PRINT November 1998



The first works by Tobias Rehberger that made a lasting impression on me were a series of chairs the artist commissioned, from African carpenters. Clumsy copies of famous high European designs, they could be seen as a critique of old Western chauvinisms and as an amusing comment on the problems of translation between cultures. These Afro-European hybrids have provoked lively discussion wherever they’ve been shown, which begs a question: What is it about these objects that we find so amusing—the European pretensions they point up or the African “difference” they seem to reveal? To me, what makes them interesting is their very oddness. But the effectiveness of this simple—too simple?—gesture has to do with the way these crossbred objects make both cultures strange.
A close dialogue with architecture and design animates most of Rehberger’s work. And if this German artist is a bit of an amateur when it comes to design history, he certainly has a keen sense of ambience. His art always involves specific settings, and he pays as much attention to these cool atmoe pheres as he does to the objects themselves. Sometimes he simply turns the physical surroundings into art.
Based in Frankfurt and Berlin, Rehberger is constantly on the road. Luxembourg, Basel, Stockholm, Berlin—wherever I go, I seem to run into him, and he always seems to have just opened a new exhibition. When I recently met up with him in a Stockholm coffeehouse, we discussed the piece he presented last summer in Luxembourg, at Manifesta 2. This work epitomizes much of what characterizes his projects: a short-circuiting of high modernist aesthetics through the incorporation of something outside its precincts. In this case, it was the noble art of cultivating salad.

A guy wants a classic suit and goes out to get one. Maybe he thinks he’s found the ideal cut. But years later he takes another look at his sample of eternal beauty and the whole thing seems grotesque. Maybe the lapels are too wide, or the color seems off. My work deals with these mechanisms. What at one time is seen as a classic form—something neutral or even timeless—is a construction. I’m interested in this whole process. I want to look at the context in which aesthetic values arise.

Things can often be seen from more than one vantage, and I like to retain those possibilities. My Luxembourg project, situated just outside the casino, is really a piece about perspectives. It’s a kind of flower bed or vegetable garden, set on a terrace overlooking a beautiful landscape. Yet the view has been blocked; now, thanks to my intervention, if you sit down on the bench, you’re looking in the other direction, toward the casino’s pavilion, which was designed by the French architect Prouvé. The terrace, from which things are normally seen, has become the view.

From the top floor of the casino, the assorted vegetables—lettuce, cabbage, various herbs—create abstract fields of color. But it’s really the play of different perspectives that interests me more than the painterly effects. The relation to abstract painting, which appears in many of my works, is a kind of side effect. Of course, it’s calculated, but it’s a by-product of other intentions.

What recurs as crucial to my work is the tension between the functional aspects of objects and their aesthetic qualities. The latter have often been treated as an autonomous sphere, but I bring them back to the pragmatic world. It’s a little like standing in front of Richard Serra’s piece outside the Nationalgalerie in Berlin. First you just stare at it because maybe you really like its shape and color, the rust and all that. But at some point you sit on it and look at the Mies architecture instead. And now you’re looking at Serra with your ass, and that’s a completely new and equally agreeable experience. My works start with this kind of ambiguity.

The Luxembourg work, which I call Within view of seeing (perspectives and the Prouvé), came out of ideas I’ve explored in other works, such as the piece in Münster last year, in which I turned the roof of a university building into a bar. Depending on whether you were actually in the bar or just looking at it from the outside, the experience was completely different. These shifts in perspective also affect the status of architectural sites. In the Munster project, an entire building was reinterpreted as a light source—a huge lamp for the patrons of the bar.

A lot of people think that I want to present design as fine art. That’s not the case, even if my works have lots of references to the histoty of architecture and design. One could perhaps compare the flower beds with my African piece—Peué Seé a Faágck Sunday Paáe (Never on Sunday)—a project that consists of a number of chairs built by African carpenters in accordance with my rather rough sketches of modernist “masterpieces.” There is a Bauhaus chair, an Alvar Aalto, a Corbusier, but they’ve all been reinterpreted in an African way. I think these copies make us see the European originals with new eyes.

Just as I’m not interested in poking fun at high modernist ideas of abstraction, I’m not trying to make jokes about Africa or Europe. I’m just recontextualizing things. The African chairs have been produced after my copies, which in themselves already contain misinterpretations. Some people have seen this work as politically unpleasant with respect to African culture, but I can’t see it like that. The work is about translation. The Luxembourg piece is about an impossible “translation” between gardening and Color Field painting. The plants were taken care of by professional gardeners, so it’s not some kind of hobbyist’s vegetable patch; it’s the real thing. Of course, it’s an unusual garden, since cabbage and lettuce aren’t often used for decorative purposes.

My pieces are about seeing things in new ways—a bit like Jorge Pardo’s works. He shows a sailboat in a museum, I present a vegetable garden as art. Similar questions are being asked. I myself don’t know much about growing things. But I don’t know much about design either. There’s not much difference between my letting a gardener grow vegetables and my asking an African carpenter to produce a copy of a Le Corbusier object. Basically, they play the same role in my work, the Corbu and the head of cabbage.