Tom Sutcliffe: When the object is to collect objects

The week in culture


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.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Telesales & Customer Service Executive - Call Centre Jobs

£7 - £9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: Are you outgoing? Do you want to work in...

Ashdown Group: Finance Manager - Covent Garden, central London - £45k - £55k

£45000 - £55000 per annum + 30 days holiday: Ashdown Group: Finance Manager - ...

Ashdown Group: Systems Administrator - Lancashire - £30,000

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: 3rd Line Support Engineer / Network ...

Recruitment Genius: Graduate Web Developer

£26000 - £33000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Web Developer is required to ...

Day In a Page

Read Next

i Editor's Letter: A royal serving the nation

Oliver Duff Oliver Duff
David Cameron met with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko prior to the start of the European Council Summit in Brussels last month  

David Cameron talks big but is waving a small stick at the Russian bear

Kim Sengupta
Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

Climate change key in Syrian conflict

And it will trigger more war in future
How I outwitted the Gestapo

How I outwitted the Gestapo

My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
The nation's favourite animal revealed

The nation's favourite animal revealed

Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
Is this the way to get young people to vote?

Getting young people to vote

From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot
Poldark star Heida Reed: 'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'

Poldark star Heida Reed

'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'
The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

Money, corruption and drugs

The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

150 years after it was outlawed...

... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

You won't believe your eyes

Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn