The first room in Tobias Rehberger’s Home and Away and Outside left no doubt that this retrospective was devoted to the possibilities and limits of sensory perception. The entire space was covered in a camouflage pattern known as ‘dazzle’, first used by the British military in World War I. Its disorienting pattern of black and white stripes was intended to vex the senses. The room also incorporated mirrors amplifying this effect on the viewer’s already faltering perception.
In this anti-white cube, which further develops Rehberger’s café decor Was du liebst, bringt dich auch zum Weinen (The Things You Love Will Make You Cry) from the 2009 Venice Biennale, various works of Rehberger’s struggled under fraught visual conditions. In the sculpture Cuckoo M.J.IV. (2012), a sort of cuckoo clock in the form of a loudspeaker box, it is the diaphragm of the loudspeaker, rather than the cuckoo, that popped out every 15 minutes. And what rung out was not a bird chirp but a Michael Jackson shriek. Thanks to this, the minimalist pop object was relatively easy to find, with or without dazzle.
The major problem with this retrospective was that the artist’s works were presented in terms of perception. While this is a fitting angle for his later works, this narrow construal of ‘viewership’ doesn’t apply to the works of his early and middle periods. As Max Hollein rightfully notes in the catalogue, those works were showpieces of relational aesthetics, shaped by ‘questions of their context and use’. In the exhibition’s two further rooms, the older works were presented on a white, shallowly inclined ramp like autonomous art objects – no longer contextualized, no longer usable (the works are now, of course, sought-after collector’s items).
A specific example of this denial of context and use was Nine (1996), a door plaque taken from an earlier Rehberger exhibition in Frankfurt, Suggestions from the Visitors of the Shows #74 and #75 at Portikus in 1996–97. In that show the work grew out of a visitor survey on improving the functionality of Portikus, and Nine pointed the way to the library. Here, the labelled door simply stood in the middle of the room. Only the Paradise Bookshelf (2009) shown at the back of it, a shelf for all the books published to date by the art press Onestar Press, recalled the original context, but this time there was no visitor survey. Nine is thus reduced to nothing more than the pretty death mask of a concept that once built on location, context and participation. Why was the project not repeated at the Schirn? Why was the decision taken to exhibit a mere part of it? The work Smoking, talking, drinking – in smoking with his friends (1996) pays a similar price for its museumization. An ensemble of a red plastic table and three blue foam chairs, the work was originally displayed at the Galerie Grässlin, where it invited visitors to smoke, talk and drink – in other words, it was intended to be used. Here a label posted next to the ensemble aggressively warned visitors not to touch the art work – its use value gone.
The museumization of relational aesthetics – that is, of art that once took a stand against lofty aesthetic concepts and instead worked in a primarily contextual way – is a problem that arises from the very nature of this movement. Rirkrit Tiravanija sought to resolve this in his retrospective series Tomorrow is Another Fine Day (2004–05) by presenting only texts about his works, rather than the works themselves – refusing the materialization of his time- and site-specific art. Christian Jankowski, who in his video installations frequently plays with the relationships between place, the protagonists of his videos, and his own position as an artist, took a different tactic in Dienstbesprechung (Staff Meeting), his 2008–09 retrospective at the Kunstmuseum Stuttgart. He showed a broad selection of his works to date at the museum, but also incorporated this presentation into a quasi-‘relational’ exhibition concept: the employees of the museum were to switch jobs for the duration of the exhibition. The staff drew lots to determine whether, for instance, the exhibition technician and the museum director would switch roles.
Home and Away and Outside, however, eschewed such experimentation, instead relying on the conventional exhibiting of completed work. On the one hand at least this is honest, bearing testimony to the fact that relational aesthetics has long since been cashed in on, a movement grown ripe for the museum. On the other hand, the exhibition missed an opportunity to retain the experiential quality of this art’s specific and distinctive vitality. Even simple strategies like the restaging of concepts or the inclusion of usable exhibition replicas could have resolved this problem.
Translated by Jane Yager