Conspicuously camouflaged

Attraction on the Thames: The former warship presents itself in new garb (Photo: Chris Wainwright)
Attraction on the Thames: The former warship presents itself in new garb (Photo: Chris Wainwright)

The HMS President suddenly looks different. For the hundredth anniversary of the beginning of the First World War, the former warship was revamped in dazzle camouflage style. The fact that the artist happens to be named Tobias Rehberger is no coincidence.By Jochen Wittmann

Seven and a half metres. That’s the tidal range of the Thames here in the centre of London. When the tide comes in, the river becomes a stage and lifts whatever swims on its shoulders up high and shows it off as if on a dais. At the Victoria Embankment, shortly above Blackfriars Bridge, the Thames is now showing off its latest attraction: a warship was transformed into an art ship.

Passers-by pause in amazement. What is pouring out of the hulk of the ship? It looks like pipes, perhaps hoses or are they pipelines? It’s as if the innards of the engine room are pushing outside. Steely bowels bulge, black, white and grey pipes, between them an orange blotch of colour. They bring associations to mind of torpedoes, periscopes, hidden muzzles. A system of hoses. Pipes reaching in one direction or another. It’s all quite confusing. Only one thing is certain: the HMS President does not look at all like a former warship. That’s the point. It is now, according to the title, a “Dazzle Ship.”

At the beginning of its life when, in 1918, the President – then still with its old name HMS Saxifrage – was put into service in the final year of the First World War, it had been given a dazzle pattern; a camouflage was painted on it with the intention of dazzling and confusing viewers with its conspicuousness. The present dazzle design was created by the German sculptor Tobias Rehberger. The artist, born in Esslingen and raised in Frankfurt, created a modern reinterpretation in commemoration of the outbreak of the First World War one hundred years ago.

The Appeal of the Absurd

Approximately 2,000 Royal Navy ships were sent to the First World War in dazzle camouflage. Cruisers, freighters, destroyers – such big ships can’t be easily hidden at sea. Dazzle was a paradoxical camouflage. It doesn’t make the ship invisible, but the complex and highly contrasting geometric patterns made it difficult for enemy scouts to ascertain the size, outline, direction and speed of the ship. The idea was to confuse rather than hide, and dazzling was meant to help escape the attacks of enemy submarines.

The artist Tobias Rehberger aboard the HMS President (Photo: Getty Images)

The artist Tobias Rehberger aboard the HMS President (Photo: Getty Images)

Or, as Tobias Rehberger says, the dazzle technique is a matter of “using certain graphic patterns to obscure an object in itself.” This concept has been inspiring Rehberger for twenty years. For the Venice Biennale in 2009, he designed the cafeteria in dazzle style and it won him the Golden Lion. Rehberger is tantalized by the absurdity of this camouflage technique, which is achieved by means of a highly conspicuous and strong visuality. For him, it also about the visibility of art, “how it works at a glance, not just physiologically, but also intellectually.”

So it’s not surprising that Rehberger was the ideal candidate for creating a new dazzle design for the curators of 14-18 NOW, the official British cultural programme, which, as its director Jenny Waldman explains, “commissions contemporary art projects in order to gain a new perspective on the First World War.” In cooperation with the Goethe-Institut, the project was realized in a record time of only four months. The decision was made in March, in July, the last vinyl films were adhered to the ship’s hulk. “It may be,” Waldman said, “the fastest gigantic art project the world has ever seen.”

The crew is thrilled

Rehberger first asked for some time to consider “whether I could and whether I wanted to do it.” After all, for a German it is somewhat embarrassing to celebrate a war, considering the British have a “very different attitude towards it and another way of dealing with it.” The conceptual artist did not aim to imitate the original with his design. “Back then, it was made to function while at war. Today it is made to think over the war. Maybe it reveals that a little has changed over the past hundred years.” He adds, “My pattern leans towards the surrealist, almost comical. I thought that may be a possibility to deal with this subject matter in a contemporary way.”

Do people like it? The barrister who passes the ship daily on his way to his office does, remarking, “Before, the President did look a bit shabbier.”

The ship has been docked permanently in London since 1922. At first, it served as a training ship; today it is a sort of business centre offering office space for small entrepreneurs and it can be leased for private parties. The crew of twelve who maintain and keep up the ship are thrilled by the new look. “At first we were somewhat sceptical,” says Captain Chris Cooper. “But once the plans were on the table, we were all on board.” Cooper himself wouldn’t mind if the dazzle design should decorate the ship longer than the planned six months, saying, “It is simply beautiful and wonderfully done.”

But the vinyl films will disappear again next spring. It will be a bit like pulling the hide off the ship. Without its dazzle skin, it will again lie on the water of the Thames with its dull, black hulk, looking a bit shabby. Now Cooper is thinking about giving the ship a new dazzle camouflage in four years when the President celebrates its hundredth anniversary. Then, when the tide comes in on the Thames it would have something to show off again.

Related links

PARADOXES: Back to Overview >>

Projects of Goethe-Institutes worldwide >>

Calendar of events >>