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.
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