Tobias Rehberger


Often playing with 1960s and ’70s design styles, Tobias Rehberger’s environments, furniture, sculptures and ceiling installations have made him a focus of interest for art criticism stressing contextual approaches and cross-over aspirations.

Tobias Rehberger operates within these fields of critical definition without considering them to be particularly meaningful for his work. At the point where design not only produces the “utility” of commodity articles but also supplements usefulness with an immaterial surplus value, Tobias Rehberger concentrates on transferring to the field of art these questions of functionality and added value. In doing so, he deftly puts out of action the entire policy underlying art-critical interpretations.

By giving the visitors the possibility to co-determine the furnishing and design of the exhibition space, by translating the proposals or specifications submitted by friends and acquaintances into artistic environments, furniture or portraits that then bear the signature of both the proposer and the artist, and by making the function of his installations and objects dependent on the willingness of others to use them, Rehberger always discusses one basic question: What is actually a work of art, and how much of it is conditioned by notions, perceptions and external influences?

In this way, the artist shows possibilities, and at the same time makes proposals that depend on the viewer’s notions and expectations in order to become “legible” in the first place. Thus, everything could be done differently, if one only knew how. To this extent, the typical fashion phenomena of “ambient music” and “ambient space” are, in Rehberger’s work, only apparently conditions of an “ambient art” that shows how easily one can move away from the centre ground of a clear statement or never come close to that centre to begin with.

Interview by Leontine Coelewij

Curator Leontine Coelewij talked with Tobias Rehberger about the first major survey of his work in the Netherlands at the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam: the chicken-and-egg-no-problem wall-painting, which travelled to the Museum Ludwig in Cologne.

First of all, please explain the title?

Of course, but first I should talk about what I want to do in the show. I am playing with the idea of what a “work” actually is: where does it come from and where is it going? If you’re not entirely into the idea of the romantic genius, then it is quite an interesting question to pose to yourself: where do the works come from and how do they develop? That is the “chicken and the egg problem”. The wall painting from the title also relates to the structure of the show. I will use three-dimensional objects to produce a two-dimensional image on the wall. That’s also “the chicken and the egg”, where the existing works are used as the material for a new production. But it also relates to how a work is always material for future work. All the sculptures in the space are lit from different angles, so they produce shadows on the wall. There is also a sketchy wall painting, roughly based on the shadows, which I made on the spot. I like the idea that something elaborate and solid could be the starting point for something vague and sketchy. And on the other hand a wall painting is in a way the most solid way of doing a painting because it is fixed. I think that all these discrepancies create a very nice confusion about how work is produced. This issue has a wider relevance than just my own work: how aware are we as artists about how the things we do come together? This has to do with the fact that I am highly sceptical about this idea of the genius artist, which remains a very big issue…

Do you think that this idea of the romantic genius is also at the basis of today’s art market?

Yes, I think so very much, especially in relation to the concept of “authenticity”. The market is based on these romantic nineteenth-century ideas. It’s not that my work is a statement against that; I just think that it’s not such an interesting concept anymore. And I am trying to ask myself what other concepts are possible in this exhibition. I continually question the perspective.

In your work you’re looking for alternatives to this idea of the solitary genius, such as shared authorship. You have worked together with other people, such as the craftsmen from Cameroon who made the design “classics” Breuer and
Rietveld chairs based on your sketches …

That’s right, but it also exists in a lot of my other works. But I think it’s not so much about shared authorship as about realising how absurd the idea of control is in our concept of production. But you can also find it in the idea of the “model” with which I am very busy: Mutter 93% an almost life-size model for a garage. If you buy the model, you have the right to build the garage according to your own interpretation of the model. You can also see our show from this perspective: on the one hand the sculptures stand for themselves, and on the other hand they represent something else.

Some of your works such as “Mutter 93% or Cutting, preparing, without missing anything and being happy about what comes next” suggest a kind of use …

Well, the works actually have a use. Often an art work is defined as a “useless” object, but this is actually a myth just like the myth of the neutral white space of the gallery or the museum. Art is used as a tool for cultural definition or as a tool in the art market or as a “happy-maker” on the wall above your sofa. There is always some kind of function. I always play with this question of function, of what defines function and the range of clichés about the “non-functionality” of an artwork. My work has often been misunderstood as some kind of social interference. For me it’s always more a struggle with the definition of what an art work is or could be. For example, I could use a bronze Giacometti sculpture to hammer a nail into a wall. However, an artwork is often more successful as a tool to develop your ideas than as a hammer. It all depends on the perspective from which you view the work. Another misunderstanding is that my work is close to design. For me that is not an interesting question. I am not particularly interested in design as design. There are design strategies that raise interesting questions about how I think about art. And that’s why I use it. My work is more about differentiating between art and design, trying to define the differences rather than merging the two fields.

I also had the impression that you use different strategies from design to introduce the element of time. Such as the work “Cutting, preparing, without missing anything and being happy about what comes next”, which is an installation based on asking your friends how they would define an ideal place to relax.

