Tobias Rehberger

by Edoardo Bonaspetti


Tobias Rehberger (Esslingen, 1966) is one of the most prominent German artists of his generation. Throughout the years, he has given birth to futuristic projects that play with light, space, furniture, graphics and fashion. Sociable, interactive, utopian and playful, his work thrives on chance connections, unexpected encounters and the gaps between communication and understanding. His last, extravagant and unpredictable project, On Otto—is showing at Fondazione Prada till June 6.


EDOARDO BONASPETTI: Let’s start with your last project, On Otto, which comprises of a film and an architectural installation that will be presented at the Fondazione Prada on 20 April. What can you tell me about this project?

TOBIAS REHBERGER: It is a project about the production process of a film and reproducing it in reverse. That refers to all the terms related to the major production steps that a movie has, from script writing to title-making. I first made a poster for the movie, and this poster was given to the people who come in at the end of the production, who are the people who are involved in making the title sequencing. There was nothing written, no written story, or any written text, just the poster. They had to refer to the poster in order to make the titles. And so the whole production line went like this until what usually comes at the beginning, the script. And every artist who was involved in the production only had the production steps from beforehand, which of course normally comes afterward. So, after the titles were made for the poster, they were passed onto the sound designer and he had to make sounds for a movie based on just the titles and the poster, and so on and so forth. We included every major production step, which was title-making, sound design, music composition, editing, cinematography, five actors, stage design, costume design, storyboard, and script.

EB: What does On Otto mean?

TR: Otto is a name and refers to a character. I chose this name for couple of different reasons. First of all, I wanted with the name to provide a narrative start. If the title is “on” somebody, then it’s easy to begin to imagine a number of options including the life history of the person or a list of things about him. I wanted to provide a hint in the title, the beginnings of a narrative. I also chose the name Otto because you can read the name forward and backward and it’s still the same. In English, if you say “On Otto”, it sounds like “automatic” and one idea of the project is that if we start with something and without my influence, the whole project works automatically. There’s no direction in it really from my participation. The only direction there is is the automatic one because you have to basically communicate with the end product that you have in order to make the entire product. So, it’s kind of automatic.

EB: But you don’t even have constructional control on the whole process?

TR: Structural, yes. Because I decided what kind of steps to put in. I decided the persons who are involved and the sequence of the production. I could say that the sound design is after the music or before the music. So I made a structure that simplifies a big film production and in that sense, I of course had the influence because I set the parameters. But inside these parameters, anything could happen.

EB: There is also an interesting discourse about fragmentation and non-linearity. This project, this decision to overturn the production process of a film, to turn conventional structures upside down, has a relation with the new pace—fluid and indeterminate—of contemporary living?

TR: It’s about some mechanisms of life in general, especially now that life is so much a matter of communication. I was interested to see what could happen when you turn the standard communicational process, how people (in this case, different people who are involved in the production of an aesthetic object) can react when a certain routine is interrupted… what kind of changes would happen to their communicational relations? They work in their profession but they have to relate to something else, something new. I think your individual creativity in this cases has a different challenge and you have to reflect more to what you are doing yourself than to what you are reacting to… It’s an idea of how you could display your own ability in relation to something that you are not used to, something that you normally do not have to react to.

EB: What about the actors? How or why did you choose them?

TR: It’s not so much about who’s my favorite actor, editor or costume designer. It was more about the combination of these people. It’s like a composition in a painting. Some are old, some young, some more established, some classic like Ennio Morricone. And so the group of actors in themselves become a composition in themselves. So Kim Basinger as the classical diva nowadays and then William Defoe as the classical actor, someone who comes from a very strong backgorund of theatre, who’s a very serious actor in that sense. And then Emmy Rossum who’s a very young upcoming actress. So it was not only just about their ability to act, but it was more about including their personality, their history, presence they have as a person, and not only their role as an actor. For example, with Justine Henry, I wanted somebody who was a child actor and played an important role in a movie as a child and who was not acting so much anymore. Nowadays he’s only doing a few things, almost nothing. But he was a famous actor from Kramer vs. Kramer from the 70s, with Dustin Hoffman… about a divorce. I wanted somebody who was an important figure as a child in a movie. It’s more about the composition as whole than about a person who has a singular ability.

