in Frieze | 04 MAR 97
Featured in
Issue 33

Things In Proportion

Tobias Rehberger

in Frieze | 04 MAR 97

They stand, virtually invisible, outside the headquarters of banks and multinational corporations, and on lawns in front of federal buildings. Carved from stone, cast in bronze or made from polished, welded steel, they are the public sculptures that blend effortlessly into the architectural landscape. Abstract and vague, their style is that of International Modernism, immediately recognisable for its innocuousness and anonymity. They're a hotchpotch soup made from elements of the early greats - Brancusi, Arp, Picasso and Gabo - with dashes of Henry Moore, David Smith or Richard Serra thrown in for good measure.

From Buenos Aires to Cape Town, these sculptures map out the world-wide diffusion of non-representational aesthetics. Like a giant game of Chinese Whispers played out over many decades, the esoteric and revolutionary ideas of avant-garde visionaries have been passed along from generation to generation, country to country, becoming diluted in the process and reduced to a simplified generic formula.

Tobias Rehberger has made an exhibition of scaled-down replicas of these sculptures, based on those he'd seen outside major companies or government offices while on a road trips around his native Germany. The models are accurate, detailed reproductions, and go as far as simulating surface weather erosion. Made from lightweight modelling materials and reduced to a portable domestic size, they lose all their allusions to grandeur, and wouldn't look amiss as ornaments to have around the home. They do have this 70s funkiness about them: a kind of shag-pile carpet, modular-seating look with kitschy sci-fi overtones - the sort of thing that Captain Kirk might have on his bedside table.

What makes these models particularly intriguing is that of the nine, only seven are actual copies of pre-existing sculptures. Two of them are Rehberger's own design. This information is made available, but we are not told which of them are the fakes. Moving from one to the other, attempting to decide which are authentic, only has the effect of throwing into doubt the status of all the models. As each one is appraised a situation of bluff and double-bluff arises, and the crazy preposterous ones begin to seem as likely as the mundane ones. The anonymity of their form, of course, doesn't help. But then, isn't that model of two red biomorphic forms a Henry Moore? In fact, it definitely is, but what does this prove? Only perhaps that Moore himself was a synthesiser of second-hand ideas.

Yet this kind of judgement is somewhat besides the point. For Rehberger, the interest lies in how these sculptures dissolve the normal plot points of the grand art historical narrative, rendering them more elastic and continuous. It is from this de-centred, non-hierarchical position that Rehberger spins his own art.

In 1994 Rehberger spent several months in his studio remaking the complete works of his father. There were only 30 pieces in total. Collected from his parents garage, an aunt's attic, and other dusty corners, the paintings, sculptures and drawings cover a number of different styles. A cubist painting of a town in grey and blue. Some simple Minimalist constructions. A Miró-like study in psychic automatism. A series of pencil drawings of Rehberger Jr. as baby and young child. And a couple of oddities including an ink-pen drawing of a couple dancing on a pack of playing cards.

Rehberger's father wasn't a professional artist, he was an engineer. He had wanted to go to art college but his parents were against it, so he made art in his spare time. It became his hobby, and it's tempting to say it became an innocent pastime, because there is something innocent about the different things his father made. Perhaps what makes them seem so endearing is imagining Rehberger in his studio, retracing his fathers hand. Even though Rehberger creates some distance by quadrupling their size and exhibiting them in a considered, formally cool manner, his act of mimesis retains a sense of filial regard and affection.

In some ways, this work could also be seen as an act of generosity or selflessness, a dissolution of ego that can similarly be found in Rehberger's collaborative work. One idea was to ask friends to draw their ideal double bed, which Rehberger would then fabricate. The designs came both in the form of accurate technical drawings and loose, roughly-drawn sketches, leaving Rehberger room for different degrees of interpretation. The finished results included a prosaic wooden base and mattress, a fantasy white fur ensemble, and a classic looking number with a tubular chrome frame.

Rehberger used the same approach for his exhibition 'Fragments of their Pleasant Spaces (My Fashionable Version)', asking friends for ideas that would greatly improve their home life. Five were realised, each given its own space and marked out in the exhibition by separate areas of different flooring material. No need to fight about the channel. Together, lean back (1996) is the answer to those domestic arguments over watching the football or the French film - two matching TV sets and comfy chairs. Smoking, talking, drinking; In smoking with my friends (1996) was three chairs and a table, the table being one large ashtray with beer holders in the corners. 'My Fashionable Version' refers to the overall aesthetic of 'Fragments of their Pleasant Spaces.' Rehberger went for groovy retro plastics in bright colours, and used the shapes and soft lines of a futuristic, leisure-influenced functionalism. The result was a hyper-fashionable look, synthesised from the latest trends in design and cranked up a few gears.

