Tom Sutcliffe: When the object is to collect objects

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I found myself wondering about sets appeal the other day, walking round the Serpentine's new exhibition of the work of Hans-Peter Feldmann. What I mean by that is the seductive lure of collections – a human instinct which runs the full gamut from psychological obsession to high-minded reflection. Feldmann, an artist who is very big in Europe but not quite as well-known here, loves collections and has even made a living out of them, trading in collectibles and antique toys. He once issued a magazine for thimble collectors (he was trading in thimbles at the time) – a tiny-format publication that is itself, no doubt, now the subject of some collector's completist fever.

Feldmann's art is preoccupied with collections and sets too. One of the works on display at the Serpentine, for example, consists of a number of garish tourist postcards of the Eiffel Tower, images without any intrinsic artistic merit but which have (arguably) acquired it by being placed together on the gallery wall. Another consists of 15 variably distinguished oil seascapes, hung together in their original frames and offering a kind of catalogue of painterly wave and wind effects. And yet another offers a group of knowingly drab photographs of car dashboards titled, with a deadpan flatness, Car Radios While Good Music is Playing.

That last one made me laugh – which isn't an uncommon experience at this show. The notional trigger for taking the photograph – which we expect by convention to commemorate some memorable moment or sight – turns out to be something still photography can't actually capture. All you're left with is the husk and this most banal of sights. That and repetition, obviously, which has a mysterious charm all of its own. Just think how frequently photographers, in particular, resort to it; all those solemn photo essays in colour supplements which offer up a sample from a snapper's expanding portfolio of municipal benches in British's seaside towns, say, or 20 virtually indistinguishable pictures of people with their pet rats. What itch is being scratched here exactly?

Another of Feldmann's pieces consists of a number of cropped photographs of women's knees, which look as if they've been clipped from glossy magazines. That hints at a kind of fetishistic fixation, though the subject matter needn't be prospectively sexual to arouse that sense. The Eiffel Towers do it almost as effectively, the repetition making the case that the thing depicted is worth looking at again and again, even though it never really varies from one picture to the next. Variation, though, multiplies the effect.

Looking at Car Radios While Good Music is Playing, straining to see something beyond the banal, you find yourself curiously aware of the design of the radios, their irretrievably dated notion of the "stylish". The identity of these images alone makes you a little obsessive about what they show.

There's something else too though – some sense that the disorderly profusion of the world has been, in a tiny way, controlled. And the Serpentine isn't the only place you can experience this right now, in terms of fine art. At Tate Modern, Damien Hirst's art leans heavily on the appeal of the set – whether it's his glistening vitrines full of pharmaceutical pills or the preserved fish of his Isolated Elements Swimming in the Same Direction... The title alone there gets two important qualities: that the components of a collection are framed by blank space, artificially held apart from their neighbours but that they simultaneously obey some sense of pattern.

Most of Feldmann's collections or themed groupings aren't quite as anally geometrical as Hirst's. They're pinned informally to the gallery wall. But they still satisfy opposed desires in us, that there should be some kind of system to the world (we can spot the category at once) yet that there's room for individuality inside the confines.

It's an instinct so engrained that it can easily be gamed, I think. Hence the attraction of the "a lot of things that are a bit like each other but not exactly the same" trope in conceptual art. There's just something in us that's drawn to this kind of spectacle, to the spot-the-difference scrutiny it generates in us. Often it doesn't go much further than that. You're left with the appeal of shape-sorting.

But sometimes, as with Feldmann's best pieces, you get at something deeper. As collectors go I think he's worth adding to your set.

Alcoholic and old lace

Stage business sometimes gets a bad name. But when it works it can be wonderful. I've seen two great examples recently. The first was part of Roger Allam's marvellous performance as Uncle Vanya in the new Chichester production, in which he comes back on after the interval and pours out a glass of water in the most sardonic manner imaginable. First he pours it out, pulling the jug high above the glass. Then he pours it back into the jug again, all the while looking as disgusted as if he were decanting stale urine. It's a comment on Sonia's appeal for sobriety but it's also funny and character in action – this being a Vanya who has made his discontent into a variety turn. The second example was in Anthony Page's new production of Long Day's Journey Into Night, after David Suchet's James breaks a shoelace while getting dressed. His fiddling attempt to rethread it – coming shortly after a heated exchange about his miserliness – was near perfect, a mute image of a man trying to make ends meet, quite unconscious of what he was revealing. Does the stage-manager lay on a carefully pre-frayed shoelace every night, though, or was this an accident? If it was the latter Suchet deserves another round of applause for his improv, and I'd suggest it would be a good idea to make sure it happens again.

Keeping up with this lot would be a whiskey business

Talking of O'Neill's play, is there a more alcoholic work in the canon? I did wonder halfway through the first act whether you could play a drinking game with it, taking a shot of whisky whenever one of the characters does. But I think you'd be unconscious before you made it through the second act. In fact, the consumption is so reckless that you begin to wonder how the characters are still standing. It isn't alone in featuring heroic intake of alcohol, obviously – this being as useful a lubricant for onstage action as it is in real life. Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf would be a strong contender in any Alcohol Per Volume contest, of course, and a colleague reminds me that Rattigan's After the Dance and Simon Gray's Butley rack up the units with startling speed. But I think Long Day's Journey might still edge it – particularly when you consider that the crates of booze come with a morphine kicker. Somebody does actually lose consciousness in Long Day's Journey eventually, one of James's sons conking out in an armchair after gulping down at least two-thirds of a bottle of bourbon. Which stirs an even more mischievous thought in my mind: a "method" performance of O'Neill's masterpiece in which all the performers consume the real thing, rather than litres of cold tea. In the play, the veteran actor James boasts that he "never missed a performance" due to alcohol; but I doubt that many modern performers would make it to the final curtain.

t.sutcliffe@independent.co.uk

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