Exhibition research often takes curators to archives, museums, private collections, and galleries. These are usually pristine spaces, where voices are hushed, light levels are low, and temperature and humidity are carefully controlled. But I experienced something very different as I investigated the work of Dieter Roth (Swiss, born Germany. 1930–1998), featured in the current exhibition Wait, Later This Will Be Nothing: Editions by Dieter Roth.
Among Roth’s primary interests was decay, a process he often encouraged by using organic materials—cheese, sausage, and, most notably, chocolate—that would break down over time. And so, I spent the last several years comparing examples of Roth’s rotting banana slices, reviewing recipes for Roth’s book sausages, or literaturwursts, and examining crumbling self-portrait busts.
Perhaps my strangest and most memorable visit was to the remains of Roth’s Schimmelmuseum (or Mold Museum) in Hamburg. There, behind a vault door, I came face to face with the proof of Roth’s assertion that “later this would be nothing.” The concrete bunker was filled floor to ceiling with decaying works made of chocolate and sugar. Flies swarmed, the heavy smell of bad sweets hung in the air, and maggots squirmed on partly decomposed blocks of chocolate into which Roth had sunk garden gnomes.
It was a riot of rot, a temple of mold, alive and changing every minute. Later, as I hosed the grime off my shoes, I remember thinking, “that was definitely more fun than an afternoon at the library.”
Of course, museum conservators aren’t as thrilled as Roth was at the idea of a vermin infestation. The care of works made of organic materials offers an interesting challenge, one explored here in our video, Dieter Roth: Staying Fresh.
Be sure to stop in and see Roth’s decaying chocolate masterpieces for yourself. Wait Later This Will Be Nothing: Editions by Dieter Roth is on view at MoMA through June 24.