There are other artists currently engaged with similarly collaborative approaches to making art, but these artists tend to focus far less on the finished art object and more on process, performance and audience interaction. It's a kind of anti-formalism that often equates to sloppy, rambling and ill-defined ideas. In comparison, Rehberger's work is aphoristically concise and formally clean. A case in point was his exhibition 'Peue See e Faagck Sunday Paae (We never work on Sundays)', the outcome of an invitation to visit Cameroon as part of a Goethe Institute initiative. The brief was as hazy as it was politically dubious - something along the lines of an expedition to aid the global dissemination of German art.

In the month he was there Rehberger contacted local craftsmen and presented them with drawings of chairs, each design a modern classic, including Breuer's tubular steel 'Wassily Chair', Aalto's three-legged stool and Rietveld's de Stijl armchair. Without further guidance, the craftsmen were left with the drawings and asked to make single examples of each chair. Misreadings, distortions and modifications abound in the finished results, none more so than with Aalto's stool which was given an extra leg for added stability.

'Peue See e Faagck Sunday Paae' flips around the flow of ideas in art. In the early part of the century the movement was from Africa and Oceania, via sailors and travellers, to Paris and the studios of Montmartre. There the anthropomorphic sculptures and tribal masks were valued for their distorted perspective, irrationality and perceived primal spirit. Translated and adapted by Picasso into the Demoiselles d'Avignon, and Cubism was on its way. What Rehberger imports to Cameroon is almost an exact inversion - geometrical order, rationality, and the art-for-all spirit of the Bauhaus.

Rehberger's recent exhibition at Portikus in Frankfurt was in the tradition of institutional critique, though the emphasis was on practical solutions rather than deconstructive theory. Characteristically, he set about in a collaborative manner, giving the viewer an opportunity to contribute to the debate. For the duration of the previous two exhibitions, a form was given to visitors to the gallery. It stated that Portikus was considering the problems faced by viewers and asked them for suggestions as to how things could be improved.

Some proposals were rather extreme, in the vein of 'turn it into a brothel', 'only show the work of Gerhard Richter', or 'paint the director green'. Other comments were directed towards the gallery's white cube austerity, though they weren't based on a critique of the ideology of exhibition spaces and their pretence of neutrality. Instead they were requests for much simpler, pragmatic things, such as a better handle for the door to the toilet, improving the comfort of the chairs in the reading room, the provision of seating in the gallery, a bicycle stand, and reading material for the toilet. It was from these type of requests that Rehberger made his exhibition, carrying out the improvements as temporary propositions rather than permanent changes. The only problem was the paradoxical absence of any 'proper' art for the viewer to experience under the new enhanced conditions.

In relying upon contributions from others there will always be an unpredictable element. Of Rehberger's many collaborative projects his exhibition for the neugerriemschneider gallery's anniversary dovetailed the external contribution and Rehberger's input perfectly. For each of the nine artists who had exhibited in the gallery's first year, he designed and fabricated a vase, intending the forms to express something about the personality of each of the artists. Tiranvanija's vase, for example, was made of basic unglazed terracotta with blue tape stripes; Michel Majerus' was a cylindrical stack of toxic-coloured gooey plaster layers, and Thaddeus Strode's was fashioned from the branch of a tree. The artists, who didn't know about the vases, were then asked to bring a bunch of flowers to the anniversary party. On arrival the flowers were put into the respective vases, thus completing the portraits. There was uncanny correspondence between the finished portraits and their subjects, especially in the case of Wolfgang Tillmans (1995). The vase was an elegant, slender design in soft earthy colours; the flowers a bunch of pink roses.

Rehberger has understood the myth of genius too well to get bogged down in the heroics of self-expression. His role, rather, is as a catalyst, a conduit, a designer, a middleman. It's a way of working that extends into art history, connects to personal relationships, and is able to tie in the strands of other peoples desires. It steps on from making a distinction between high and low, allowing for an amalgamated flux of art, music, fashion and graphic design. While his work may appear at times as nothing more than conceptual doodling, taken as a whole it is possible to discern a new kind of artistic production. At a time when many younger artists cling to outmoded practices and the fag-end of 80s theory still hangs stale in the air, Rehberger's modest enterprise emerges as accurate, appropriate, tuned-in and relevant.