Artist TOBIAS REHBERGER Dazzles War History on the River Thames

Rehberger on the HMS President, July 2014. Photo: Ben A. Pruchnie / Getty Images for Bolton & Quinn

Anchor watch Rehberger on the gunwale side of the HMS President, July 2014. Photo: Ben A. Pruchnie / Getty Images for Bolton & Quinn

Artist TOBIAS REHBERGER often explores whether a work must be seen in order to exist, and how possible it is to see at all when all our senses are over-stimulated. This combination of concealment and intensity is characteristic of the dazzle camouflage technique of WWI ships, which painted navy vessels in contrasting stripes and curves, optically distorting their shape and outline rather than hiding them. Earlier this week, Rehberger, who’s worked with dazzle painting in the past, presented his make-over of England’s HMS President (1918) at Victoria Embankment, London. The ship was built by the Royal Navy for anti-submarine warfare and is one of the last three surviving of its kind. The project—co-commissioned by Chelsea College of Art and Design, Liverpool Biennial, and Tate Liverpool as part of the 14.18 NOW series—is a near-perfect encapsulation of history, monument, and visual culture. 032c corresponded briefly with Rehberger about camouflage, control, and misunderstandings in art.

Photo: Ben A. Pruchnie/Getty Images for Bolton & Quinn

Industrial water magic: HMS President bedazzling the Victoria Embankment. Photo: Ben A. Pruchnie/Getty Images for Bolton & Quinn

This is an artwork that combines history, design, and public monument. How did the collaboration come about? 

TOBIAS REHBERGER: I was simply asked by the commission if I would be interested in a project like this. I thought about it for a couple days, and then I agreed.

You’ve once said the quality of the work increases by the fact that we don’t see it. What fascinates you about camouflage? Particularly the razzle dazzle method, which has a more recognisable graphic aesthetic than other forms? 

What always fascinated me most about the dazzle technique—which is almost a paradox—is that it is trying to have somebody not see something by using the most colorful and obvious patterns with the most visual impact. This is a great concept for an artwork also, because an artwork should also be present when you’re not staring at it. And it also has to succeed in doing this by using mainly visual strategies. So I think it’s a great idea to produce art you are not supposed to look at in the first place.

Camouflage implies a certain danger—the potential to be seen is jeopardy. It reminds us of your questioning the control of the singular artist. What do you think about the myth of control and the necessity to protect yourself in the art world? 

I am not so much interested in something like control, and even less in protection. I think misunderstandings are definitely the more interesting concept, as long as you are not in an emergency room.

Photo: Ben A. Pruchnie/Getty Images for Bolton & Quinn

Peekaboo!: HMS President blending into London’s architecture. Photo: Ben A. Pruchnie/Getty Images for Bolton & Quinn

Rehberger’s transformation of the HMS President is co-commissioned by Chelsea College of Art and Design, Liverpool Biennial, and Tate Liverpool as part of the 14.18 NOW series.

Art 128Camouflage 1
HMS President
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Tobias Rehberger