Hans-Peter Feldman: Serpentine Gallery meets anarchic conceptual art

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

The Serpentine Gallery's retrospective of Hans-Peter Feldmann proves that this prankster's work is playful but far from puerile, says Adrian Hamilton

The British have long avoided German art.

Even the great German Expressionist painters found few collectors or places in the galleries over here, still less the post-war artists. Two world wars have obviously something to with it. But so is a sense that German art, like music, is somehow too intense, too concerned with ideas and not enough with the reality around us. We like our conceptual art with a little less concept, thank you very much.

Which makes it all the odder that the British been so slow to appreciate the work of Hans-Peter Feldmann, Europe's best known conceptual artist and now the subject of a comprehensive retrospective at the Serpentine Gallery. He's witty, he's a prankster, anti-establishment, anarchic in his humour and an assiduous collector of mundane objects, everything in fact that should have endeared him to the British but has never quite done so.

That may be partly because he eschews the kind of commercial gallery promotion that Damien Hirst, Gilbert and George and others have used so much to their advantage. An iconoclast to his bootstraps, Feldman, now past 70, has always believed in art that is mundane and unexpected, holding a display in the fridge of a show that took place in a kitchen, refusing to sign any of his works, producing dozens and dozens of books of ordinary images, papering the walls with reproductions of magazine images. Anything that smacks of the formal, the prepared and the establishment arouses a desire to subvert.

When he was awarded the $100,000 Hugo Boss prize, he used it to paper the walls and pillars of the Guggenheim in New York with one-dollar notes to its total value.

Too subversive, it might also be said, for a British taste that still regards art as being essentially serious in purpose and permanent in display. The ephemera that Feldmann gathers so obsessively, the tricks he plays with conventional art, are dismissed as puerile. They shouldn't be. The Serpentine exhibition shows just how enjoyable an artist he can be but also how creative.

Two of his latest works are among his best. In one, he paid a series of women €500 to give over their handbags and contents, which he then arranges in display cases. In one sense, it's a way of looking into a life through objects. But what is striking is less the expected than the tantalising – the set of five postcards of a man painting in the style of Van Gogh, the Arabic calling cards, the chaos of one, the neatness of another.

In the other recent work, a room is set aside for an installation in which Feldman has a long table with revolving small platforms on it. On them are small toys, figurines and ornaments, including the tacky, the monstrous and a bride carried in the arms of a woman groom. They are lit by a row of crudely made spotlights that cast the shadows of the turning figures on to the wall, enlarging, melding and dancing. It's a work of wonderful suggestion, the most ordinary made into something elusive and mysterious.

Collecting is too facile a description of what he is up to. Rather he has set out to demolish the idea of high art and put in its place an art of assembled items that impels the viewer to think again of their worth and possibilities. The exhibition starts with a group of cheap paper copies, in black and white, of posters full of the clichés of romance and exotic places and furry pets. Arranged together they take on a rhythm of pairs and desire that replaces the sentimentality of image with something gentler and more real. Opposite is a collection of cartoons and sketches made of Feldmann by street artists in Madrid. It's a tribute to his belief that art is like singing. Most people can do it, only there are some who do it professionally.

Art for him comes out of impulse, the impulse to solve a tension or a question within us. Repetition is part of the process, in the way that we doodle repetitively. But it is also the way, through gathering together picture postcards of the Eiffel Tower or family snaps and the individual strawberries in a pound pack, that he uses to makes us look again at the obvious and to see the subtle differences and hence what makes them special. In Time Series, he takes a sequence of photos from a point on a bridge or of an apartment block, slightly shifting the position and the movements over a period. A window is opened, a woman leans out to clean it, then it closes. Some pedestrians cross the bridge, the light changes. The effect is to slow time but also to engage the eye to notice the detail.

He does the same with his Bilder, booklets of photographs of a maid tidying up a bed, a plane flies above. It doesn't always work and it certainly doesn't work for everyone. Put together in a single show like this, the eye can tire of being concentrated into the detail. But they constantly engage, which is what is art is all about.

At the same time Feldmann has also embarked on the bigger, bolder and the more obvious with more straightforwardly Surrealist works, painting reproductions of Michelangelo's David in bright pinks with red lipstick, putting red noses on to 19th-century portraits, turning a dining chair upside down and calling it Memory of My Time as a Waiter", displaying high-heeled shoes with tin tacks on its inside, making ranks of plastic flower pots jut out from the wall. They're good fun, they can startle (the portraits with squint eyes are particularly engaging) but they're works of single rather than subtle effect.

