Beat Zoderer: The London Soap Opera

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BEAT ZODERER THE LONDON SOAP OPERA Seventeen Acts and an Overture



BEAT ZODERER THE LONDON SOAP OPERA Seventeen Acts and an Overture

BARTHA CONTEMPORARY



OPERA IN LONDON Niklas von Bartha

Over the past months, Beat Zoderer explored London and slowly built a suite of new works that culminated in an exhibition held at our space in July of 2022. Made during the artist’s residency with the Swiss Landis & Gyr Foundation, these works offer a glimpse into the artist’s extensive vocabulary of sculptural forms, all reinterpreted in miniature. As so often in Beat’s oeuvre, the chosen material is ubiquitous: soap bars bought at local shops, market stalls, or barbershops across the East End of London. It was an early experience at the Royal Opera House in London, which came to offer the title for this show. A play on words, typical for Zoderer’s practice, and the wish to make the suite uniquely site-specific, resulted in ‘The London Soap Opera’. Soap as a sculptural raw material is somewhat unusual, but so were materials the artist employed throughout his career; these include office folders, tapes and hose pipes. Indeed, hose pipes were the source material for Beat’s first exhibition at our gallery following a previous residency here. The show coincided with the hosepipe ban of 2006. It unintentionally ended up being as timely as the soap bars are today.

As we emerge from a period of intense hand washing and germ fitting, the material has taken on a new meaning in our everyday lives. No longer languishing in the corner of our sinks, the humble soap bar is now a kind of hero or barrier in our fight against the outside world and all its dangers. Indeed, over thousands of years, we came to absolve ourselves of the horrors encountered by washing our hands. The history of soaps is littered with dirt and grime; this exhibition is the polar opposite. The abundance of colour, the playful use of geometry and the sensual quality of the material invite you to explore the sheer limitless scope of Zoderer’s artistic vocabulary.



CRUSADER, EDEN, AND MADAME RANEE Pia Gottschaller

Soon after his arrival in London in the spring of 2022, the Swiss artist Beat Zoderer bought himself a turquoise bicycle and, with his temporary studio in Whitechapel as a starting point, began to roam the city. True to two longstanding principles of his practice— working with site-specific as well as quotidian materials—he quickly discovered the humble soap bar as the matter from which to carve the collection of 72 sculptures in the current exhibition. Zoderer was surprised by the seemingly inexhaustible range of soaps he could source, from soft to hard, from oval to rectangular, from white to yellow to red to blue, green and black, from transparent to opaque, from monochrome to marbled, from unscented to scented, and from expensive to inexpensive. His most yielding hunting grounds turned out to be chemist’s shops, street markets, and beauty salons, with a particularly abundant example of the latter in Mile End, where more than 15 different kinds of soaps were on offer alongside synthetic hair and gel nail kits. Each of the abstract reliefs was carved by hand, following an initial set of pencil drawings made to fit a certain shape, and with as inexhaustible a repertoire of geometric designs as the variety of soap bars themselves: there are zigzags, half-spheres, mounds, triangles and cubes, stacked concavely and convexly; there are maze-like incisions of varying depths and widths, organised orthogonally and in a cross-cross pattern; and there are concentric rosettes, ribbed and grooved staircases, drilled holes and tunnels, and intricate latticework. The variety of forms on display in the soaps

is in some sense a miniature summary of the vocabulary Zoderer has been developing since the late 1970s, and it keeps expanding. Presumably the main reason for the much greater variety in the soap market here compared to continental Europe is the immense ethnic diversity of London’s nine million inhabitants. 300 different languages are spoken in the capital; the food and cosmetics industries cater to communities from around the world. The smells of the soaps reflect local traditions and preferences, and one can choose between the English Rose or Imperial Leather, but also have a preference for cinnamon shea, frankincense and myrrh, cocoa or papaya. The soaps’ names evoke the exotic and the ubiquitous, from Crusader, Eden and Madame Ranee, to Dove, Pears, and Palmolive. Upon entering Zoderer’s studio several weeks ago, when he had installed his production up to that moment, the first and overwhelming sensation was that of a profusion of colour. However, on its heels came a strong odour, at once familiar and somewhat overwhelming because of its sheer intensity. “In the beginning it stank like in a laundrette or a brothel,” Zoderer said in a recent conversation.1 He considers the small sculptures’ olfactory appeal a key innovation within his own trajectory, even if he accepts that the perfume will fade over time, and likes the idea of hanging the objects at a slightly lower height than one would hang pictures in order to force visitors to bend down a little. Surprise is at the heart of his practice, to make us stop and think, look and feel, and now also


