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Is 'dazzle-painting' art?

Tobias Rehberger's 'dazzle-painted" HMS President, Victoria Embankment, London
Tobias Rehberger's 'dazzle-painted" HMS President, Victoria Embankment, London
Foto: © Studio Rehberger

Today’s column may strike some as a worry about nothing. In its defense, art is so bastardized these days, extra wariness seems called for.

German artist Tobias Rehberger, whose exhibit credits include Moderna Museet, Stockholm, Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago and Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, is wowing London with stripes and curves that he painted on Britain’s WW1 battleship HMS President, now on permanent exhibit on the Thames.

Rehberger’s paint-job celebrates the centenary of the First World War when the Royal Navy built the ship and sought deceptive markings to avoid submarine attacks. The colorful smokescreen, known as “dazzle painting,” has been around since 1914 when scientist John Graham Kerr thought up the idea of camouflage.

While you can say that Rehberger’s dazzle paint-job is about the art of war, you can’t say it’s art, as he and others do. (More about that in a moment)

The point of camouflaging an object with something else – like leaf patterns on the military’s jungle fatigues to conceal soldiers - is that the something else must be of little or no interest. And if camouflage is irrelevant, how can it be called art?

Rehberger seems oblivious to this. He told the press that camouflaging HMS President, “gave me the opportunity to take my work out of the exhibition space and to project a new, contemporary visual experience ….”

If this were just an isolated case, it wouldn’t matter what Rehberger thinks. But he’s not alone. Venezuelan artist Carlos Cruz-Diez, has also dazzle-painted, in his case, the HMS President’s pilot ship Edmund Gardner docked in Liverpool. And it’s being touted as “a new public artwork.” So says Liverpool Biennial director Sally Tallant, whose avowed aim it to “host exciting artists and thinkers connecting the community with international fields.”

As if in lockstep, Tate Modern, Britain's national gallery of international modern art in Liverpool, repeats without question Cruz-Diez saying that camouflaging the pilot ship “is an attempt to reveal the true nature of colour and the effects it produces on man … our relationship with the world of color is deeply emotional.

Cruz-Diez even sees dazzle-painting as transcendent because it was “created to avoid death.”

If this keeps up, you can expect to see dazzle-painted architecture that will also be called art. Never mind that it will render the paint-job and the buildings - like dazzle-painted ships - insignificant.