The first edition of the work was made in 1996, the second one in 1999, both in the design styles of those years … One very interesting phenomenon in relation to time is fashion. The idea of fashion relates to the definition of something in time. The work you just mentioned poses the question: what happens if the visual appearance of a work changes in time without the content having changed? To what extent is the surface of the work the actual “work”? Or is the surface completely irrelevant? There is this very general question for artists which is about the “understandability” of the work they make … And that is a rather weird idea … Of course we, as artists, communicate structures, but how far does this “understanding” go and what are the processes of making things understandable? Just as photography took on some of the “duties” of art in the nineteenth century, so advertising did this in the last century: the controllability of the message. Advertising tries to be “scientific” about the effect it has on people. And advertising does this well, so that is something we artists need not concern ourselves with, just like we no longer need to concern ourselves with an exact naturalistic representation in a portrait.

What do you see as the role for art now?

I believe that art is a completely open field where questions can be raised that can’t be raised in other fields. But I think in the end it’s a theoretical game. Art is mostly about the possibility of making art, about its circumstances and its conditions. And in this respect it is an example to other fields just like mathematics is. It’s a field where you can discuss things that are not of any direct, practical use. I also think of mathematics like this because in a way it runs parallel to the production of beauty.

Light plays an important role in your work; sometimes you use it to make connections with different parts of the world – like the village Arroyo Grande – or moments in history – like the day Nancy Spungen was killed in a hotel room in New York in 1978; but also in the exhibition you are working on now …

The use of light in my work is not about “branding”, it’s simply a material that I use, like you use a piece of wood to make chair, to repair a ceiling or as fuel to cook with. For me it’s just a material like wood or metal. It’s not the content of the work. But it is an extremely interesting material to work with because it can be used in so many different ways. And it is also the essential material of communication. It’s the first thing a baby sees, it’s crucial for the visual arts, and it conveys a large amount of knowledge. I can use it in different ways as a strategy to change perspectives: literally and metaphorically.

Can you tell me something about the choice of works for this exhibition? You explained to me already a while ago that, “this is not going to be a retrospective.” What did you mean by that?

Since we said from the beginning that it should be an exhibition of existing works, I thought about what that means. I thought about the classic way of dealing with this – which is the retrospective. But I was not interested in the more “historical” approach to the overview of existing work. Therefore I asked myself what, from my own point of view, could be interesting about an exhibition of existing works. For me it was how this presentation could produce “non-existing” works. That was the initial idea. The question was how could I make all this into an interesting visual product which could give other people a certain understanding of the work, but could also give me a new understanding of the work. And at the same time I am not completely fulfilling the museum’s demand, because I am producing a new work.
I like the idea that the show has a slight retrospective touch because it brings together a couple of important works, but then I am disrupting that with works that might be less important for me – which is sometimes not so obvious – which appear less understandable. Then a technical aspect came in: how to create this new “sketch” on the wall of the museum space. I tried to combine objects that work very well and objects that do not work at all, in this structure with light and shadow.

By using your sculptures as raw material in a new installation they will also acquire a different meaning. What happens to works such as your Videolibraries – sculptures used as an archive for film fragments which are visible only as flickering lights because the TV sets are placed facing towards the wall – when they are placed in the middle of the space as an object to create a shadow on a wall?

It’s again this question of a change in perspective. In this case the object is normally positioned in front of the wall to produce a reflection of the light from film clips. Now it’s placed in the middle of the space. First of all, you encounter it from the front and it looks more or less the same as before; only the reflection is less obvious than it normally is. So it’s rather close to what the work usually is. But then you go around and it’s just like a Madonna from the fourteenth century, which is three-dimensional from one side and hollow from the other side. So now you see the mechanism of the work itself – which is almost like a pathological perspective on the work. Suddenly it lays bare its organs. I could only do this in this situation where the sculpture is used as raw material for the wall painting. It is comparable to the role of the model. On the one hand it is one thing, but then when you look at it in a larger,
smaller or broader sense it could be something different. It’s all about the ambiguity of things, the ambiguity of reading the art work as a final product.

Does this position also come from a dissatisfaction with the role art has nowadays?

No not dissatisfaction, but more doubts or uncertainty about what seems to be so clear and easily understandable. Perhaps I would be happier if I simply made “nice” art; but my work is more about the uncertainty about what you call art. And in the end it’s very satisfying. It’s great fun posing all these questions. I am always grateful for all these “problems” I have. For me it’s fun to deal with them.

Are you inspired by the way other artists in the past have dealt with these questions?

Of course. I don’t know how far back it goes. I have a great appreciation for “old” art, but the work of the last hundred years has more relevance to my way of seeing art. Contemporary art is closer to the “confusion” I am in.

Do you mean the work of artists of your own generation such as Olafur Eliasson and Rirkrit Tiravanija?

Yes, but also an artist like Donald Judd, whom I admire very much but also have problems with. He dealt with a lot of the problems I deal with as well, like the idea of the genius artist or the “artist’s hand”. But then I have difficulties with the idea of production; that an industrial-looking object or a spray-painted metal box has nothing to do with the fight the person who made it had with his wife the night before. It’s almost an inhuman attitude towards the object, at least from my point of view. It’s not about good or bad. It’s more a matter of whether it really makes sense.