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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

1. Burning

"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.

2. Transformation

"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 religious, magical, and alchemical rituals as a means of purification and transformation, this aspect was not essential to his idea for the Large Nude in a Winter Landscape:

"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 state," the Neue Zürcher Zeitung wrote on his opulent exhibition Geläut bis ich es hör... , which was shown last year in Karlsruhe's ZKM. Tobias Rehberger's environments, furniture design, sculptures, and 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 more."

"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, Frankfurt/Main