Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
September 3, 2020
Katherine Guinness Schizogenesis: The Art of Rosemarie Trockel Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2019. 232 pp.; 44 b/w ills. Paper $30.00 (9781517905583)

Printed sideways, Katherine Guinness’s cover image for Schizogenesis: The Art of Rosemarie Trockel immediately evokes the hypnotic and disorienting effects of Trockel’s art. What appear to be wide-eyed conjoined twins, women with distinctly late-1980s tousled hairstyles, stare out of the image. With one hand stalwartly posed on each hip, they are enclosed within a single, double-headed black sweater. Guinness uses this emblematic work by Trockel, Untitled (Schizo-Pullover) (1988), as her central node. From this knotty intersection she begins to unravel and reknit the entwined narratives of the German artist’s prolific practice.

Guinness’s decision to begin here is savvy. She opens with a compelling discussion of the plain blackness of the sweater, pulling the threads to connect the piece, and by extension Trockel’s larger body of work, outward into various wide-ranging connections that eschew certainty and proffer possibility. Renowned as the first female artist to represent Germany at the Venice Biennale, Trockel has been central to conversations regarding the role of women in art in general and women in German art more specifically. Her multimedia work frequently plays on gendered expectations of procreation in ways that combine irreverence and violent subtext. For example, Trockel is famous for her subversive use of knitting. Many critics interpret her use of textiles foremost as an elevation of women’s craft to the status of high art. Yet, rather than succumbing to this common albeit misleading understanding of Trockel’s practice, Guinness deftly demonstrates the work’s deeper complexity. Since the early 1980s Trockel has used computers for patterned designs and industrial weaving to create pieces ranging from sweaters to balaclavas. Recognizable symbols such as the Playboy Bunny and the Woolmark logo appear often but are disorienting, in spite of their trademark familiarity; as Guinness argues, these and other indices are marks of Trockel’s artworks’ refusal “to become . . . stable, identifiable being[s]” (4). Notably, once the knits became signatures pieces, Trockel stopped making them for many years, only to return later, knitting by hand. In this way, she keeps us perpetually guessing. Guinness takes on the conspicuous challenge of performing close readings of Trockel’s art, leading us along a series of paths that eliminate some (though not all) of the guesswork.

Delving into enigma, Guinness establishes how Trockel’s work signifies “a specific feminist practice, one that interrogates the limits and potentialities of women’s art without essentializing the feminine as a quasi-biological expression of sexual difference” (5). Moreover, according to Guinness, Trockel exemplifies “a new-old feminism, in line with Marxist and materialist feminist theorists” (5). Among Guinness’s many interlocutors, Monique Wittig aligns most intimately with Trockel’s take on feminism, “denying essentialist identity, resisting the constraints of the female body, and seeking out the universal and the neutral” (7). How does Trockel navigate this tricky space? Guinness dubs the process “schizogenesis.” As opposed to the pathological splitting associated with schizophrenia, schizogenic production “mirrors biological events of asexual reproduction” (8). Like the sweatered woman/women on the book’s cover, we have a double/hybrid abiding together—in effect, fission within a singular from. Employing this generative biological metaphor of splitting as creation does wonders for Guinness. With it she is able to move past psychology, circumvent the polarization of the original and the copy, perform a decisively feminist critique, and map the “constellation” (16) that is Trockel’s oeuvre in a convincing and inventive manner.

After setting up her thesis and its underlying theoretical basis in a dense introductory chapter, Guinness proceeds to unpack three archetypal works by Trockel, each serving as the respective leitmotif for the three core chapters to follow. Guinness’s analysis of these central works ricochets out along many winding and unexpected directions, only to be woven together again through surprising connections. Beginning with Trockel’s Untitled (Bardot Box) (1993), the author’s detective work takes one through a matrix of references and deliberate misrecognitions. For example, Brigitte Bardot as B.B. poetically morphs into Bertolt Brecht and back again. Hilarity, horror, and history have played key roles in Trockel’s art across many decades. Guinness unpacks how these aspects both dispel and propagate myths. The artist deconstructs the assumption of motherhood as a female imperative, for example, blending tabloids, historical fact, and literary allusion. Themes of duality, division, and displacement repeatedly emerge, plaiting seemingly disparate pieces to one another. Guinness ingeniously uncovers anachronistic openings through which to push manifestations of numerous Hollywood icons and celebrities, ranging from Charlie Chaplin to Woody Allen, up against the ethical critiques of Walter Benjamin and Simone de Beauvoir, among others.

