The Idea of a Portrait
On the Making of Tobias
Rehberger's "Large Nude in a Snowy Landscape"
As though it were a part of me: for his contribution to the upcoming issue of
Deutsche Bank's Visuell magazine, the artist
Tobias Rehberger had nearly all of the clothing in his wardrobe burned.
Subsequently, black ink was manufactured from the incinerated remains and
used to print two pages designed by Rehberger. Oliver Koerner von
Gustorf on an unusual burning action in Allgäu and a "self portrait"
born out of collective ideas, expectations, and perceptions.
There were over 80 T-shirts on the list of the articles of clothing burned,
but only one pair of underpants. How did you arrive at this selection?
It wasn't a selection. That's just what I owned.
What? You only own
one pair of underpants?
–From a telephone
conversation with Tobias Rehberger
"Black – from Tobias Rehberger's clothing" can be read on the labels of
the jars of pigment reflecting the afternoon sun. Inside them is the
extract of an entire wardrobe, a personal inventory worn on the body day
after day, the stuff from which we decide again and again how to present
ourselves to the outside world, today. To be precise, we're looking here
at a coat, eighty-two T-shirts, twenty shirts, two suit trousers, eighteen
sweaters, seven pairs of pants, a jacket, a cardigan, three pairs of
jeans, three suits, nineteen pairs of socks, one pair of underpants, three
ties, and two pairs of shorts, incinerated at a high temperature and
reduced to particles that were then sifted and ground down to a fine
powder – the sum total of Tobias Rehberger's clothes, transformed now into
a substance used to manufacture offset ink. As a contribution to Visuell
, Rehberger will be filling a double-page spread of Deutsche Bank's art
magazine with his "Large Nude in a Winter Landscape," printed with the
burnt residue of his own clothing.
Aichstetten in the Allgäu, March 2003: only a few hours ago, peculiar
preparations were made on the grounds of the
Kremer Pigment Company. For over twenty-five years, the company has been
developing and producing the largest selection of historical pigments
worldwide in its paint mill on the Aitrach River. A small hydroelectric
generating station runs the century-old mill, producing its own
electricity for the mill to grind and sieve. This morning, on the
snow-covered field behind the buildings, staff are lifting metal barrels
onto bricks and filling them with tiers of barbecue coal and over one
hundred tin cans. Inside are pieces of Rehberger's clothing, cut up into
individual portions, the zippers and buttons removed. Previously, the
one-liter cans were perforated to prevent them from bursting under the
pressure of the gases that arise during the burning process.
What might seem like an alchemical ritual in the midst of an idyllic winter
landscape is a precisely calculated setup designed to heat up "larger
amounts of insulating fabrics," as the company's owner, Dr. Kremer,
explains. The necessary amount of pigment can only be gleaned if the
clothing doesn't burn completely, but instead slowly chars. In preparation
for the action, however, two restrictions were made: synthetics could not
be used to obtain the pigment, and in addition only those articles of
clothing could be burned that Rehberger himself had bought. His wedding
suit and gifts from friends were excluded from the procedure. When asked
what chemical processes occur when nearly all the clothes belonging to one
of the most prominent German contemporary artists go up in smoke, the
renowned pigment manufacturer responded in laconic detail. "This is a dry
distillation process. That's the chemical term. A cotton weave contains
atoms of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and all sorts of additional substances.
If you heat that up to a temperature of 800 degrees Celsius, you're
distilling the molecular components from these fibers that are busy trying
to get out. The 800 degree-heat makes it clear to the fiber or the fiber
molecule that it has to undergo a chemical change. We're employing a kind
of coercion here. Heat is the catalyst for the chemical reaction. At this
temperature, only certain particles remain, and everything else gets
distilled away. The part that's distilled consists of foul-smelling gases
that have to be burned, otherwise they stink terribly. What was left in
this case was a black, crumbly material that looked as though it had once
been a piece of fabric. Although not too much came out of the fabric, it
was genuine soot."
"One could see how the blue enameled barrels slowly began to glow from the
heat," the Frankfurt photographer Bärbel Högner, who accompanied the
preparations to Large Nude in a Snowy Landscape, recalls, "and even
the little cans containing the pieces of clothing had these wonderful
colors in the end: rose, anthracite, deep black." Högner's photographs
document in detail the individual stages of the burning process and the
subsequent procedure of refilling, grinding, and sieving the pigments –
the progressive transformation of Rehberger's clothing into a monochrome
powder earmarked to take on yet another form later, on the printed page.
On this March day, the fact that Rehberger himself is not present at the
action is entirely in keeping with his concept.
