Reiner Ruthenbeck's 'Overturned Furniture': Is it art, or something more like a crime scene? Or both?

The work began with a single chair that he tipped over as an experiment

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The Independent Culture

A room full of overturned tables and chairs might seem like one of the laziest artworks ever, but attacks upon the current main attraction at London’s Serpentine Gallery have prompted art critics to rally to its defence.

The work, created in 1971 by German sculptor Reiner Ruthenbeck, has been compared to a “study ready to be tidied up”. But supporters argue that the work deals with “order and disorder”, and they praise its “strong narrative” and that it forces the viewer to re-evaluate everyday objects. Countering those who might rush to belittle it, they go as far as to place it in a tradition of art history alongside recognised greats such as Pablo Picasso.

Jochen Volz, Serpentine Galleries’ head of programmes, said Overturned Furniture, which forms one of the “key works” of Ruthenbeck’s first major UK exhibition, is about “how we understand the world around us”.

He added: “It’s about seeing something again for the first time and questioning it ... the interesting part here is that you start to read it naturally. Is it ordinary or has something happened? Is it theatrical, or a crime scene? These natural readings are provoked by a piece like that.”

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A selection of works by Reiner Ruthenbeck, part of a winter exhibition at the Serpentine Sackler Gallery (PA)

Ruthenbeck himself said the piece started with a single chair which he tipped over “as an experiment”. It hit an initial hurdle when his housekeeper saw the chair lying on the floor and picked it up; “she didn’t ask why it was that way”.

One letter to The Daily Telegraph suggests the artist “either had his grandchildren to visit or has just been burgled”. Another writer jokingly said the installation had inspired him to upset his own dining room chairs but “my wife does not appear to appreciate the artistic merit”.

Mark Jackson, curator at IMT Gallery and Gallery North, said: “There is a cynical response to a lot of contemporary art that it’s just attention seeking, or ‘the Emperor’s new clothes’. Most of the time artists are much more genuine than that.” On Ruthenbeck’s piece he said: “Rather than worry about whether an artist is hoodwinking us I prefer to think about it focusing on things we don’t normally think about. I like to imagine a narrative. Some cataclysm has occurred and it’s left for us to piece it together. Art like this can be storytelling, or it can just be a load of old chairs.”

Ed Bartlett, curator and founder of independent art platform The Future Tense said: “Some people look at pieces like this and will take it on a gut level, others want to be intellectual while there will always be people who say: ‘What on earth is that?’ “It’s provoking a response you wouldn’t otherwise have had. The great thing about art is making you stop for a second and think about it.”

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An installation which makes up part of the exhibition by artist Reiner Ruthenbeck (Getty Images)

Using everyday objects in unfamiliar contexts is nothing new in art. Katharine Stout, curator at the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA), said: “There is a very long, reasonably well known lineage going back to the beginning of the 20th century, to Duchamp and Picasso. The shift from painting objects to using the objects themselves has a huge heritage.” She added: “That it still causes a surprise to this day is a bit of a surprise.”

Ruthenbeck trained as a photographer in the early 1960s before studying sculpture at Dusseldorf Academy of Art, where his mentor was the influential Joseph Beuys. While Ruthenbeck is not widely known in the UK, his contemporaries include Gerhard Richter, once the most expensive living artist and Sigmar Polke, who currently has a retrospective in Tate Modern.

In Britain and Ireland, artists including Michael Craig-Martin, Ryan Gander and Martin Creed have explored everyday objects in their art.

Artistic licence: what the critics say

Ed Bartlett, The Future Tense

“I like his idea of taking everyday objects and putting them in different situations… Some people just don’t appreciate art, and it doesn’t mean they’re not intelligent or clever, it’s just whether someone has a child-like mind and can be interested by that sort of thing.”

Ben Luke, Evening Standard

“Reiner Ruthenbeck’s work is sedate and slow-burning… Much of his work is unassuming sculpture, with a quiet, poetic power.

Mark Jackson, IMT Gallery

“Art sometimes is just about focusing on things we might not think about. These chairs are a good example. It is very theatrical.”

Jochem Volz, Serpentine Galleries

“Reiner Ruthenbeck is influential… With ‘Overturned Furniture’ you have a domestic setting, which is brought  out of balance when you  turn it upside down and there are many ways to read it.”

Katharine Stout, ICA

“This is not to shock for the sake of it; the artist is interested in form and function. It is sometimes deliberately misunderstood that artists are just doing this for a reaction but they are responding to a vocabulary and history. ”

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