This Unclear Status:
Tobias Rehberger on Wrap It Up

Deutsche Bank and the MACRO are presenting WRAP IT UP, the first comprehensive exhibition of works on paper by Tobias Rehberger. With the show, Deutsche Bank is continuing its cooperation with the Rome museum, where exhibitions of “Artists of the Year” Yto Barrada and Imran Qureshi had already been on view.

Tobias Rehberger @ MACRO con “Wrap it up” - Deutsche Bank Collection + recent works on paper

Born in 1966, Tobias Rehberger is one of the most important proponents of international contemporary art. In 2009, he received the Golden Lion at the Venice Biennale for his installation Was du liebst, bringt dich auch zum Weinen (What you love will also make you cry). Many of his works are included in the Deutsche Bank Collection, and a whole floor of the bank’s Frankfurt headquarters is devoted to him. WRAP IT UP unites works from the collection and numerous loans spanning more than three decades. They are illuminated by Rehberger’s Infections, light objects made from colored Velcro strips. At the interface between the visual arts, popular culture, and design, he intervenes in myriad spheres of life. But what role do works on paper play in the oeuvre of the artist, who is primarily known for his installations and environments? Oliver Koerner von Gustorf met Tobias Rehberger in his studio in Frankfurt’s Osthafen.

Oliver Koerner von Gustorf:
You are presenting your very first exhibition of drawings at the MACRO museum in Rome.

Tobias Rehberger: That’s right. My drawings and works on paper are scarcely known, although I’ve always drawn and painted with watercolors parallel to my other work. The most well-known drawings are probably the ones on view in the Deutsche Bank Towers. When the art department of Deutsche Bank approached me about an exhibition of my works on paper, I was immediately interested.

To better understand the role of drawing in your work, I’d like to talk first about the sculptures and installations you are known for. You were just honored in Frankfurt with a large show. The exhibition began and ended with a work in the rotunda in front of the museum entrance: a sculpture made of steel and light sources. It looks like a deconstructed advertising sign and casts a shadow on a white surface creating the word “regret.” What should be regretted?

The viewers could decide themselves. I wanted them to regret something before they viewed the exhibition and not afterward.

And you said that people should not look at this exhibition, but away from it.

With the sculpture, I wanted to add something eye-catching, something blunt. The colors alluded to the colors of the American flag. It was intentionally supposed to look wrecked, like a half-destroyed advertisement or a crashed satellite. I thought this “regret” was very appropriate, like a nice, blunt, almost obtuse balled-fist-in-the-pocket expression. For me, it is important that people don’t know what the actual work is: the steel sculpture or the shadow. That they don’t know where it begins and where it ends, who made it initially and how much the viewer adds. It’s not clear what is just a means to an end or a tool, and where you should actually look.

But the word “regret” is fraught with meaning and captures our feeling today.

Yes, but the sculpture on the ceiling is actually a cripple, a kind of model. On the one hand, it stands for itself. On the other, it’s a model of something else. It’s supposed to co-represent precisely what is not there. Of course, it’s often claimed in art that through an object or an image something arises or is conjured up that transcends what it actually is. The model is a synonym for this. For example, an architectural model. How, based on the model, can we find out whether it’s okay, say, to build the European Central Bank? At the same time, however, there are questions about the model itself. Does it look good? What style does it have? It’s like a hermaphrodite. It has its own identity, yet at the same time it has to be something else. That’s what fascinates me about models: this unclear status.

The “Infections” lights, which are a central element of the exhibition in MACRO, also have the character of models or prototypes.

Assuming that a watercolor is not an object, this installation is the only three-dimensional object in the exhibition. There are two reasons for this: on the one hand, because these objects “draw” themselves; they create a shadow, a strange chicken scratch on the wall. At the same time, though, they depict an interim moment in the artistic production. They are made in a very specific way; namely, they are made by employees who try to create these sculptures the way they think I would make them. A few years ago, I started working with Velcro, because the material can be reworked quickly. So I check what others project onto my works with my own projection and then reconstruct them. Sometimes to such an extent that the starting situation is no longer recognizable. But sometimes I don’t change anything at all. The most important thing is these two perspectives: someone else’s view of my work and my own view of my work, and how they mix.

You call yourself a sculptor. How can your drawings be viewed in conjunction with your sculptural work?

They are not three-dimensional structures, of course, but that makes no difference to me. Some drawings, including drawings in the bank’s collection, are actually studies. They have a different status. Other works are conceived exactly like sculptures, in principle, as autonomous artworks. But there are also arbitrary drawings that are intentionally reworked and elevated. They look like studies and even display a certain genesis of the work. But they were made after the actual work and only seem to be studies. An example is the watercolor series with the vases.

Your drawing “NO, NO, NO! Immer wieder Imperialismus” (NO, NO, NO! Imperialism Again and Again”), which you created after 2000, recalls Martin Kippenberger.

Perhaps the title conveys a little of Kippenberger’s humor. For the series, I asked my students to make political collages and then reworked them; abstracted them, you could say.

Is that a teacher saying NO, NO, NO!?

Exactly. That’s how politics begins; first someone says “No, No, No!”. And they always have their own logic, unlike with Kippenberger, who thinks of funny titles that are very original and artistic and taken out of nowhere. My titles have a lot to do with the genesis of my works. The process is always important: Where do the things come from? Why are they the way they are? They look like nice abstract collages, but in terms of their genesis they are something completely different. They speak on the one hand about why one starts making political art to begin with, and on the other about why one starts making abstract art and how political it is – and the titles are in keeping.

In your oeuvre of works on paper, there is not only political art, but also the opposite, completely undisguised advertising, isn’t there?

Fifteen years ago, I started working on a series of advertising posters. I simply created posters for things I liked and put them up around the city.