"Basically, it's not a matter here of a burning
action having taken place. For me, it was much more important to obtain a
work at the end of the process that was manufactured from a material that
had already existed previously in a different form." In response to the
question as to why of all things he "sacrificed" his clothing for this
commissioned work, Rehberger stresses that he is not interested in a
reduction to one level of symbolic interpretation. Even if fire has played
a crucial role in
alchemical rituals as a means of purification and transformation, this
aspect was not essential to his idea for the Large Nude in a Winter
"It might be possible to interpret the work logically and
meaningfully in this way. For me, though, this wasn't the issue. I was
interested in the theme of portraiture and the transference,
transformation, and translation of everyday things into something else,
and with what happens to their expression throughout the process. Even if
the final printed image isn't a typical self-portrait, but an abstract
winter landscape, in a certain way I'm portraying myself in it through my
clothing, which is present as an ingredient of the printing ink. At the
same time, the entirety of a person's wardrobe is, of course, a kind of
portrait of that person. Clothing has an aesthetic value and is connected
to how a person represents himself. In the case of this work, my clothing
provides the initial material, and for this reason the printed image
implies the idea of the portrait."
"More than anyone else,
Rehberger knows how to lend banal things a higher consecration, to
transport our daily living environment into a ceremonious, exceptional
Neue Zürcher Zeitung wrote on his opulent exhibition
Geläut bis ich es hör... , which was shown last year in
ceiling works, which have often played with the design style of the
seventies and eighties, paved his way throughout the nineties to an
international breakthrough. Together with the work of
Jorge Pardo or
Rikrit Tiravanija, Rehberger's work has often been labeled "ambient art,"
a crossover form intervening between pop culture and art in a wide variety
of living spaces. This includes the furnishing of sitting and reading
ensembles, VIP lounges, and conference rooms for art associations, firms,
and institutions, an artistic service that Rehberger was often
commissioned to do in recent years.
The fact that the surface cult,
with its tendency towards seventies retro-design, was usually only
formally imitated by its epigons is due to a fundamental misunderstanding
of Rehberger's socially motivated analysis of the art world and its
potential users. In this vein, the artist is not concerned with
transplanting design into the area of fine arts. Rather, he is interested
in the question of what an artist and his work actually consist of, to
what extent the production and reception of art are contingent upon
individual and collective ideas, expectations, perceptions, and outside
influences. His work is that of a researcher investigating the
relationships of humans to their world of objects by shedding light,
whether natural or artificial, onto everyday objects and actions that seem
so obvious as to have become invisible.
In the process, Rehberger addresses existing structures, as he did in the
concept for a temporary work of art in public space that he developed for
the art series
Moment initiated by Deutsche Bank: as an intervention into
Venice's cityscape, he proposed covering a city building with organically
formed blocks of ice, an ephemeral architectural cloak that would
gradually melt during the change of seasons, finally rendering the
building hidden beneath it "visible." Regardless of whether Rehberger
plants flower and vegetable beds in the abstract design of a Mondrian
painting, as he did for the
Manifesta2 in Luxembourg in1998, commissions Thai craftsmen to build
VW bugs after sketches he made from memory, or questions friends, clients,
and exhibition visitors about their longings, needs, and desires as a
basis for developing sculptures and environments – a communicative
situation always serves as a point of departure for his interventions.
In this vein, Rehberger's strategies include involving other persons in the
development of his works of art, thereby shifting questions of
subjectivity and autonomy onto various "co-authors," who can include
friends, foreigners, or even persons incorporated into the artistic
process without their knowledge. "I'm interested in the variety of factors
that influence how a work of art comes about," Rehberger stated in 2001 in
an interview with the author and curator
Jan Winkelman: "I create these artificially by generating processes in a
certain way, ‘throwing a wrench into things' unexpectedly." In Rehberger's
dismantling of existing structures and his redesign and redistribution of
reality, not only accidents and unforeseen events enter into the work's
genesis, but also the expectations, experiences, and projections of all
those contributing to the project.
"Each person sees the art
differently; I only make suggestions" is one of Rehberger's statements.
This also goes for the creation of Large Nude in a Snowy Landscape
. The radical manner in which the work's concept formulates both the
question of artistic authenticity and autonomy as well as deeper-lying
personal associations is evident in the numerous spontaneous impressions
the burning inspired among those present.
"These burning actions have always, always had a somewhat macabre
side-effect," Dr. Kremer avows. "Because the gas that escaped from the
cans didn't burn very well, it stank a whole lot at the beginning. And
then there was this white smoke, and this smoke brought crematoria to mind
for me, the crematoria that existed here in Germany sixty years ago. When
I told that to Ms. Högner, after a while she simply couldn't look on any
"Every work of art has its own story, which is also a
part of the work," Tobias Rehberger commented in the interview with Jan
Winkelman. "With many of my works, the story might be the point of
departure, but it's not necessarily visible to everyone right away. In
this sense, my works are not narrative. What I'm interested in is the
relationship between the story and the presence of the work itself."
The clothing has been burned, and the artist is standing, stripped: the
nakedness of the artist alluded to in Large Nude in a Winter Landscape
goes hand in hand with the liberation of hidden mental images – of
perceptions registered perhaps only in passing, manifested in his work as
projections of individual and collective yearnings and fears. The Large
Nude in a Snowy Landscape breaks with the flow of visual codes and
questions stagnant mechanisms of representation. The "image" of the artist
is nearly invisible, dissolved into microscopically fine particles each of
which is charged with stories, memories, and wishes.
Translation: Andrea Scrima
Copyright for all images: Bärbel Högner,