Gert and Uwe Tobias’ travelling exhibition is their first UK solo show in a public gallery. But they have been here before: in 2007 at the Frieze Art Fair for example, they transformed Team Gallery’s stand into an environment complete with fake wood beams, furniture and art work.
The latter project gave the impression of a rustic cottage decorated in a dynamic modernist style: their art likewise produces a similar effect. Even the choice of large-scale, woodblock printing as their main form of expression, adds to this sense of estrangement. Combine this with their ‘subject matter’—a modernist geometric language integrated with a figurative grotesque—and you get the impression that the Tobias twins are trying to outmanoeuvre the Chapman Brothers, no strangers to grotesquery themselves.
Using every approach in terms of form and genre seems possible to them; from printing to drawing and collage, ceramic sculpture, and, even, the drawing with typewriters, the pair make like old school revolutionaries. Their image-making ranges from abstract to figurative, taking in constructivism and early modernism, mostly combining the two. All this is on display at Nottingham and they have constructed an environment by painting zones of the walls and linking the two galleries with details like a painted, skirting board-style border.
In the centre of the first gallery are a group of collages in two vitrines. People are cut out of magazines and overlaid onto others, but the uniqueness is the way in which the brothers have simply laid pieces of paper onto each other in shallow stacks. The layering at once hides images, but also provides an interesting insight into their ‘working thinking’. These collages supposedly allude to the Romanian tourist industry and popular culture, but it is not obvious, nor does that seem to be of immediate importance here.
The centrepiece of the exhibition is a six-metre long woodcut of a Miro-esque frieze. It, like the show itself, has a carnivalesque feel. Perhaps the figures are birdmen or gnomes, or even representations of the twins’ ceramics, which often have grisly animal heads perched on jars or vessels—again figurative and abstract. In the end, there is a surreal or even synthetic cubist quality to the way these figures morph from decoration to form; it is a loud, but delicate balancing act of image and abstraction. The nature of the woodcut here just enhances this effect, as the technique emphasises blocks or zones of colour and form. These large prints are unique and the result of a collaborative process.
The Tobias’ appear to be the product of a Bauhaus-style education, where different modes of creativity are given equal emphasis, as opposed to an atelier-type apprenticeship. Even the core of their visual language (geometry, typography and colour), appears to recall the earlier half of the 20th century.
But, it is the troll or ghoulish figures that animate this modernist landscape, that throw all this up in the air. The source of their imagery is inspired by the legends and folklore of their native Romania, where Transylvania is famously home to Dracula. Anecdotally, it was when they moved to Germany in their teens, that they realised the world’s perception of their native land was seen through the prism of this tale, via Hollywood; their early work plays with this western perception.
I believe that part of their interest lies in appropriating this ‘icon’ and enriching it with traditional folk tales. This is perhaps most obvious in their graphite drawings, filled with flying creatures and melting ‘trolls’. The resulting iconography though seems to be on the whole neither sinister nor scary, but rather more enigmatic, buoyant and sometimes spirited. In other words, it is a perfect accompaniment to their technique.
A friend once compared the Slovenian theorist Slavoj Žižek’s thinking to Jacques Derrida’s, it being as subtle as a landrover churning up the landscape. Likewise the Tobias’ could be described as being an interesting case of Eastern Europe meeting Western—Marx meets Lacan in the case of the Slovenian and Bauhaus meets Transylvania in the other. Their charm, like Žižek’s, however heavy handed, is gregariously experimental and devouring: it is this trait that makes the Tobias’ work engaging. Their work veers from the delicate and detailed to the loud and brash, yet in context, it all seems valid and logical. As with the compelling nature of Žižek’s delivery, we are drawn into their world. And it is a complete and believable world, albeit an eccentric one. They call it ‘gesamt -installation’, a play on Wagner’s gesamtkunstwerk, or total art work.
The hope is that they intend to go deeper into their explorations of this place. It can only become more weird, more fascinating—even more a place we can all explore.
Sherman Sa m is an artist and writer based in London and Singapore