Fragments of Fantasy

Taking two steps into the space of an installation by Daniel Roth is more like leaping several miles into the fathomless realm of the imagination. His conceptualist installations invert and explode space, expanding the hemmed-in much in the way the legendary wardrobe did for the children in C.S. Lewis' The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. More through turn of mind than hew of hand, Roth transforms a basement into a vast forested underground network of trees and tunnels, a photo of a World War I trench into a repository for the ephemera of death and a shallow red-brick cubbyhole into a sharp-edge-strewn Texas landscape of crystalline urbanism and nature torn asunder. Far different, however, from Lewis' Christian tale, Roth's three-room installation, Zones of Dissolution, now showing at the Dallas Museum of Art, bears no moral directive. Unfolding in Roth's Narnia is not the moral allegory of Good against Evil, the Christ-like lion king Aslan vs. the she-devil White Witch. Instead, Roth's otherland is a pockmarked and fragmentary mental landscape where no one single moral system reigns true.

Unwitting or otherwise, Roth's installations construct a space of moral relativity. His work offers a mirror onto the reality of our own--a global environment in which there are no moral absolutes, an international condition in which there can be no one group of individuals harboring an inborn moral grammar. This is by no means a call to arms to the pious and high-standing out there, those who so fervently desire to increase the now overwrought powers of censorship wielded by the FCC, an alarm meant to wake up those already caffeinated good Americans who want to put a stop to Janet-like wardrobe malfunctions or Britney-esque kiddie porn. Rather, it is to point out the success of Roth's art and to do so by way of a perversely traditional standard, its ability to reflect the truth. Through its sense of moral relativity, this work tells us not so much that there are no morals to be taught or had, but rather that the game of universal morals being played in the world today is but bread and circuses meant to keep thought, both mass and individual, at bay.

His is a form of productive escapism describing a reality that is equal parts dream matter and conscious experience. From the fabulous what-if societies of Plato's Republic and More's Utopia to the exoticism of Montesquieu's Persian Letters, artists often have deployed the faraway and fantastic in order to inscribe a new moral code or set of social laws in the present. While there's a long history of using the faraway and fantastic as a subtle vehicle for contemporary moral teaching, Roth's work is ultimately not part of it. Rather than teaching us about morals in the present state of reality, Roth's work seeks to reveal something about the state of reality itself. Reality is extendable, porous and always in flux. In keeping with string theory, it only begins in the three dimensions that we call our own. For scientists of the imagination such as Roth, reality flourishes somewhere beyond them, between manifold vibrating and infinitesimal strings of warped matter. Just the other side of air, stirring with and next to us, shrouding and emanating about us in everyday life, there exist so many nano-galaxies popping and unfurling.

Installed in the far corner of the museum's contemporary gallery, Roth's Zones of Dissolution unfolds in three parts, each of which corresponds to specific geography. The overall work makes for a cartography of sorts, a mapping more metaphorical than real.

The first part, titled "Cabrini Green Forest," is based on two patches of real urban space in Chicago: Cabrini Green, the failed housing development located just on the cusp of the Gold Coast, the ritziest neighborhood in the city, and the Chicago Metropolitan Correction Facility, a barely windowed tower shaped like an extruded triangle situated on the edge of the Loop. Connecting these two real spaces is the underground forest, hypothetical in reality yet made real in the gallery. Roth gives form to this alternative reality through faint pencil drawings, both framed and drawn directly on the wall, that depict jutting limbs, sharp rhizomatic sticks and tuberous root forms. In the framed drawing, these organic elements break through the concrete and once-sealed ground plane of a space that is at once city and building. At the center of the gallery floor is a square basin of dark reflective water, and there are photographs and architectural renderings on the walls. Adjacent to this space is a small room through which one enters by genuflecting slightly under a low-slung door. Here, Roth has reproduced an element of medieval architecture similar to what one finds in the prison space located in the labyrinthine underbelly of the Palace of the Doge in Venice. Inside the room, Roth has made light graphite drawings of leafless branches directly on the walls. The craggy black rock emerging from a large, square green box hung on the back wall heightens the already present Romanticist theme of sublime nature.

Along the corridor linking the front space to the back is the second portion of the show, "Die Stimme," or "The Voice" in English. The least architectural of the three parts of the greater installation, "Die Stimme" offers silent meditation on war through a series of disparate objects--a photograph of a trench, photographs of tunnels, letters, a wooden gun with a long, dangling plastiline clay protuberance, a Magritte-like wooden umbrella handle and three mid-sized pencil drawings. The place in this instance is the battlefront of World War I; the message is a foggy statement on the long-standing mental ravages of war.

The final part of the installation, "Lost Arms in a Crystal World," emerges from the artist's visit to Dallas some months ago. Roth has stitched together interior architecture, photography, taxidermy and drawing in order to make another Romanticist commentary on the defilement of nature. At the center of the room is a large, square brick-enclosed passage at the top of which are two plastic horns. Scattered around the base are crystal shards and a crystal-impaled stuffed red fox. A large black-and-white photo of a frost-covered communication tower hangs on the back wall next to a large, faint drawing of architectural fragments, including a portion of a glass wall, an extruded fireplace and a tower top taken from the Dallas skyline. As a German artist, Roth's perception of Dallas is indeed that of an outsider looking in. But it is perhaps through the eyes of an outsider that we see ourselves best, for here, through crystal and brick, architectural debris and quasi-dead flesh, Roth gives form to that which is quintessentially Texan, what that other well-known Roth (Philip) has called the "indigenous American berserk."

Shooting surrealism through the prism of conceptual art, Roth's work is an exercise in abstraction newly conceived. As an installation that is largely conceptualist in nature, Zones of Dissolution veers from other moving-image showings that have been part of the Concentrations series at the DMA. While Roth's show marks a success in this ongoing series of contemporary art exhibitions, certain questions are raised. And these questions concern the nature of conceptual art tout court. Expressive though not narrative, Roth's bits and pieces make a statement that may be difficult for some to grasp. The exhibition calls for careful deliberation, if not invention on the part of the viewer. One might feel the need to fill in the gaps of meaning by referring to writings about or by the artist, as Roth's formal vocabulary is economic, to say the least. For some, this extra labor may mark a deficiency in the work. For others, it may be the very earmark of successful conceptualist practice. Ultimately, this is an ambiguous duality that perhaps all conceptual artists confront before finding the clear lines of expression that are at times more easily attained in other media, both traditional and experimental. Distinct, though, to Roth's conceptual work is his strong reliance on the imaginations of those who experience his work. "Medium" for Roth thus includes the raw stuff of making--photos, drawings, sculpture, etc. --as well as the participant's imagination. And it is because of this that Roth's conceptualist interventions succeed: because he transforms the immaterial imagination of the participant-viewer into the raw stuff of making.

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Charissa N. Terranova