Tobias Rehberger

Modern design worldwide has been shaped by the demands of the German Bauhaus: functionality, clarity of form, rigor. Through the years, such strictures have led to a dehumanizing rigidity, pushed further by artists such as Donald Judd who placed form explicitly above everyday life. Tobias Rehberger aims to bring them back into contact. Among his first projects was to commission artisans in Cameroon to make reproductions of classic modernist chairs using drawings he had made from memory. In these chairs, Untitled (Breuer/Rietveld/Berliner Werkstätten/Aalto/Judd), 1994, one recognizes both the artist’s rendering and the imagination of the African craftsmen, and it is exactly this which delights the observer: the endearing human qualities of these re-created chairs as compared to the austerity of the originals.

The chairs, as well as the other works on display, were lined up in the middle of the long, tunnel-like space of the basement floor of the Museum Ludwig like the colorful tail of a Chinese dragon. In this line were also vases filled with the various favorite flowers of the Grässlin family of collectors. These vases, Anna, Thomas, Cosima, Rosanna, Bärbel, Katharina, Rüdiger, Sabine, Karola, Christian, 1999, are meant as portraits; gallerist Bärbel Grässlin is assigned an angular, black vase, for instance. The gesture follows one that helped make Rehberger’s name: In 1995, he had asked the artists of the Berlin gallery neugerriemschneider to send bouquets for its first anniversary. He then matched the bouquets with vases he himself had designed. The portrait was finished.

Using others’ input is a constant in Rehberger’s oeuvre. Here, a large transparent Plexiglas tree house, Platz für 15 Albaner (Aus London) (Place for 15 Albanians [From London]), 2005, towered above the other objects. It was designed as an emergency shelter for illegal immigrants on the south coast of Spain. In fact, this tree house derives from one made by a model maker based on photos of Rehberger’s installation Bisschen schwangere Tochter (Slightly Pregnant Daughter), 2003, which was also included in the show.

The titles are striking: Others include “Infektion,” 2000, for a series of colorful lamps made of Velcro, “Kaputte Zwergenmutter” (Broken Midget Mother), 2004–2006, for a group of morbid-looking paper flowers, and That you jump out of a window after taking LSD, for example, that is really not true, 2006, for an abstract sculpture that belongs to the group “Handicapped Sculptures,” 2006. This series explores the question of whether the adherence to abstract forms excludes functionality. Rehberger comes up with a solution that is typical for him: A container that leaks water and doesn’t succeed in its function, for example, is called a minimalist fountain, thereby preserving its utility in a different way.

Even the snakelike arrangement of the artworks had a function. Thanks to some cleverly installed lamps, the objects served in the projection of a shadow theater—or wall painting, as Rehberger calls this installation, Die Das-kein-Henne-Ei-Problem-Wandmalerei (The Chicken-and-Egg-No-Problem-Wall-Painting), 2008—onto the entire length of a wall. The shadows mixed with actual painting, and the observer was caught in a guessing game: Shadow or painting; if shadow, then of what? This was a successful, buoyant play on the dilemma that has been engaging us since Plato.

Noemi Smolik

Translated from German by Laura Hoffmann.