This article was written for my column on Flash Art Online, New York Tales
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Tobias Rehberger and Rirkrit Tiravanija, Venice, Italy, Photograph by Katy Hamer, 2013


I recently sat down with German artist Tobias Rehberger on the occasion of his installation Bar Oppenheimer at the Hôtel Americano in Chelsea, New York. Instead of meeting in Chelsea, we had the delightful opportunity of sitting down in the large dining hall of Palazzo Flangini right next to Campo San Geremia in Venice, Italy. In addition to the Pop-Up Bar in New York, Rehberger also took part in Rirkrit Tiravanija’s Pop-Up restaurant in Venice which was open exclusively during the Press and V.I.P. previews of the 55th Biennale di Venezia.  Upon entering the large double doors, tiny lit candles on either side of the walkway and working my way up the steep, wide staircase, I was met by the artist, a jovial expression on his face, glass of white wine in his hand and the smell the daily menu, a perfume in the room and an aura surrounding the artist.

We sat at the end of a long table lined with white porcelain plates and silverware wrapped in white linen, to my left and his right, a window, tall and expansive opened to the canal below. The sound of clinking cutlery in the background and church bells were our audio backdrop.
KATY DIAMOND HAMER: Let’s start by talking about Bar Oppenheimer a bar located in Frankfurt which is where you are based when not dividing your time between Berlin and other art related travels. I know this particular project emerged from your desire to transport the bar outside of it’s original Frankfurt location to another city.

TOBIAS REHBERGER: Frankfurt is a city divided by a river separating the North from the South. I lived in the South for twenty years and Bar Oppenheimer was the bar I regularly went to since 1987 or so. Then I moved from the South to the North side of the city along with a friend of mine. He and I decided to move the bar from the South part of the city to the Northern section. We  agreed to build and pay for it and then to give it to the owner [of the original Bar Oppenheimer] as a gift. He now runs both locations,  in the North and the South parts of the city. The night that I was sharing the news with the bar owner, we were talking [along with] a gallerist from London and her assistant who were also with me and they liked the idea and [half jokingly] suggested I take the bar with me everywhere I go. The next city where I would be traveling to for longer than a day was New York, so we agreed to take the bar to New York.