sniff. “When you find something, you never know where you will end up putting it to use,” he is fond of paraphrasing the playwright Heiner Müller. Zoderer has made a name for himself through a sculptural practice based on identifying unforeseeable ways in which to repurpose day-to-day materials from the hardware or office supply store. They include metal strips, polyurethane foam, fabric ribbons, wool yarn, self-adhesive stickers, file folders, and masking tape. The three-dimensional presence of his works sometimes belies his painterly approach, which is however evident in the role that he accords colour in his work. It is usually immanent through the readymade nature of his materials themselves, but Zoderer occasionally also introduces it by spraying lacquer onto wood and metal sheets. Noticeable is his broad spectrum of hues, almost as if he wanted to be democratic in his choices, to prevent the emergence of signature “darlings.” As is true for most Conceptual art, Zoderer’s works would remain largely unreadable if only seen in photographs, were it not for the fact that the artist’s image captions include aspects of the assembly method that help understand what one is looking at. In other words, a Zoderer caption usually isn’t along the lines of “synthetic paint on wood,” but rather “paper, folded and dipped in paint” (Fold&Dip, 2016). In terms of genealogy, much has been made of the fact that Zoderer grew up in the heartland of Swiss Concrete art. Theo van Doesburg’s 1930 manifesto Art Concret deeply informed the work of Max Bill as well as Latin American artists active at mid-century by promoting the concept of breaking down any elitist barriers between life and art. Their compositions were “concrete” in their reality, referring to nothing outside of themselves instead of to abstractions from life. In other words, a geometric shape in an orthodox Concrete artwork is not meant to trick the viewer into thinking of a tree, let alone of the

Canal Grande. In that regard, it is telling that Zoderer uses the term “Ent-täuschung” to describe his artistic goals, a “dis-illusionment.”2 While always acknowledging his debt to his Concrete forbears, Zoderer feels less affinity with the very pragmatic and dogmatic Bill and instead is drawn to the lyrical interpretations of Camille Graeser and Verena Loewensberg.3 The full extent of the latter’s gift as a colourist became fully evident in the 1970s, when she created a group of paintings with surprising and still subtle oppositions of hues. The art of glyptics, the craft of engraving gemstones and hardstone to create intaglio and cameos has cycled in and out of fashion since antiquity, reaching a highpoint in the Renaissance and again under Napoleon Bonaparte, who commissioned untold numbers of cameos of his own likeness. During his extensive travels in Asia, Zoderer also admired the traditional Thai craft of carving fruit, vegetables, or soaps into decorative objects such as flowers with nothing but a simple knife.4 The same hand skills as he witnessed in Asia are what Zoderer has now brought to his own works. Higher-quality soaps have fewer surfactants and are harder in texture as they have had more time to dry— the technical term is “aging”—before being packaged and sold. Zoderer uses either the warmth of his hand or a hot air gun to make the sometimes crumbly mass more pliable. His tools are knives, but occasionally also a nail and other sharp instruments including a hand drill. The flakes of soap that he chips away from the block of soap are collected in layers in a large glass jar, following the second main inspiration from his travels, this time in India, where he learned that there is no such thing as waste. The very first soap he sculpted to satisfaction was made from a white bar of “Cussans Imperial Leather,” with criss-crossing lines. White was also the colour of the first inexpensive, industrially produced soap called Ivory, in production by Procter&Gamble since



1879. The material historian Judith Rinder tells us that the history of soap-making goes back to the Ancient Mesopotamians, who made soap from boiling rendered cow, goat or sheep fat with an alkali like wood ashes. It took until the Middle Ages, however, until soap stopped being used solely for washing wool yarn or clothing and began to be made from more pleasantsmelling vegetable oils for cleansing the body. Yet the famous green and white olive-oil soaps from Aleppo and Castile were luxury items and thus out of reach for the general population, essentially until the introduction of the abovementioned Ivory brand in the 19th century.5 Its instant popularity, for both washing clothes and the body, was due the fact that P&G managed to formulate it with tiny air pockets, which made it float in water and kept it from disintegrating into a slimy heap. Rinder writes that “today’s commercially manufactured soaps are highly specialized, lab-engineered products. Synthesized animal fats and plant-based oils are combined with chemical additives, including moisturizers, conditioners, lathering agents, colors and scents,” which explains the variation in recipes and therefore also textures (which Zoderer delights in). He lets himself be inspired by all those factors to find a vocabulary of forms that he feels most suits the material.6 One could also consider this approach akin to “Materialgerechtigkeit,” a truth to materials stipulated by sculptors in the early 20th century, in its purest form. Christoph Schreier wrote in a recent text about Zoderer that he embraces all of the “paradoxes and little inconsistencies” that make their way into life and into art.7 One way in which the artist celebrates those imperfections is by sometimes leaving small “mistakes” or imperfections in his artworks to make us look more attentively.8 In the soaps such a “mistake” might be an irregularly rounded curve or a slightly crazed area. After he is done carving, he takes the soap to running water and softens the sharp edges of his forms by washing his hands with the soap and using a soft brush to remove residual flakes from

hard-to-get-to corners. Picturing this process, it is difficult not to be reminded of how much hand-washing we have been doing since the pandemic began, and Zoderer concedes that although it wasn’t his intention to draw any parallels, it is possible that our most recent global, collective experience subconsciously played a role in his choice. By the same token, he does not want the soaps’ original function obscured, even if form no longer follows function. His favourites in the group are those that have developed a “concentration on smallness”—and thus greatness in the smallness. Each sculpture is so organic in shape, and sits so comfortably in one’s hand, that Zoderer is tempted to just slide one into his trouser pocket. He has always liked to travel lightly.

1 Unless otherwise noted, all artist’s quotations are from an interview with the author, conducted at his temporary East London studio on April 19th, 2022. 2 See for example Ruth Diehl, “Kleines Wörterbuch für Beat Zoderer,“ in: Beat Zoderer. Faltungen und andere Ereignisse, exh. cat. Kunstmuseum Ahlen, Boenen 2021, 26. 3 See Interview Suzanne Swarts, “The common threads. In conversation with Beat Zoderer,” in: Beat Zoderer. Less and More, exh. cat. Stichting Voorlinden, Wassenaar 2022, 7. 4 Janine Antoni’s Lick and Lather from 1993 also comes to mind, consisting of 14 busts cast from a mould of the artists’ head, seven of them in chocolate and seven made from soap. She licked the chocolate versions and washed the soap versions to reshape her image. 5 Judith Rinder, “Dirty History of Soap,” see https://theconversation.com/the-dirty-history-of-soap-136434 [last accessed May 29th, 2022]. 6 Zoderer has been developing this vocabulary since 1986, the full range of which can be seen in his Vokabular von Paletten, a growing set of currently 41 painters’ palettes that he tools or covers with materials that relate to whatever else he is working with at the same time. 7 Christoph Schreier, “Das Eckige muss ins Runde– und umgekehrt,“ in: Beat Zoderer. Visuelle Interferenzen 19902020, exh. cat. Kunsthalle Weishaupt, Ulm 2020, 49. 8 See “Beat Zoderer im Gespräch mit Martina Padberg. ‘Ich habe keine Angst vor Opulenz‘,” in: Beat Zoderer. Faltungen und anderer Ereignisse, op. cit., 74.




THE LONDON SOAP OPERA INGREDIENTS CRUSADER Sodium Tallowate, Sodium Palm Kernelate (Sodium Cocoate), Aqua (Water), Glycerin, Parfum (Fragrance), Sodium Chloride, Zinc Oxide, Allantoin, CI11680, CI74160, C177266, Coumarin, Benzyl Benzoate, Cinnamal, Tetrasodium EDTA, Tetrasodium Etidronate.

EDEN Sodium Palmate, Sodium Palm Kernelate, Aqua, Tocopherol (natural Vitamin E), Glycerin, Sodium Chloride, CI77891, C177492, Tetrasodium EDTA, Tetrasodium Editronate.

MADAM RANEE Sodium Tallowate, Sodium cocoate, Aqua, Glycerin, Parfum, Sodium chloride, Titanium dioxide (CI 77891), Lactic Acid, Pentasodium Pentetate, Tetrasodium Etidronate, Cl 42090, Cl 47005, Amyl cinnamal, Benzyl benzoate, Benzyl salicylate, Cinnamyl alcohol, Citronellol, Geraniol, Hexyl cinnamal, Hydroxycitronellal, Linalool and Butylphenyl methylpropional (lilial).


THE LONDON SOAP OPERA Overture

CEREGHINO HAND MADE SOAP LEATHER & TABACCO

KOJIE SAN CLASSIC ZERO PIGMENT LIGHT


A3 LEMON ALLANTOIN & VITAMIN E

MAXI-PEEL MICRO EXFOLIANT SOAP


OVERTURE No. 64


OVERTURE No. 67


OVERTURE No. 5


OVERTURE No. 69


THE LONDON SOAP OPERA First Act

CUSSANS IMPERIAL LEATHER

MICO SOAP


PALMOLIVE NATURAL

CRUSADER THE ORIGINAL


Act 1 No. 1


Act 1 No. 13


Act 1 No. 9


Act 1 No. 14


THE LONDON SOAP OPERA Second Act

SHIELD FRESH AQUA

PEARS PURE & GENTILE


JRB CARBOLIC GERMEDICAL SOAP

CLEAR ESSENCE MEDICATED CLEANSING BAR


Act 2 No. 26


Act 2 No. 17


Act 2 No. 4


Act 2 No. 7


THE LONDON SOAP OPERA Third Act

SHEA MOISTURE FRANKINCENSE & MYRRH

PURE WHITE GOLD GLOWING


CAROTEIN SUPREME ORANGE

L’OCCITANTE SHEA BUTTER


Act 3 No. 18


Act 3 No. 53


Act 3 No. 22


Act 3 No. 15


THE LONDON SOAP OPERA Fourth Act

ELKA DE WIT 34.4 º

L’OCCITANTE KARITE LAVANDE


ZEPHYR ESSENTIAL OILS PLASTIC FREE NEBULISERS

CLEAR ESSENCE LEMON PLUS VITAMIN C


Act 4 No. 8


Act 4 No. 24


Act 4 No. 20


Act 17 No. 71


THE LONDON SOAP OPERA Fifth Act

DOVE EST. 1807 PINK

FAIR & WHITE WHITENIZER


L’OCCITANTE KARITE VERVENE

CAROTONE LIGHT & NATURAL DSP10


Act 5 No. 19


Act 5 No. 28


Act 5 No. 25


Act 5 No. 61


THE LONDON SOAP OPERA Sixth Act

DH7 SAVON CREME EXFOLIANT

WILD SAGE & CO LAVENDER GERANIUM


FAIR & WHITE SAVON EXCLUSIV

LUX SOFT TOUCH


Act 6 No. 6


Act 6 No. 21


Act 6 No. 23


Act 6 No. 27


THE LONDON SOAP OPERA Seventh Act

PALMOLIVE ORIGINAL

CAROTIN SAVON CLARIFIANT & EXFOLIANT L’EXTRAIT DE CAROTTE


CYCLAS COCO BUTTER

IMPERIAL LEATHER ORIGINAL


Act 7 No. 29


Act 7 No. 40


Act 7 No. 30


Act 7 No. 35


THE LONDON SOAP OPERA Eighth Act

BLUE POWER CARBOLIC SOAP

CLEAR ESSENCE MEDICATED CLEANSING BAR


NUXE BIO

ORIGINAL LIKAS PAPAYA SKIN WHITENING


Act 8 No. 11


Act 8 No. 7


Act 8 No. 12


Act 8 No. 16


THE LONDON SOAP OPERA Ninth Act

PALMOLIVE MOISTURE CARE OLIVE & MILK

BLUE POWER CASTILE COCOA BUTTER, JAMAICA


CHEAR G&C GLOW & CLEAR PAPAYA LIGHTNING

DR. BRONNER’S ALL IN ONE


Act 9 No. 38


Act 9 No. 42


Act 9 No. 36


Act 9 No. 39


THE LONDON SOAP OPERA Tenth Act

MADAME RANEE HERBAL SOAP THAILAND

SHIELD _ FRESH AQUA DEODORISING SOAP


SIKA PAPAYA WITH VITA RICH ACTIVES

WILD SAGE & CO CINNAMON + SHEA SOAP


Act 10 No. 33


Act 10 No. 34


Act 10 No. 49


Act 10 No. 48


THE LONDON SOAP OPERA Eleventh Act

SIKA PAPAYA WITH VITA RICH ACTIVES

FAITH IN NATURE ALOE SOAP, UK


100% RAW CACOA BUTTER ORIGIN OF GHANA

CLEAR ESSENCE COMPLEXION SOAP WITH APLHA HYDROXY ACID


Act 11 No. 49


Act 11 No. 46


Act 11 No. 43


Act 11 No. 37


THE LONDON SOAP OPERA Twelth Act

SHIELD FRESH AQUA

100% RAW CACOA BUTTER ORIGIN OF GHANA


IMPERIAL LEATHER ORIGINAL

CARBOLIC BLUE POWER SOAP


Act 12 No. 3


Act 12 No. 32


Act 12 No. 51


Act 11 No. 52


THE LONDON SOAP OPERA Thirdteenth Act

LEMON SOAP MADE IN ITALY

FAITH IN NATURE ALOE SOAP, UK


CARBOLIC BLUE POWER SOAP

CLEAR ESSENCE COMPLEXION SOAP WITH ALPHA HYDROXY ACID


Act 13 No. 47


Act 13 No. 45


Act 13 No. 31


Act 13 No. 41


THE LONDON SOAP OPERA Fourteenth Act

SHIELD FRESH AQUA DEODORISING SOAP

SHEA MOISTURE AFRICAN BLACK SOAP WITH SHEA BUTTER


FAIR & WHITE PARIS SO WHITE

WILD SAGE & CO LAVENDER + GERANIUM SOAP


Act 14 No. 54


Act 14 No. 55


Act 14 No. 56


Act 14 No. 44


THE LONDON SOAP OPERA Fifteenth Act

BABY FACE WITH TU

SHEA MOISTURE AFRICAN BLACK SOAP WITH SHEA BUTTER


FAIR & WHITE PARIS SO WHITE

LONDON BRICK SIXTY BAR SOAP HONEY BUFF


Act 15 No. 57


Act 15 No. 62


Act 15 No. 59


Act 15 No. 68


THE LONDON SOAP OPERA Sixteenth Act

MAXI WHITE S1 SAVON GOMMANT, PARIS

DR BRONNERS ALL ONE LAVENDER


LONDON BRICK SIXTY HOT ROSE

CLEAR ESSENCE COMPLEXION SOAP WITH ALPHA HYDROXI ACID


Act 16 No. 57


Act 4 No. 10


Act 16 No. 59


Act 16 No. 68


THE LONDON SOAP OPERA Seventeenth Act

SHEA MOISTURE COCONUT & HIBISCUS SHEA BUTTER SOAP

SILKA PAPAYA WHITENING HERBAL SOAP


AFRICAN BLACK SOAP VEGAN

CUSSONS WILD CREAM ADDED MOISTRISERS


Act 17 No. 63


Act 17 No. 66


ACT 17 No. 72


Act 17 No. 71


Published on the occasion of Beat Zoderer’s solo exhibition at Bartha Contemporary in London, Summer 2022. All works made during the artist’s residency at Landis & Gyr Studios in London, Spring 2022.

Copyright the Artists, Authors and Bartha Contemporary Ltd. Photo editing by Lorenz Krieg First Edition, 250 copies ISBN 978-0-9933621-5-6

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