tobias rehberger turns mcm’s hong kong flagship into dazzling art installation
We spoke to the German contemporary artist about revisiting Munich’s disco days for his collaboration with MCM during Art Basel Hong Kong.
Dazzle camouflage is designed not to conceal but confuse; it's monochromatic patterns of asymmetrical stripes were painted on ships in the First World War, the objective not to hide the object, but create an optical illusion; you could no longer decide where the ship was heading, making it harder to strike. First put forward by Norman Wilkinson, dazzle camo is an aesthetic paradox -- to hide through boldness, to use shape to bend reality -- that almost immediately appealed to the art world as much as it did the military. In true Picasso style, he took credit for it, those impossible shapes and sights and angles are of course, totally cubist; an angular modernism that strikes out on its own, away from those drab trad camo prints that seek emulate the natural world.
In 2014, to commemorate the centenary of the First World War, German contemporary artist Tobias Rehberger took the HMS President, a ship permanently moored on the banks of Thames, and repainted her in striking, complex patterns of dazzle camouflage. This was not the first time the innovative artist has turned to the pattern though, having won the Golden Lion at the 2009 Venice Biennale for a work that turned an entire working café over to the motif; dazzle stripes, polka dots, clashing blocks of bright oranges and sky blues transformed the café into a queasy maximalist mise-en-scene. If dazzle camo is a paradox, it's one that inherently suits the artist's work; that use of boldness to conceal is something that runs throughout his practice, which slips between product, architecture and design as a way of as a way of working through ideas of cultural cross-over, heritage and memory. In the past he's reconfigured everyday products, from sports cars to classic modernist furniture, using the tools of the global economy as a way of working through the contradictions and anomalies of modern life.
It's this that makes the artist the perfect fit for MCM, where he has just launched a new collaboration at the company's Hong Kong flagship store, a collection of bags and luggage decked out in a dazzle camo abstraction of the brand's logo, and housed in a new installation, If You Want The Rainbow You Have To Put Up With The Rain, which will function as the brand's shop for the next few months.
Cultural cross-over is at the heart of MCM of course, born in Germany in the mid 70s, the brand encapsulated the preppy style of West Germany's economic boom, a world of disco chic and youthful luxury, before going bust in the late 90s, and being resuscitated by South Korean fashion impresario Kim Sung-Joo in 2005, and becoming a new staple across the globe. Now celebrating its 40th anniversary.
"I thought the brand had disappeared and would never come back," Tobias jokes, when asked about how he started to collaborate with the brand, to celebrate their anniversary. "And the offer to work with them came in, and my assistant Charlotte, well she convinced me it was something I had to do, because when I was young I was a punk and MCM, well they were the enemy! This whole other world, this chic Munich disco scene. I'm interested in how you can convert an image of something very specific, of Munich in the 70s, into something new; I wanted to load up that logo with something new."
The Munich of MCM's past is the starting point for the collection, the Schwabing district, specifically; the city's youthful quarter, full of students, bohemians, and night clubs, it was indicative of the city's emergence not only as an economic powerhouse but as a centre of nightlife and youth culture, a natural home for the emerging generation of globalised, commercialised youth. But of course, the world of MCM's future is equally important, tapping into a new era of a globalised, commercialised youth. Headquartered in Seoul, MCM's patterned logo print bags are a fixture a fixture on the backs and arms of Asia's brightest young things. It's a brave step then to let Tobias obliterate and reassemble the logo into this series of abstract dazzle strips. "I'm very interested in playing with the image and the history of MCM," He explains. "They were one of the first brands to exist purely through their logo -- the logo was the brand, the logo was the product, and to play around with that idea was a very fun way to start thinking about this project."
Hong Kong is of course the perfect place to launch the collection, a city built in the brand's image, where east meets west, a European history collides with its place at the centre of Asian culture; of cinema, music, fashion and art, a place also at a cross-roads, celebrating its past whilst building a bold new future. Hong Kong has more billionaries and more skyscrapers than any other city on earth, a packed and bustling, truly 21st century city, which is hyper-connected as well as hyper cool. Launched during Art Basel, the globe trotting art fair, reaffirms MCM's place amongst the global creative youth.
Like the paradox presented by dazzle camouflage, Tobias' work stands out because it rips apart that iconic MCM logo, and remakes it in his own image. "It's not like how design normally works by trying to make things more accessible to people," Tobias explains. "I'd rather make things more problematic than simple or accessible. I want to make people think about what's going on with these products, it's formulating a problem, a problem isn't something negative, it's something interesting, something unclear, and like how I approached this, with the brand as the logo, and the logo becomes the pattern, it's a reflection on that problem, and my approach to design comes from that reflection. You could enjoy it, or hate it, or whatever, but I want to make you think about where this brand comes from but also where it is going, at least, I hope so."
Text Felix Petty
Photography courtesy MCM