Without anyone asking you.

(Laughs) That’s right. I even made one for Adidas. Without being commissioned. In Berlin for the meat store Fleischhauerei, for the clothing store Appartement, for Grill Royal. Always only four or five copies that I put up around town. And in London I made one for my favorite fish ‘n’ chips place.

I find your “ Applications” series really interesting. Many of the works look like abstract computer art for offices.

They’re computer images produced using certain programs. Some are very simple works I made using Illustrator, but some were made in 3D programs. The quality of the latter is very poor, among other things, because that’s the best I can do. I simply decided to make something with 361 clicks.

The number of steps had already been determined, as a conceptual framework for the drawing, so to speak?

Yes. There are simple images you can make with Illustrator. 20 Illustrator 8.0 Applications. I specified twenty steps and then implemented them technically, so to speak. For example, a draft for a work consisting of adhesive tape and watercolors. After twenty steps, the motif was completed and it was subsequently executed with the colors and the tape.

Could we talk briefly about the “Kaputte Zwergenmutter” (Broken Mother Elf)? The term “mother” comes up again and again in your work.

Yes. Mother relates to this model. There are, for example, model garages that are almost as big as real garages. When you buy the certificates for these models, you buy the license to replicate them, so to speak. When I build one, it becomes a work of mine. You can buy a certificate for ten euros at the museum shop. Then you have to decide yourself how exactly to proceed. Everyone has to decide for himself whether to use exact dimensions for to reconstruct it from memory. When I send in a photo of the finished construction, I receive an archive number. The “garage” is then listed as one my works, is included in my list of works. I always call the original model “mother,” because different people interpret it differently. It is preceded by a genetic code from the model, which is mixed with the father, the manufacturer…

…just like children...

…and all children are similar, but not the same.

I love your series of jewelry watercolors from the early 1990s.

There were three series: weapons, arts, and jewelry. I simply copied them from jewelry and weapons catalogs. I thought it was funny to painting something as stupid as a Rolex in watercolors.

It has something low-life about it: weapons, jewelry…

…and art too. But that’s exactly the point. What is important is the “but-you-can’t-do-that.” I asked myself why you can do one thing but not another. In the 1990s, this included landscape paintings. You simply couldn’t paint them back then.

How did you get the idea to go to Verdun and make plein air paintings there? You don’t simply spontaneously decide to go to Verdun.

But that’s what I did. I said, I’m going to Verdun. And not only to Verdun, but also to places on the Somme and Marne rivers. I went there with a friend to paint battlefields with watercolors. The reason was similar to why I marked crash sites on my mountain drawings with red circles. At issue is the fact that you’re not allowed to paint this lovely mountain landscape. In the last fifty years, only Richter has been allowed to do so.

Artists have started painting them again.

Today. But this was disparaged in 1992. Only hobby painters from community colleges dealt with “landscape.” But we wanted to do that too – and not just anywhere, but on battlefields. In places where you can’t see how bad things were because on the surface they are merely beautiful landscapes, but in reality they were the site of horrible battles in World War I.

It’s interesting that in your work there are continual references to Modernism and to violence.

But I don’t hit you over the head with it.

Behind many of your designs are precipices. For example, in your cafeteria installation “The Things You Love Will Also Make You Cry,” for which you won the Golden Lion at the 2009 Venice Biennale. The visitors sat in a psychedelic dazzle pattern originally used to camouflage battleships in World War I. What precipice is concealed behind the sweaters in the drawing series “B.F. (Are Hard to Find)”?

The title stands for “Best Friends are hard to find.” This series of sweater samples is based on studies for abstract wall paintings in an exhibition. The museum guards had to knit sweaters for my best friends based on the patterns of the finished wall paintings. I drew them for the series of drawings in the Deutsche Bank Collection, as a reverse study, so to speak.

When they were asked whether they were knitting sweaters based on the wall paintings, did the museum staff say they were.

Exactly. You could see they were because they were surrounded by the wall paintings.

And didn’t you design underpants for museum staff?

Those were undergarments that museum staff wore at my first Biennale in Venice. Visitors could go to the supervisor and ask to see my design. Some employees showed their underpants, others didn’t.

Speaking of clothing: About ten years ago you supposedly burned all of your clothes for “Großer Akt in Winterlandschaft” (Large Nude in Winter Landscape), a print commissioned by Deutsche Bank.

Not supposedly. I burned all my clothes except for one set: a T-shirt, a pair of underpants, a pair of socks, and a pair of trousers, so that I could go shopping.

To buy new clothes.

I needed one set, but I burnt all the others.

Is there something you can remember, perhaps a piece of clothing, that you regret burning?

Okay, a few of the T-shirts were nice. But I don’t become attached to my clothes, though I wouldn’t burn my wedding suit. Pigments were made from the ashes and they were used to create the winter landscape nude.

It’s an abstract form suspended in front of something resembling a landscape.

Those are fir trees.

How did you arrive at the form?

I wanted to make something absurd, something unpleasant and kitschy yet still magical. At my grandmother’s house, there were photos that looked like calendar sheets with green adhesive fixed between two glass panels. I simply liked the idea of concrete things like clothing producing this nothingness, this abstract something, something between Henry Moore and a Marian apparition.

Yet it’s a very symbolic act. They get undressed, burn their clothes, and the ashes are pigmented. In the end there is also a portrait.

You have to imagine it unpleasantly. Ultimately, they are molecules that come out of me and that you then have in your nose. It’s about real things that I’ve sweated into. The bacteria are gone, but it’s truly one to one. The material is transformed, as is done in art: you take something and turn it into something else.

Tobias Rehberger: Wrap it up
19/9/2014 – 11/1/2015
MACRO - Museo d’Arte Contemporanea Roma