A creative artist? Certainly. A considerable figure? Yes, almost despite himself. Damien Hirst makes statements, Feldmann, in contrast, makes you look and look again at the items we gather and the dreams we have. His is a vision where you see the world in a grainy photograph. It's a fundamentally humane view. It's also reassuring in its elevation of the ordinary. Too reassuring to be truly subversive? It's a thought that nags after seeing this enjoyable and well-organised show.

Hans-Peter Feldmann, Serpentine Gallery, London W2 (serpentine gallery.org) to 5 June

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Feeling all at sea: Barbara's 18-year-old son came under the influence of a Canadian libertarian preacher – and she had to fight to win him back
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Living the high life: Anne Robinson enjoys some skip-surfed soup
TV review
Arts and Entertainment

Great British Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
Doctor Who and Missy in the Doctor Who series 8 finale

TV
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Chvrches lead singer Lauren Mayberry in the band's new video 'Leave a Trace'

music
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Home on the raunch: George Bisset (Aneurin Barnard), Lady Seymour Worsley (Natalie Dormer) and Richard Worsley (Shaun Evans)

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton

film
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer as Margaery Tyrell and Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
New book 'The Rabbit Who Wants To Fall Asleep' by Carl-Johan Forssen Ehrlin

books
Arts and Entertainment
Calvi is not afraid of exploring the deep stuff: loneliness, anxiety, identity, reinvention
music
Arts and Entertainment
Edinburgh solo performers Neil James and Jessica Sherr
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
If a deal to buy tBeats, founded by hip-hop star Dr Dre (pictured) and music producer Jimmy Iovine went through, it would be Apple’s biggest ever acquisition

album review
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith is joining The Voice as a new coach

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Dowton Abbey has been pulling in 'telly tourists', who are visiting Highclere House in Berkshire

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Patriot games: Vic Reeves featured in ‘Very British Problems’
TV review
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

    ‘Can we really just turn away?’

    Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
    Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

    Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

    ... and not just because of Isis vandalism
    Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

    Girl on a Plane

    An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
    Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

    Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

    The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent
    Markus Persson: If being that rich is so bad, why not just give it all away?

    That's a bit rich

    The billionaire inventor of computer game Minecraft says he is bored, lonely and isolated by his vast wealth. If it’s that bad, says Simon Kelner, why not just give it all away?
    Euro 2016: Chris Coleman on course to end half a century of hurt for Wales

    Coleman on course to end half a century of hurt for Wales

    Wales last qualified for major tournament in 1958 but after several near misses the current crop can book place at Euro 2016 and end all the indifference
    Rugby World Cup 2015: The tournament's forgotten XV

    Forgotten XV of the rugby World Cup

    Now the squads are out, Chris Hewett picks a side of stars who missed the cut
    A groundbreaking study of 'Britain's Atlantis' long buried at the bottom of the North Sea could revolutionise how we see our prehistoric past

    Britain's Atlantis

    Scientific study beneath North Sea could revolutionise how we see the past
    The Queen has 'done and said nothing that anybody will remember,' says Starkey

    The Queen has 'done and said nothing that anybody will remember'

    David Starkey's assessment
    Oliver Sacks said his life has been 'an enormous privilege and adventure'

    'An enormous privilege and adventure'

    Oliver Sacks writing about his life
    'Gibraltar is British, and it is going to stay British forever'

    'Gibraltar is British, and it is going to stay British forever'

    The Rock's Chief Minister hits back at Spanish government's 'lies'
    Britain is still addicted to 'dirty coal'

    Britain still addicted to 'dirty' coal

    Biggest energy suppliers are more dependent on fossil fuel than a decade ago
    Orthorexia nervosa: How becoming obsessed with healthy eating can lead to malnutrition

    Orthorexia nervosa

    How becoming obsessed with healthy eating can lead to malnutrition
    Lady Chatterley is not obscene, says TV director

    Lady Chatterley’s Lover

    Director Jed Mercurio on why DH Lawrence's novel 'is not an obscene story'
    Farmers in tropical forests are training ants to kill off bigger pests

    Set a pest to catch a pest

    Farmers in tropical forests are training ants to kill off bigger pests