Tobias Rehberger, Installation view, Bar Oppenheimer, Hotel Americano, New York
All images are by Matthew Cianfrani, 2013
KDH: It sounds like it happened naturally.
TR: Yes, then the gallery met the people behind Hôtel Americano (Grupo Habita) and they also liked the idea of the project. The original bar, the size proportions etc. were coordinated so that it was as if it was cut out of Frankfurt, placed in a suitcase and brought to New York. There are certain things that are not exactly the same as the bar in Frankfurt, including the pattern a portrait I made of Oppenheimer with my own face on drawn on top of the photograph.
KDH: I like the portrait a lot. It’s a great piece because it feels as if it’s the most referential item relating directly to the original bar and the owner. Then you inserted yourself, literally into the space by way of the drawing and/or physical marking.
TR: That’s how is came about, we did it and I feel like it came out quite nicely.
KDH: Since we are in Venice, it seems appropriate to mention that you also did the café in the Giardini a few years ago for the 53rd Venice Biennial which is now a permanent, functioning part of the Palazzo delle Espozizioni. It can very loosely be defined as being an 80’s explosion of color and geometric shapes. I initially thought of the t.v. sitcom called Saved by the Bell which was popular in the 1990’s. Can you talk a bit about the patterns you select and where they come from? Similar patterns were used in the café that were also used in the sculptural recreation ofBar Oppenheimer.
TR: The patterns come from a military camouflage [used during] the first world war that was put on ships before they had efficient radar, meant to confuse the enemy. I’ve always been interested in the idea of camouflage and yet they were using a strong, graphic pattern. The two seemed to be a paradox of sorts. I used it for the first time here in Venice at the bar. The goal was to use it first in a location that was not necessarily an art destination, such a museum. It could have been placed in a gas station or somewhere else. It comes from this idea that maybe art is not something to look at but rather something that is just around you, that you don’t have to purposefully look at but something you see from the corner of your eye which also corresponds with the way camouflage functions.
Tobias Rehberger, Installation view, Bar Oppenheimer, Hotel Americano, New York
All images are by Matthew Cianfrani, 2013
KDH: I like also the concept of art being something that you come across versus something that you purposefully look for.
TR: Exactly, that’s the idea behind it.
KDH: It lends itself to happenstance rather than destination.
TR: Yes and I experienced this same yearning even as a kid. I always wanted a Van Gogh painting to sleep on. Not necessarily to look at.
KDH: (Laughs)
TR: It’s something that even if you close your eyes and sleep on the surface, you know it’s there, it feels a certain way even without having to look at it.
KDH: Yes, and you wake up with imprints on your face from the thick impasto of paint.
TR: Probably, but that’s the kind of way that I want to deal with a Van Gogh painting and this influenced the way that I think and deal with my own art as an adult.
KDH: Would you say that it’s as if you want to de-monumentalize something?
TR: It also has to do with that. But I’m not really happy with the idea that you just stay in front of something and stare at it. I don’t want to be stared at. Maybe a painting doesn’t want to be stared at. However, the importance is knowing that even if it is behind you physically, it is there. I’ve always had these fantasies that it would be possible to go to a museum not to look at art but to hang out to eat, to drink, to talk to your friends. The museum or the art space takes on the role of the public square.
KDH: Becoming a social experience rather than…
TR: Yes,  a social experience but also I think there is a possibility to achieve a different type of perception even regarding classic painting, such as with the Van Gogh. I don’t always need to look at something all the time. If I am in a museum with my friend surrounded by the work of Andy Warhol, I don’t need to stare at them but also am content to know they are there. Or [for example] in front of the National Gallery in Berlin. I was there on a hot summer day and my friend was already inside. There is a large sculptural cube by Frank Stella and I sat on it and it felt great! It was cool against my skin and this is also the quality of art, that it can be cold on your butt on a hot summer day.
KDH: (laughing again) I like that, giving unintended functionality to artwork, retracting expectation by allowing something else to naturally happen or occur. Let’s also take the opportunity to talk about upcoming projects you are working on. I heard there is a show that may be opening in Spring 2014 in Washington DC?
TR:  We are trying to put it together at the National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden for 2014. They are closing the contemporary wing of the museum for renovations for two years. They have an outdoor Sculpture Garden with works by artists such as Sol LeWitt, Calder, Tony Smith and others, super classic. They asked if I can do something there utilizing the garden as an exhibition space while the wing is closed so my project would involve working around the pre-existing sculptures.
KDH: One of my favorite ways to look at or experience art is when contemporary artists are interacting directly with their environment. Even in Venice, I love when an artist chooses to specifically bring Venice as a city into what he or she is doing. There is something really special about that almost as if paying homage to a place or maybe not paying homage and just experiencing it. We are at a time where it is possible to invade something somehow and in 2013/2014 I like the idea of things existing and our time being about overlapping and interrupting what already exists.
TR:  Yes, we’ll see what happens. It can also be difficult and of course we are working on the budget concerns as it is more expensive to do things outside versus inside due to the elements but now it is loosely planned for May 2014.
Tobias Rehberger, Installation view, Bar Oppenheimer,
Photograph by Matthew Ciafrani, 2013
KDH: Alright, sounds good, time moves so quickly, it is actually quite soon.
TR: Exactly, we would need to start production by September.  It would be all new work made specially for that environment.
KDH: Speaking of site-specific artwork and projects, let’s use that to discuss where we are right now, in Venice and this Pop-Up food experience with Rirkrit Tiravanija.
TR: As an artwork, it is more of Rirkrit’s work. I’m actually here because, well, actually I didn’t want to come to Venice originally.
KDH: Because of the crowds?
TR: I felt like it was a bit too much recently. But when I was in New York, and he was hosting the opening of the bar he asked me to come to Venice and I do like to cook so accepted his invitation.
KDH: So you were already friends.
TR: Yes, We’ve known each other for twenty years now. We met in 1993.
KDH: I was intrigued because I’ve experienced his food based pop-up installations three times now in New York, at David Zwirner, MoMA and then in the lobby of the New Museum. After what you described of your own work, his work doesn’t seem conceptually too far off.
TR: Yes, that is true there are some overlaps.
KDH: What is your role in the kitchen?
TR: I’m like the Sous Chef! We plan the menu daily and go shopping together.
The menu changes every day. We go to the market, see what is there and then make something. Last night we had a gallery dinner with five courses and tonight we have a Purple Magazine party which will be a bit more casual. It’s hard work in the kitchen, which I can say as an amateur.
KDH: I can imagine! So what is your plan next? Do you go back to Frankfurt after Venice?
TR: I go back for the weekend and then I go to Stockholm for an opening at a museum where a work of mine was recently acquired. I installed it last week and then I go on holiday.  I spend 60/70% of my time in Frankfurt and then rest is in Berlin. Our kids go to school in Frankfurt.
KDH: As far as your art making practice, how much of it would you say relies on a studio practice?
TR: I would say as far as the studio it’s more about organization, and it’s hard to say but maybe 50/50. We do produce some things in the studio and other works are done elsewhere.
KDH: Thank you for taking the time to chat and I look forward to seeing more of your work soon!
Tobias Rehberger, Bar Oppenheimer, Presented by Pilar Corrias, is on view at Hotel Americano, 518 West 27th Street, New York until July 14th, 2013
The Pop-Up Kitchen in Venice a project by Rirkrit Tiravanija and Tobias Rehberger was open by invitation or RSVP only from May 29th-May 31st, 2013.
*Note Tobias Rehberger also invited me to dine at the restaurant and I was fortunate to be his guest. The food was delicious and the best meal I had while in Venice. Grazie Mille!!