Questioning the Canon

The astonishing re-staging of one of Germany’s most influential and internationally renowned contemporary artists is playful, bewildering, enticing and dazzlingly hypnotic.

Tobias Rehberger. Home and Away and Outside is not a retrospective, but a re-presentation of Tobias Rehberger’s (b. 1966) practice, which stands between art, design and architecture as a kind of site-specific Op Art. The exhibition covers the past 20 years and features 60 works both new and old.

Taking place within the Schirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt, a historic marketplace rebuilt as a monumental 2,000-square-foot gallery after its destruction during World War II, this is Rehberger’s first major solo show in Frankfurt. The city has been his home for the past 25 years, having studied under Martin Kippenberger at the Frankfurt’s celebrated Städelschule, where Rehberger himself is now a professor of sculpture. Still, he is not new to large museum-style venues by any means; having had major solo shows in prominent European cities such as Milan, London, Graz and Madrid, he received international acclaim for his installation at the 50th Venice Biennale in 2003, which resulted in a commission to occupy the Palazzo delle Esposizioni during the 53rd Venice Biennale in 2009.

Showing within the Italian pavilion for the 50th Biennale, Rehberger presented Seven Ends of the World, a suspended canopy of coloured glass lamps that were activated by sensors based in locations across the world, including a derelict Burger King in Kyoto, Japan, and a pumpkin field in rural Romania. He always creates work that transcends its function; here each lamp glowed with an intensity that was equal to the light levels at their corresponding “trigger” location.

Since Rehberger works with light, sculpture, painting, object and installation, his output is fundamentally diverse – in fact he describes this show as having been designed to “look like the work of three people” – however, his themes remain consistent. Drawing upon mass culture, art production techniques, and ideas of perspective, ownership, authorship and copyright, his environments emerge as ordinary conditions, everyday items and familiar situations that have been radically altered. The work is therefore interdependent upon the viewer, and whether a “dazzle-painted” sculpture, an altered piece of furniture or, most recently, a “shadow work”, the crux of Rehberger’s practice is without doubt a questioning of “the way we view art.”

With this intention in mind, Tobias Rehberger. Home and Away and Outside is divided thematically into three parts, each section using sculptures, installations and paintings to test conventional viewing methods in a different way. The decision to split the show was partly enforced by the structure of the Kunsthalle, which, Rehberger explains, is not an easy space to work in: “One gallery is very long and narrow while the other used to be a concert hall, but it’s great that the space is difficult and not so ordinary.” The show is curated by Matthias Ulrich (whose previous involvement with Jeff Koons’s exhibitions is discernible), and upon the collaboration, Rehberger comments: “It was a friendly ping pong match – I was coming up with ideas and he was playing them back. It always seems to be that you think of something and then you need someone to reconfigure it, so that it fits. I suppose his job was to control me – in a way that makes sense.” “Making sense” is not a phrase that visitors would choose to describe their experience, instead they find themselves disorientated and befuddled. Of course this is Rehberger’s intention, as it is only by removing the viewer from their comfort zone that existing perspectives can be reassessed and new angles of consideration found. An artist who does not do anything by halves, Rehberger also spent part of his four-week installation adapting the architecture of his 700-square-metre space to avoid using the generic “white cube” backdrop and to distort relationships between art and audience.

The first section of the exhibition is the segment that challenges convention most dramatically. Making use of Rehberger’s most well-known trope, dazzle paint, this vast installation builds upon his work that attained the Golden Lion for best artist at the 53rd Venice Biennale, Was du liebst, bringt dich auch zum Weinen (2009). However, while this award-winning 2009 cafeteria-style installation was designed to be used as a permanent functional space, here it is reimagined as an art space. The entire west gallery has been transformed into an artwork; its walls, floor and seating are wallpapered with a disorientating graphic paper that Rehberger designed especially for the show. It comprises black and white lines that zigzag and cross in differing thicknesses, shapes and proximity, and which are reflected in wall-mounted mirrors to produce a disorientating optical flicker.

Developed by the British Navy during World War I as camouflage for ships (and a technique which Pablo Picasso claimed had been stolen from Cubism), Rehberger uses “dazzle painting” partly because he is “interested in art which you’re not supposed to look at.” He continues: “All of this dazzle work is about this funny contradiction or paradox between something being very strong, graphic and colourful, and also being a camouflage technique. Here, he not only presents the paintwork as a standalone art piece, but also utilises its disguising quality to warp the viewing of the first room’s accompanying paintings, objects and deliberately faulted sculptures.”

Although Tobias Rehberger. Home and Away and Outside is not a retrospective, the artist states: “There are many important pieces missing; it’s more that each work is part of a composition rather than having historical relevance.” These dazzle pieces are a crucial inclusion as they have been pivotal within Rehberger’s practice. He explains: “It’s important for me to think about or construct work that circles around the question of visibility: is art really only something to look at, or have around and behind you? I’m interested in the way that we use it.” Rehberger feels that our relationship with art should be more “natural and not so confrontational. We have to go somewhere, stand in front of something, stare at it, then it stares back and you go home. I think it should be more present everywhere and all around us. We shouldn’t always have to look at it – it’s also nice to have an Andy Warhol painting hanging behind your back.”