Trockel’s Pennsylvania Station (1987), at the center of chapter 2, is stranger still, combining a steel cube adorned with three stovetop burners with a slatted wooden crate containing a disturbing, monstrous mermaid form featuring a grisly, shrieking face. Guinness moves beyond readings of this piece as an affront to minimalism and, according to Holland Cotter, an “Auschwitzian perversion” (85) by relaying an eye-opening, in-depth breakdown of the meshed history of mermaids and misogyny. It is with these kinds of attentive twists that Guinness proceeds to dissect references as seemingly disparate as Pinocchio, Karl Kraus, and André Breton in relation to Trockel’s radicality. In many instances, Guinness shrewdly probes how Trockel’s use of animals and animality exposes the risks of aligning women with nature.

In her third chapter, Guinness really gains momentum, focusing in on Trockel’s balaclavas and their many-pronged associations. She emphasizes the history of violence inherent to the knitted masks, particularly with reference to terrorist activity and the fascinating popular and private histories of the Baader-Meinhof group of the 1970s (though, somewhat ironically, they did not in fact wear balaclavas). Again, visibility and obscurity are held in tension. Or, as Guinness writes, such objects are “history-bait, meaning-bait” (125). Interpreting the work of an artist who straddles so many topics presents a formidable task. Yet Guinness dexterously finds through-lines that connect works across time, media, and little-known backstories. Her discussion of bunnies, birth control, and Joseph Beuys, for instance, culminates in a fascinating analysis of the politics of domesticity in relation to Hugh Hefner. A particular feat is Guinness’s transition from the cultural history that brings Barbra Streisand and Che Guevara together in Trockel’s Untitled (Barbra Streisand and Che Guevara) (1997) to Snoopy, NASA, and the relation between dogs and women. That is nonetheless a difficult leap, and sometimes the many layers of mixed metaphors in Guinness’s writing (as in Trockel’s art) become overwhelming. Here there are parallels between the tact of writer and that of artist, summarized in part by Guinness when she explains that “woman exists as object or subject, liar or lie, and so she shrouds herself in the neutral space of a half-constructed destructive shroud—of motherhood, of sexuality, of baby bombs or carriages, to exist in the neutral and sneak into the universal through this productive destruction” (163). One can become lost in this mist. Schizogenesis oscillates between subject positions and moves through art history, aesthetic theory, feminist theory, biology, popular culture, and many other frames. It also swings between humor, insight, and poignancy on the one hand and sheer strangeness of reference on the other.

Thus there are places in Schizogenesis where more grounding would have been helpful. For example, in her treatment of power, otherness, and visibility, Guinness explains: “To be seen is not necessarily as empowering as much as being able to see—as Jean-Paul Sartre stated, ‘for three thousand years, the white man has enjoyed the privilege of seeing without being seen’” (23). Yet in spite of Sartre’s own calling out of the dynamics of race, this is one strand that Guinness lets drop within her feminist weave. Marginalization and oppression exceed gender. Guinness foregrounds evasive visibility, and by extension evasive apprehension, as a radical operative principle in Trockel’s work in a way that emphasizes openness and inclusion as liberatory. Nevertheless, by sidestepping explicit questions of race, she inadvertently stifles racially inflected subject positions and lived experiences. Referring to the desire to be “free of the enslaving binary system” of the masculine and the feminine (32), Guinness quotes Wittig’s lauding of the “runaway slave” as an empowering model for achieving the universal. And yet a clear acknowledgment of how whiteness is built into this powerful position of the so-called universal never comes. A single footnote hints that this is “problematic” but does not articulate how so. Wittig’s lament, that there is “no other side of the Mississippi, no Palestine, no Liberia for women” (208) to escape to, romanticizes and eclipses how race, and specifically the history of white privilege, cuts through the fantasy of the universal.

The dizzying effect of Trockel’s art plays out across Guinness’s well-crafted writing in ways that are illuminating and will certainly shape any future study on the artist. There is no question that hers is among the most attentive readings of Trockel’s work to date. Indeed, Trockel’s sphinxlike intricacy has met its match in the sharpness of Guinness’s scrutiny and scholarship.

Heather Diack
Associate Professor, Department of Art and Art History, University of Miami