EB: To work in collaboration with other fields, with other people, is it also one of the requirements of many past works of yours…

TR: Maybe collaboration is not the right word. I would say that I’ve experimented with connections, interferences, and… I think I am interested in this idea that you, yourself, are not coming from what you are but you are also so much defined by other things, people and all kinds of confrontations. It’s not about the classical idea of influence but of “context”. It’s more about the idea that something is interfering with your thinking, with your perception all the time and this is something that you store in your memory, in your brain and you even store it unconsciously. If you are dealing with this but if there’s no way out but the definition of being a human being is more that you have free will and that you have a control over it and that things come from you, but really things that define you come much more from somewhere else than from yourself.

It applies to art as well. It’s not about the recipe on how you should read an art piece and it’s not so interesting what was the idea of the artist in the end. The basic sense of art is in the end that you are confronted with something that helps you create new ideas and new senses out of something was provoked by an art piece but the great thing is that you are developing it in yourself.

EB: What was the last show, the last project that really impressed you?

TR: At the moment there’s an Opt art show in Frankfurt. I saw it and I was impressed by the direct and physical influence it could have on audience. My daughter was there with her school class and one girl was vomiting because these patterns made her dizzy. I thought it was really an interesting aspect that an art piece could have such an impact and presence on you, dramatically direct. I was in a way surprised, impressed and disturbed by the fact that I’ve never experienced this effect before.

EB: I read that your work space is preternaturally neat, that it has light-filled floors and is practically empty with the exception of two assistants (always at their computer), some brightly colored 50’-style furniture and a couple of drawings precisely tacked to the wall: a kind gift from your seven year old daughter, Nelli. Is everything true?

TR: It’s not really so empty, we are working there and we need tables, chairs and all these things. It’s emptier and not a typical… A lot of times people are disappointed if they come to my studio because it does not look so much like an artist’s studio. It’s more like an architecture office because there are couple of tables, computers.. it’s not like there is dirty paint everywhere. I mean there are a lot of artists who have studios like this, but this is not a typical artist studio I guess. It’s more empty and more organized.

EB: I know that you were a student of Martin Kippenberger. What does this experience mean to you and to your work?

TR: A lot, I have to say. He was always generous in a way that he would always say that he cannot tell you how to make art but he can show you everything around it. What he, in the end, taught me was that the center of production of art is the doubt of art.

EB: Now it’s you who are teaching in FrankFurt. As a teacher, how do you face your students?

TR: I am also not telling them how to make things. They have to develop it themselves and I help them by criticizing their work and by dissecting the relations of the work to where things come from, but they have to be responsible. I don’t so much treat them as students, but treat them as young artists who I can sometimes try to help a little bit but, in the end, it has to come from them. We have a family-like relationship. I am maybe a little bit like a father, but we function like a big family. I like that because you can say things that are tough but they know that you are not saying that to harm them personally but so it’s that they can understand themselves.

EB: This interview will be inserted in an issue totally dedicated to the relationship and the exchanges between art and design. What do you think are the strong traits of this exchange and where do you think these two fields stand with one another?

TR: Somehow, this question always comes up but, in the end, I have to say that I am neither an expert in design nor I am particularly interested in it. I am interested in all kinds of strategies that I used from other fields that I think could pose interesting questions from the point of view of art, but I see myself completely and totally as an artist and as a sculptor, so to say. Whether I am working on a film or producing a car, a table or an outfit for somebody, I am always approaching it with a perspective of an artist. So I think, sometimes it is interesting to include questions from other fields if they are productive in the understanding of what art is. I am always using this example of Richard Serra’s sculpture which is a block of steel, one by one by one neater. If you are sitting on it on a hot summer day, you get a cold ass and it’s comfortable. To find the work pleasant could be something that produces a quality in an art piece? Can this be an interesting question for art? Another example can be when I proposed to use a Donald Judd’s sculpture as a bar in Munster… It’s all a matter of perspectives. Everything depends on how you look at things: it’s the only way you get them delivered.


Originally published on Mousse 8 (April 2007)

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