PRINT January 1997


TOBIAS REHBERGER IS NO LONGER a secret in his native Germany. The thirty-year-old artist, whose frequently collaborative output includes drawings, paintings, and sculpture as well as installations consisting of handmade, everyday objects that evoke groovy ’60s and ’70s furnishings, has already appeared in numerous museum and Kunstverein shows. He’s contributed to exhibitions like “Backstage” and “Manifesta I” (for which he sent identically clad club kids wandering throughout the Rotterdam show’s various sites) and will appear in the upcoming “Skulpturenprojekte Münster” (his initial proposal to transform a Donald Judd sculpture into a functioning bar was rejected).

But it was “One,” Rehberger’s 1995 solo show in Berlin, that brought the artist the most attention. “One” consisted of nine vases he designed to refer to nine of the gallery’s artists. The vase Wolfgang Tillmans, 1995, stands in for the photographer through a sprayed application that smacks of a wax—batik aesthetic but also conveys the white-bread atmosphere of Tillmans’ Kirchetag photos of church youth groups; Jorge Pardo, 1995, has been given an impeccably minimal design, in colors close to those Pardo uses; the dark reflecting surface of Sharon Lockhart, 1995, seems as mysterious as that artist’s photos. For the opening of “One,” Rehberger asked the represented artists, who had not seen the flower holders, to send arrangements for their own vases (for what it’s worth, the bouquets they chose suited his vases remarkably well). Rehberger’s tongue-in-cheek gesture managed in a single, concise stroke to reduce the gallery’s artists to a shorthand of color and form, and the gallery to a florist’s shop. Rehberger’s method is associative, and in the process playful. Yet despite the flippancy of his experiment, the vessels managed to carry the subjective particularities of the artists represented, and put a humorous, half-literal, half-figurative spin on the phrase “signature style.”

While clearly drawing on the legacy of site-specific work by forebears such as Michael Asher or Daniel Buren, Rehberger’s institutional modifications create new spaces, most often with an ambience reminiscent of ’60s and ’70s design. By drawing on the formal characteristics of such banal elements, Rehberger quotes at once the utopianism of the period and its breezy adaptation by consumer society, while noting the ephemerality of style and taste. If his interests in design and installation frameworks sound at first similar to those of Andrea Zittel and Rirkrit Tiravanija, he is generally more interested in objects isolated from their function (the furniture he makes for many of his installations is designed out of scale, built less for comfort than style). At the Frankfurt Portikus, he altered the floor so it became a sound amplifier, erected directional signs, and transformed the dividing walls between the toilets into shelving walls as a response to questionnaires distributed at two earlier shows as to how he might “improve” the space (previous installations often serve as a reference point for Rehberger in future shows, thus functioning as a further catalyst for his own production).

Beyond foregrounded elements such as design and fashion in the context of art production, Rehberger’s installations draw parallels between consumer and art-historical styles. Take the show consisting of seven minireplicas of existing works of public sculpture, identified by the “initials” of the building they stand in front of, as well as two original miniature pieces by Rehberger. The artist withheld information as to which were replicas of actual pieces. One would be hard-pressed to determine which sculptures refer to true antecedents like Henry Moore or Max Bill and which came entirely from Rehberger’s imagination, since all the sculptures suggest some prevalent art style. Rehberger pursued a similar pointed strategy in his display of thirty-six African sculptures, seven of which are again from his own fantasy as to what “African sculpture” should look like.

Almost all of Rehberger’s projects are accompanied by artist’s books (an obvious affinity with his teacher Martin Kippenberger, whose catalogues would become an integral part of his oeuvre). His interest in the production and dissemination of art-historical documentation is readily apparent in these short catalogues. In a wry comment on the internationalization of contemporary art, he had the text written on the occasion of his Museum Friedericianum show in Kassel translated from German to English, from English to French, then into Greek, and so on. The Babelesque result was eventually published, without reference to the original.

In their calculated stylishness and restrained use of irony, Rehberger’s seemingly carefree, casual gestures function as a sophisticated version of entrapment. Once you’ve accepted Rehberger’s invitation, the issues raised by the pieces become all the more compelling: concealed in all their visual seductiveness is a reflexive bite.

Yilmaz Dziewior is a critic who lives in Cologne, Germany.

Translated from the German by David Jacobson.