three thousand packs of cold cuts, that cheap stuff, “Zimbo” or whatever it’s called. As colorful as possible. Ranging from dark red ham to light red mini-sausages. And all these cold cuts I dumped on the floor and arranged them in a lentil shape.

That piece was clearly about showing how disgusting all this stuff is when it’s packaged. Between the individual cold cuts you often have this piece of plastic. That’s some serious horror material if you think about it. With every slice of cold cut, you throw out a piece of plastic.

CFL: What happens to the materials at the end of the exhibition?

Thomas: They’re disposed of, thrown away. I’ve had a ton of Nutella standing in my studio for over a year, and still had to throw it out eventually. In the end, it is material that you can only use temporarily and that only serves the purpose of exhibition. The sugar dune was thrown out eventually as well. But before that it was exhibited in seven different institutions, so it was definitely worth it.

CFL: Does that mean these types of pieces are not intended for permanent museum exhibition?

Thomas: Well, if a museum buys them, they get set up again. But a collection like that is typically changed around every two years. And then the materials simply  get disposed of. I mean, where would you want to store them? You have to rebuy the whole thing if you want to set it up again.

CFL: So, effectively it’s the idea of the concept that the buyer acquires?

Thomas: Well, the big Nutella image and the big Penaten image are prime examples. Both of them were installed for Bonn and disposed of afterwards. Currently a collector is interested in that piece. If he buys it, he receives a certificate that specifies with which dimensions it has to be set up and installed. A thing that’s no problem at all for big art collectors. Whether you transport a Richard Serra for 10,000 euros or you have to remake a Nutella image for 10,000 euros  – it really doesn’t make much of a difference.

CFL: Does it give you a bad conscience throwing away such large amounts of food?

Thomas: Not at all, zero! After the cold cut piece, I got an e-mail from a twelve year old school girl. Pretty penetrant, constantly sending me reminders. Because of me, a pig had to die, or half of one. She sent me the e-mail again and again, every couple of days. Total psycho terror. Eventually I responded to her and explained to her how I see things.

CFL: And what did you write to her?

Thomas: I can’t remember exactly, but something like I felt it was justified to use food for art and that she might understand one day. I’ll be glad to show you the e-mail later, I still have it somewhere.

CFL: And how do you see it? What’s your relation to wastefulness?

Thomas: It’s such a small amount, three thousand packs of cold cuts, in relation to the amount of food that’s destroyed every day. I’m talking about deliberate destruction, as is done to keep prices stable, for example. When I, as an artist, work with such materials and create one or two installations a year, then I find this absolutely justifiable.

CFL: So would you say that the effect your pieces have on the consciousness of the percipient outweigh the material loss?

Thomas: Yes, for sure. I mean, the pieces live on in images, texts and memories. So the use of food items that they’re based on is in no way a waste.

CFL: In any case, it beckons the questions why people get upset about pieces involving food. What’s the thought behind this perspective of not having permission to waste food?

Thomas: I’m sure that has to do with our system of moral values, first and foremost. What makes food interesting is its proximity to people. Its elementary importance. And that’s why food is important for art. It’s as simple as that! That’s the same reason why refrigerators are interesting as artistic material, as they’re the place where food lives.

CFL: Does art bare a certain responsibility in your eyes?

Thomas: Of course! Art has to be good. The only true responsibility is that you can’t make bad art. You can’t lie to yourself. Of course you can say that good art is in some form always political or always deals with some kind of philosophical, societal topics. But this is often not the original intent.

CFL: And would you say that in those cases the focus lies much more on developing ways of how things should be or to show how things truly are?

Thomas: It’s more than just showing. Art is meant to find something out, something like truth. But it’s not art’s job to say: don’t waste food or don’t package food in plastic.

CFL: How could its job be described then?

Thomas: I don’t know. In the end, an artistic piece just is what it is. When I arrange these packs of cold cuts on the floor, then it’s not more and not less than that I lay out three thousand packs of cold cuts, period. Everything else is speculation and talk, in the purest sense of the word.

CFL: …which doesn’t need to be a bad thing…

Thomas: And, really, that’s what art is there for, in some sense! For people to talk about. I mean, it’d never cross my mind to make art on a lonely island. In the end, art is created for communicative purposes. The audience is very important.

CFL: That means that on the one side you can create a piece as an artist and on the other side, as the viewer, be part of the discussion concerning this piece?

Thomas: Well. I can tell anecdotes about my own pieces, I can talk about how they came to be. This is something that puts me ahead of certain other people, that I was present for the act of creation of my pieces. But in everything that goes beyond that, I’m only one of many. As an artist I make facts, and those facts emanate their effect into the world.

CFL: So onto you as well.

Thomas: Onto me as well, yes.

CFL: That means, as an artist you could make pieces from materials that, from another perspective, you question because you have a critical view on how that material is typically handled?

Thomas: I can easily understand when people say, I don’t throw away bread. That is also a symbolic act. I do the same thing. I also eat dry bread. It’s a question of respect. It’s like turning off the water while you’re brushing your teeth. Whether it truly has an effect, I don’t know. But it’s simply a symbolic act I have respect for.

Only when I waste sugar in art, then I do it consciously. I don’t have a bad conscience, when the piece requires being wasteful because otherwise it won’t work. When I need seven tons of sugar, then I go get them. Period.

Text: Ludwig Cramer-Klett
Fotos: Bernd Borchardt und Jörg Hejkal

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