Hans-Peter Feldmann, Sepentine Gallery, London

A German artist who arranges found objects claims that he is merely an archivist, but the stuff doesn't just fall out this way

There is doubtless a word in German for the mood that pervades Hans-Peter Feldmann's work, something involving Schmerz, perhaps, or maybe Gestalt. It is a mood that is not restricted to Germans.

Tony Cragg, a very English sculptor, suffered from it at the start of his career, when he first moved to Wuppertal, near Feldmann's home town of Düsseldorf. Cragg would scour the banks of a neighbouring river for bits of like-coloured plastic – shards of blue bleach bottle, say – and turn them into two-dimensional sculptures. They were lovely, in a Povera kind of way. But they also seemed specifically local, to do with German history, a need to remake from fragments, to work in a childlike way.

In Feldmann's case, this urge to reconstruct has taken a more conceptual turn. In his show at the Serpentine Gallery – the first, oddly, in a British public artspace – is a group of five vitrines, each containing a woman's handbag with its contents emptied out and put on display. These Feldmann bought from their owners intact: you wonder how he broached the subject.

One vitrine is labelled Susanne, Berlin, 38 years, its handbag a garish red number with a torn handle, the contents including Chanel nail varnish and face powder, a BlackBerry and a great many cigarette filters. By contrast, Renate, Cologne, 43 years has artistic interests – there are art postcards and gallery tickets – while Oriane, Berlin, 27 years (old Nokia, pebble, earplugs, L'eau d'Issey roll-on, scuffed shoes) seems the most scatterbrained.

Seen under glass, the handbags have the feel of evidence, perhaps from a mugging. What we deduce from them is the characters of their owners. Feldmann is big on the idea of completeness, of Vollständigkeit. Here are the total contents of a finite thing, unedited and unmediated. And yet for all their information, for all their intimacy and unguardedness, the vitrines remain entirely boring and unrevealing.

That, in a nutshell, is Feldmann's message, restated again and again in different media over the past 40-odd years: more knowledge is only ever more knowledge, never omniscience. When he photographs each of the 68 strawberries in a half-kilo box individually and tacks all the pictures to a wall unframed and unadorned, we can truthfully say that we have seen every strawberry in a particular punnet. And so what? It tells us nothing of the essence of strawberries, of strawberriness. Likewise with the six beautifully printed and framed slices of rye bread on one wall of the Serpentine's central gallery, or with the sequence of shots – empty frame, bow, whole boat, stern, empty frame – of a tug passing up the Rhine.

It is, in its strange way, compelling: the more evidence Feldmann gives us, the less we know; the stronger his positives, the more we feel the negatives around them. In a curtained-off niche in the Serpentine's West Gallery is an installation called – unusually for Feldmann, who prefers his work anonymous – Shadow Play. This consists of a trestle table with spotlights on it made from coffee tins, each light illuminating a spinning turntable covered in what can only be called "stuff": from memory, a statuette of the Eiffel Tower, another of HM The Queen, a model of a British Airways jet, the upper half of a Barbie, two bridal couples (one heterosexual and one same-sex) from the tops of wedding cakes, and much, much else besides.

You could go on reciting the ingredients of Feldmann's recipe until you were blue in the face, although no amount of listing would prepare you for the outcome. Projected on the niche's back wall, à la Noble and Webster, is the shadow play of the work's title, a joyous and yet macabre place, redolent of fairgrounds and travel and glamour but also of Hitchcock and nightmares. As with Webster and Noble, the trick is not in the transformation from solid to shadow but in the fact that we are still amazed by it even though we can see – we are forced to see – how it is done. Facts, in Feldmann's world, are not an antidote to astonishment, nor to ignorance.

All this makes his insistence, often voiced, that he is not an artist faintly irritating. For Feldmann to say that he is merely an archivist is less modest than it sounds. Beneath this claim is the suggestion that his work is unmediated, honest, found rather than made. That is not childlike: it is untrue. The contents of Renate's handbag have been laid out differently from those of Susanne's, and it is Feldmann who did the laying; likewise, who chose when to press the button of his camera as he stood by the Rhine? Or what junk to put on Shadow Play's turntables? But his belief, in the end, is that we should never believe anything – including him.


To 5 June (020-7402 6075)

Visual choice

Gillian Wearing gets a first retrospective at the Whitechapel Gallery, east London. See if you can stare down her personal, pithy photographic works and films (till 17 Jun). Industrial steel sculpture in the grounds of a stately home? That's the unlikely juxtaposition at Chatsworth House in Derby-shire, where 15 of Anthony Caro's works have found a home till 1 Jul.

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

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special

Arts and Entertainment
Game of Thrones will run for ten years if HBO gets its way but showrunners have mentioned ending it after seven

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
Mans Zelmerlow will perform 'Heroes' for Sweden at the Eurovision Song Contest 2015

Arts and Entertainment
Elizabeth (Heida Reed) and Ross Poldark (Aiden Turner) in the BBC's remake of their 1975 original Poldark

Poldark review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

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

    No postcode? No vote

    Floating voters

    How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

    By Reason of Insanity

    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
    Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

    Power dressing is back

    But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
    Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

    Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

    Caves were re-opened to the public
    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

    Vince Cable interview

    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
    Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
    Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

    The only direction Zayn could go

    We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
    Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

    Spells like teen spirit

    A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
    Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
    Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

    Licence to offend in the land of the free

    Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
    From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

    From farm to fork in Cornwall

    One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
    Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

    Robert Parker interview

    The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor