Dieter Roth

Harmonica Curse


Not on display

Dieter Roth 1930–1998
76 photographs, colour, on paper and 76 cassette tapes
Displayed: 1080 × 1420 × 18 mm
Purchased 1983

Catalogue entry

Dieter Roth born 1930

T03650 Harmonica Curse 1981

76 Polaroid photographs each 109 x 90 (4 1/4 x 3 1/2) and 74 audio cassettes each 69 x 108 x 16 (2 5/8 x 4 1/4 x 5/8) in an edition of five
Inscribed (see below)
Purchased from Audio Arts (Grant-in-Aid) 1983

All quotations from the artist come from a letter to the compiler postmarked 29 August 1988.

The dates inscribed on the 76 Polaroid photographs indicate that T03610 was made between 14 February and 7 August 1985. The artist has signed each photograph at the bottom, adding 'Harmonica Curse' and the number of each photograph. Along the edge of each photograph he has inscribed the date and a place name. These vary between 'Hamburg' (photo 25), 'Mosfellssveit' (photos 26-31, 'Vera t¢k Myndina' (photos 48, 73, 75), Mozo (photo 6s), 'Bj?rn t¢k Myndina' (photo 62), 'Basel' (photo 76), while the majority of the photographs are inscribed with the place names 'Bali' or 'Bala'. The artist writes ' "Bali" is the name of the house in Iceland where I live when there ... "Bali" means a grassy spot, like a miniature valley, and "Bala" is the dative of "Bali", like "as Bali" or "on Bali" (in Icelandic one skips the preposition, in letterheads of similar places)'. Each photograph is further inscribed with an edition number. In most cases this is '1/5' although for the following photographs other edition numbers are given: number 75 is inscribed 'Orig', number 73 'not editioned', number 63 '2/5', numbers 1, 3, 36, 71 and 76 are inscribed '4/5' and numbers 19, 20, 30, 46 and 60 are each inscribed '5/5'. The label of each audio cassette is signed and dated by the artist. Roth is heard performing on each cassette.

In a telephone conversation on 11 August 1988, William Furlong of Audio Arts told the compiler that at least two, possibly three complete sets had been sold. He himself owned an incomplete set. The artist writes that he owns a complete set and the original recordings. The intention had been also to sell individual cassettes with their relevant photographs, which accounts for the incomplete set remaining. The mixing of the edition numbers resulted from buyers being allowed to select their own sets from the available photographs to each cassette. They were not restricted by edition numbering, although the number of photographs made each day was consistent. The artist confirms this:

to each cassette, 2 x 1/2 hour music or recorded material, belongs a polaroid photograph, which should show the date of recording (the same date as one of the dates on the cassette). I took 5 photographs (they went or go each with a specific recording) and sent them to Bill [Furlong]. So, the buyers - or whoever picks a single cassette cum Polaroid - cannot (really) choose any picture to go with any recording; these are fixed couples: 1 picture and 1 hour of music.
The work was also marketed through the Frankfurt Book Fair.

In a letter to the compiler dated to August 1988, William Furlong of Audio Arts described T03610:

the work involved playing a small accordian (which Dieter Roth - through translation - calls a harmonica) each day for one hour during the period from the first to last dated photographs/cassette. During this period each day the photograph was taken. The recording also picks up the sounds of every day life, ie. the artist moving about his studio/living quarters; eating, conversing, drinking etc. The work would therefore be regarded as a self portrait both in photographic and audial form. The portrait also represents the artist as a person going about his everyday life and therefore revealing more than just the surface, or the formal image that might be achieved through conventional portraiture. The work therefore goes beyond conventional portraiture in allowing others to observe, witness, through time, the artist's ordinary life, his responses to others, his circumstances, his traumas, pleasures, humour and just the everyday fabric of life. This was achieved through the ambient recording and through the recording in photographic form of the artist and his surroundings. The photography is also 'ambient' in the sense that it is what the artist sees as well as images of him. Throughout the duration of the work he is attempting to master the 'harmonica' (which he doesn't do). Roth has for a long time explored sound and the use of conventional instruments. He is not in any sense trained but enjoys the challenge of attempting to play an instrument rather like the challenge of using any medium. In this sense the instrument becomes a metaphor or strategy for what are primary traits in his work; namely subversion of convention, irreverence, challenge, innovation, a profound ability to manipulate media, ideas, visual language. Yet as with Harmonica Curse there is always a strong sense of individual predicament and aspiration, which is often accompanied by depression and despair.
The artist writes that 'the photographs show: what I had in front of my eyes while playing the instrument; or me, taken by my son Bj?rn or daughter Vera'. He also suggessed how the music should be played:
The music should or could be played on a small cassette recorder that should be altered, so that you can play ... some radio station and (as the same time) the cassette. As least, I play it often like that; it is easy for a radio technician to do the altering; you need a blending device - so you can balance the two sources of sound off against each other.
In a letter to the compiler postmarked 29 September 1988, the artist describes in more detail a number of ways in which T03610 could be displayed.
Maybe you could display the pictures [i.e. Polaroids] as a whole, leaving empty (?) the fields where the corresponding pictures are lacking ... To save space, the pictures could be placed in a narrow (instead of broad) frame.
The diagram below depicts sketches made by the artist to illustrate his suggestions about display.
[diagram not reproduced here; shows two regular grids, side by side, each made up of squares inside a narrow frame: one horizontal, 7 by 10 squares, with question marks inside five squares at irregular intervals; the other vertical, 15 by 5 squares, again with five question marks]
The artist also makes further suggestions for integrating the aural parts of the work into the display.
Maybe you could provide a machine that plays the tapes from a store, like one plays pieces of music in bars, where one can choose from a list (of numbers) and press the corresponding buttons. In this case, one could leave out the possibility of playing a radiostation as the same time ... If you can have (made) a recorder that plays tape and station, have instructions on or near the machine and lock the tapes in the recorder. In this case you could change the tape from time to time - as you suggest in your last letter. Anyway, the pictures, as a whole, could stay (while the tapes change)? One could even tune the radio to a certain station.
This entry has been approved by the artist.

Published in:
The Tate Gallery 1984-86: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions Including Supplement to Catalogue of Acquisitions 1982-84, Tate Gallery, London 1988, pp.556-8

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