In May 1970, at a time when the first warm rays of the Californian spring were beginning to be felt, Swiss artist Dieter Roth organised an exhibition at the Eugenia Butler gallery (Los Angeles) that was remarkable, to say the least: Staple Cheese: A Race presented only artworks made out of cheese. One of the culinary emblems of the artist’s country of origin was used for unique ends: the main installation, Staple Cheese, A Race, thus comprised thirty-seven suitcases filled with cheddar, limbourg, camembert or brie, which were first shown closed, then opened one after the other, revealing their aroma over time. Accompanying this smallest of monumental works, which extended Roth’s research into cheese begun several years prior: a cheese race on a support, accumulations of cheese in wooden or plexiglas structures, a multiple based on pieces of cheese painted red, etc.
Refusing to admit that his artworks could be perceived as a highly odorous means of expressing anti-market thinking, Dieter Roth was nonetheless forced to recognise that they had posed problems for the gallery owner, who was convoked by the city’s public health service owing to the proliferation of flies that were greatly inconveniencing her neighbours. Over twenty-five year after Roth’s exhibition, which proved a fiasco both in terms of its level of visibility and its commercial nature, American artist Jason Rhoades wished to pay him a tribute. In June 1998, he reproduced the main installation of Staple Cheese: A Race, but in a different context. This new artwork was set up inside the trunk of his Impala (International Museum Project About Leaving and Arriving) – that is, a Chevrolet Impala in which the artist presented his own works or those of friends – and it at first appeared to be very far-removed from the original. Whereas Roth’s cheeses were revealed to be sweaty and powerfully pungent, dripping out the tops of their respective suitcases, Rhoades had chosen to present a teenage backpack full of Babybel. Sylvie Fleury, who participated in mounting the exhibition, had set up an installation in the glove compartment with less disruptive odours than those of Roth, since it was a piece made with Chanel n° 22. Rhoades’ work, produced with Roth’s consent, appears to be the cynical, cold and slick counterpoint to the Swiss artist’s radical gesture: twenty years later, the sanitised Babybel replaced the original cheeses, and the impeccable Chevrolet substituted the gallery of the unfortunate Eugenia Butler. In this re-staging, the implicit critique of the market system has disappeared, and the tribute is bound up with the grotesque expression of a form of citationism that is conscious of the end of grand narratives, recuperating forms with a certain cruelty not lacking in humor, but sometimes ommiting their subversive dimension.1
However, Rhoades’ project is perhaps less superficial than it appears: as the artist explained, who parked his Impala in front of the Kunsthalle in Zurich, European museums were antiquated institutions in his opinion – contemporary artists could no longer invest their spaces.2 Despite these specious declarations (to put it mildly), Rhoades was reviving, with an undisputably fresh approach, certain ambitions of the historic institutional critique contemporary with Roth’s experimentation. In 1998, the situation was very different from that of the 1970s, even in “old” Europe. Other models for the museum needed to be reinvented, to battle the traditional museum head on. The Impala, a museum on wheels, modern and virile, thus emerged as a new and highly individualistic concept, refusing the idea of a wider public but instead favouring a tête-à-tête with the artist. Dieter Roth, who was hardly displeased at the idea of stinking out his collectors one by one, would doubtless not have turned his nose up at this postmodern and American citation of his “very serious and sentimental and romantic” cheese art.3