The sculptures in this first room could be seen to take inspiration from Pop Art and, of course, Op Art. There are Lichtenstein-esque speech bubbles and linear sculptures, oversized fists and tall monolithic blocks with clashing angles – objects which protrude and jar on the eye against their heavily patterned surroundings. In appropriating this widely used camouflage method Rehberger is, like Warhol, questioning individual authorship and copyright, and what counts as design, art or mass-produced commodity. Still, it is not a Pop, Op or even an interventional artist that Rehberger notes as an influence, but instead he simply names those who “are critical about their work,” those who rework and relay such as his former tutor, Kippenberger, and Francis Picabia, artists for whom “the doubt is implemented in the work already.”

This doubt, or distrust, rather, continues throughout the exhibition as Rehberger re-encounters and questions the presentation of art, with the second room taking the form of a collection of chairs, lamps, vases and hanging lights, which are set in an “all-white plinth landscape.”

This space also stresses Rehberger’s intelligent use of lighting: “While the first space is quite contrasted, and completely confusing because of something structural, in the other (second) space we’ve built into a big plinth; the floor is white as much as any architectural element is white, and it makes this very strange kind of blurry, almost foggy ‘evenlight’ in the space.” Initially presenting autonomous sculpture in a chaotic environment, and then traditional furniture pieces within a second plinth-like space, Rehberger is admittedly “making fun” of our preconceptions. This second, minimalist assembly asks the question: if an artwork has function, is it design? This, the artist dismisses as “a ridiculous question.” In Rehberger’s opinion “art is not art because there’s some kind of core or a soul that makes it art, it’s the way you look at it – you can look at anything and say that it’s an art piece. Then you can apply a catalogue of qualities to it to discern whether it’s a successful artwork or not – you can do that with anything and you can do it with the term design.”

Including functional items in the show signifies that Rehberger “questions certain ideas, or at least my status quo of what art should do – what is art? If I think about some work outside of the National Gallery in Berlin, a big cube of iron by Richard Serra (Berlin Block (for Charlie Chaplin) (1978), you sit on it on a hot summer’s day and it’s cold and it’s nice – is that a quality that an art should have? Does that contribute to the way that you think about objects? Why do we always ask the same questions? I think that’s where my approach started – I realised that those queries just weren’t getting me much further and I started asking things that weren’t being asked.”

The second space features a collection of sculptural pieces from the 1990s onwards, raising new ideas through representing them within a new setting. Rehberger describes curating these individual objects as “a little bit like composing a painting: a few small objects, bigger pieces and colours that agree. All together it makes sense and it creates a picture.”

Notable works are included, such as the 1994 series We Never Work on Sundays, in which Rehberger drew, from his own flawed memories and with little regard for technical accuracy, examples of some of the most iconic 20th century furniture designs. These were then taken to Cameroon where Rehberger employed local carpenters, who were unfamiliar with the originals, to each build a single replica from their chosen drawing.

The results are bizarre misrepresentations of Rehberger’s already imperfect drafts. It leads to curious new works, for example, Alvar Aalto’s three-legged stool ends up with an extra leg for stability – which catches the eye and again examines issues of ownership and production methods, as well as confronting the viewer with a slightly misshapen version of reality.

The third part of this exhibition, Regret (2014), brings audiences back to viewing methods. Rehberger describes it as “a very weird, semi-figurative piece” or, more accurately, “a destroyed satellite from Las Vegas” – proving that the show is essentially a playful game of perspectives.

Hanging from the glass ceiling of the atrium, within the Kunsthalle’s freely accessible Schirn Rotunda, Regret is a gigantic mass of neon tubes, brightly lit advertising signs, and fairground lights – reminiscent of Americana and buzzing metropolises, but also waste. Rehberger explains that, it was completed by an overhead spotlight, so that the form would “cast a shadow onto a plinth, like a bench from which you can look at the object, so part of the content of the sculpture you don’t see by looking at it, you only see it by looking at your seat. It’s almost that the shadow is more important than the sculpture itself. It is only a production tool for the shade.”

This is of course the Outside of Tobias Rehberger. Home and Away and Outside: Home is the theme reflected in the second space’s conventional (almost) furniture items and Away is the first, dreamlike dazzle ensemble. Regret is the key work here, highlighting absolutely the significance of individual experience, opinion and perception for Rehberger’s practice: literally lifting the viewer onto a pedestal or “plinth” to confirm that there is no concrete categorisation or outdated canon for art, or design.

An artist who stands between conventions and genres, Tobias Rehberger confronts his audience with joyful overstimulation, playful questioning and their own preconceptions in this inquisitive and multi-faceted kaleidoscope of an exhibition. Tobias Rehberger. Home and Away and Outside continues until 11 May at the Schirn Kunsthalle, Frankfurt, Germany.

Chloe Hodge