Swatch the internationally renowned Swiss watch brand are well known for supporting the arts through a broad variety of initiatives, whether this be collaborations with artists for Swatch Art Special watches, to large prizes for emerging artists, even an art residency in ShangHai. In fact their credentials in fashion, art and music, it’s fair to say, are well documented.
The current collaboration is with German artist Tobias Rehberger for a work entitled “24 Stops Rehberger Weg”. This is an ‘Art-Walk’ across the border between Switzerland and Germany, a six-kilometre path meandering through countryside from the Fondation Beyeler to the Vitra Design Museum. Think Richard Long meets Pop Art.
The 24 sculptural objects dotted along the route (excuse the pun) are rooted in nature and include a group of broken bird cages, a Cuckoo clock, a water fountain, a wind vane, all items that relate to the natural environment in which they sit. However and it’s a big however, Rehbergers nature inspired pieces have more than a touch of Ettore Sottsass Memphis design (candy block colours) meets Walter Van Bierndonk about them than say the work of the walking artists such as Richard Long or Andy Goldsworthy whose pieces have a direct relation with nature. The candy colour installations dotted through the walk are not what would ordinarily be expected to be scattered through country villages yet surprise and delight, if not make the viewer laugh out loud.
And that is what makes this work so engaging. Engaging it is, as it has by its very (again excuse the pun) nature an interactive lightness mixed with humour, which allows for a real level of contemplation from its somewhat colourful and absurdness through, to its very point; to make you stop, stare and think.
Over a length of five kilometres, the core ideal of the work from the perspective of the artist, was to create a guiding system between Fondation Beyeler in Switzerland to the Vitra Design Museum in Germany which includes walking across the border. The initial idea was not in fact from the artist but was the starting point of his brief.
The Artist Tobias Rehberger thought about how road style signs could be used on a trail but realised this was not enough, and chose to use art-objects to guide walkers from one place to the other. From there he thought about what would be natural and even weird to have, and by doing so, throws out the subconscious questions of how we observe art? how this collection could have a second function, as well as, what are our preconceptions? how do we treat these objects? Tobias Rehberger said “I wanted to play with ideas of functional objects that may or may not be functional”.
His work has a real level of humour and the absurdist about it. For example Birdcages that look like the bird made a forced exit through the wires, left hanging empty with a loss of function yet are still held on wires in the sky. Function and no function?
Tobias Rehberger says “Isn’t every object basically whatever we project onto it? ultimately the function each piece does have is initially to point the walker in the right direction, punctuating the route with surreal objects to follow.
So what can be expected as a walker exploring the route? The walk not only takes people from one country, one gallery, one municipality to another set, it meanders through fields, passes by rivers, crosses borders and passes in front and behind of peoples houses and gardens. This makes for a some what intimate and personal journey for the individual walker. It is for each person to have their own relationship with Tobias Rehberger’s artworks but also with the surrounding countryside.
The fact that walkers have the opportunity to peer into the homes of the villages, see the gardens scattered with kids toys, the family cars, well maintained houses and gardens of this middle class cross section of Swiss and German families only adds to the surreal almost voyeuristic experience. At once pondering why the artist presented each unique sculpture and why he may well have placed such a surreal piece at each junction, alongside the reasoning as to what each piece may well stand for. However, the very peaceful setting, on a relatively long and meandering walk, mostly allows for a deeper contemplation of self in comparison to the wider world and objects within it.
And what do the locals think? those whose towns well may be invaded by walkers out to enjoy the ‘Art Walk? All of those we met where in agreement that it was magnificent. Yet it is fair to say that art aficionados may have a very different reaction to the work than say those who enjoy a good walk.
The spot where the Rehberger Trail crosses the German-Swiss border is a large sculpture, a stack of tree trunks, lying on its side like a pile of timber at a mill, well maybe to be a little clear, a pile of tree trunks, painted in a cartoon style, lying on its side. Here during the official opening, Swatch launched the watch to go with the project and invited all the members of the surrounding villages to come drink a glass and eat a pretzel or two, in celebration. Swatch also invited their most avid of supporters to come and be the first to buy the new watch. Yes, they queued up at a giant cartoon log installation to purchase the new watch.
Asking Swatch Creative Director Carlo Giordanetti what it was about an artist that makes them feel that they are right to collaborate with the brand and he said:
“the criteria is that something grabs me, but that is the first level, then the aesthetic, I need to like the style of the work and I because the brand is very much about story telling I need to like the story behind the work.” He went on to explain “Because every watch from Swatch has its own story its own name and its own reason for being the way it is. It’s not just based on a design development, there is always a theme then a title and each watch has a personality within that theme. We know that some of the designs we do are not there to sell millions but they become a catalyser. Throughout our 34 year history, we as a brand we have always been telling stories” So then why Tobias ‘There is a boldness, I love the strength of his gesture, it’s in your face, strong, but after meeting him I realised he was a very tongue in cheek person, he has a soft touch with the boldness. So this is for me he as a human being he has the ability to smile about himself therefore shows an intelligence” Carlo Giordanetti also went on to explain:- “At swatch we are of course serious about business but we love to bring in little jokes for example about our Swiss-ness, we are the first ones to joke about cheese and cows and money! The first approach about a swatch product is ‘do i like it? don’t i like it? but the second level is does it have a little meaning or is it purely an aesthetically exercise?”
It is however interesting about both Swatch and Tobias both having a duality, to the work, yet also two themes that stand out again are the use of colour and a the physical engagement.
Asking Tobias, why for this project he needed colour he explained
“so that the pieces wouldn’t blend into the environment” he is an artist know for bold use of colour and form but says he is “not specifically conscious” of why he does. The work of course by its very nature is interactive, so again asking the artist is this where he felt art was going, towards say more interactive immersive an experience “A museum should be somewhere to hang out, not just somewhere to look at pieces but somewhere to be around art in everyday interactive and approachable way.”