Thomas Rentmeister loves to play with his food. The prominent German artist, in Perth for his first Australian exhibition, makes eccentric gallery installations with potato chips, sugar, flour, chocolate-hazelnut spread and domestic items like refrigerators, tissue boxes and toilet rolls.
Rentmeister, 47, has become a darling of the European art scene over the past 25 years with his signature style dubbed "dirty minimalism", an impure or perverted form of minimalism that blends ideas from surrealism, pop art and conceptual art.
For the past two weeks he has been constructing a great island of whitegoods and other consumer items in the central atrium gallery of the Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts.
A precariously balanced mini-mountain of 80 old fridges, the joints smeared in white nappy-rash ointment, juts roof-wards out of a monochromatic dune of tonnes of salt, flour, sugar, washing powder and jagged outcrops of bleached office paper, plates, shelves, polystyrene and cardboard boxes.
Once you understand that its title, Muda, is the Japanese word for excess or waste, this site-specific collision of objects, food and rooms can take on another level of meaning, though Rentmeister plays all that down.
"For me it is like a kind of 3-D painting," he says while circumnavigating his handiwork.
"It is not about anything specific. It is about those colours, like a big abstract painting. The objects all have an association but how you see those things is changed in the chaos of the structure. It is like a geographical formation, like a mountain from this side, and from this side going down like a landslide."
On a facing wall from Muda hangs a 7m-long chipboard panel, Untitled (Nutella), a signature "monochromatic painting" Rentmeister has daubed with textured peaks and textured layers of nutty brown paste sourced from more than 100 jars of Nutella.
Standing mid-way between the two artworks, gallery visitors can close their eyes and sniff the combined pharmaceutical pungency of the fresh baby cream and the gooey, sickly sweet aroma of the Nutella.
Objects. Food. Rooms. As the title of his PICA exhibition and an accompanying German- Australian book project suggests, the Berlin-based Rentmeister likes to keep things simple.
"Humour is very important but also within a formal seriousness and slickness almost down to the point of being as simple as possible," he says. "Although the forms might look very complex, they are very simple works."
PICA curator Leigh Robb has been helping Rentmeister prepare this exhibition for the past two years in partnership with the Kunstmuseum Bonn. She says Rentmeister works across fields first ploughed by Marcel Duchamp's conceptual ready-mades, Andy Warhol's pop art (in the MoMA show next door at the Art Gallery of WA) and the stripped back minimalism of Donald Judd, Robert Ryman, Robert Morris and Carl Andre.
His distinctive sculptural and installation works play with minimalist traditions but have their own humorous, subversive twists while revealing the beauty of things we normally ignore, Robb says.
"At the heart of Rentmeister's practice is an interest in the mutability and absurd potential of objects and the fact that there are endless, often unimagined possibilities for reinventing humble household goods," she says. "These are all things we use every day but they are completely made unfamiliar and different."
Rentmeister, raised in the German farming district of Westphalia in the 1960s and 70s, completed an art foundation year in Munster before going on to study under German leading lights Gunther Uecker and the Swiss-born Alfonso Huppi at the Kunstakademie in Dusseldorf.
He is now a professor at the Braunschweig University of Art and has exhibited widely in Germany, the Netherlands and France.
A 160-page book on his work includes essays by PICA director Amy Barrett-Lennard and Kunstmuseum Bonn director Stephan Berg. The exhibition is the first time that the Kunstmuseum Bonn has partnered with an Australian organisation.
"Partnering in that way, while PICA is very local, is a way for us to become more visible in the international art scene by combining our resources and allowing Thomas to experiment and to connect people here to the work of an artist who is very well known in Europe," Robb says.
Rentmeister, who helped judge PICA's annual Hatched national graduate during a preparatory visit last year, says he will treasure his time in Perth. "One thing that you take away, wherever you go in the world is relationships," he says. "Hopefully we will stay in contact for the next 20 or 30 years and maybe do another project together."
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