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Monday 16 April 2012

Hans-Peter Feldmann | Serpentine Gallery | London

Text by Travis Riley

Despite having gained a considerable reputation across Europe, and having won the $100,000 Hugo Boss Prize in New York (2010), this is Hans-Peter Feldmann’s first show in a public gallery in London. Feldmann is known and acclaimed for his artist’s books. Called Bilder (Pictures), each is numbered, and contains a series of related photographs. He has carried this mentality of series and collections throughout his art. One Pound of Strawberries (2004) depicts its title. Although defined by their collective weight, the strawberries have been separated, each isolated into its own small, stark, photographic image. Another series is entitled Car Radios While Good Music is Playing (2004). We see the radios, but of course, cannot hear the music.

Feldmann is, above all, a collector. The central room of the exhibition is filled with found items. The space is dominated by gaudy, garden statues of David and Venus. The pieces, which face each other, are oversaturated in every sense; skin vividly pink, David’s hair impossibly yellow and eyes a vacant, bright blue. Behind them, potted bouquets of fake flowers grow out of the gallery wall. The pale, ceramic pots are affixed by their bases so that the showy false blooms confront the viewer head on. The effect is surreal. The wall opposite the flowers houses a collection of fifteen, amateur seascape paintings. The haphazardly stacked, gilt-framed canvases recall a Parisian salon, albeit a distinctly thematic one, as each image depicts only sea and sky.

Aside from this showy moment, the exhibition is predominantly filled with smaller gestures. A chair sits, stacked upside-down on a plinth, explained by the title, Memory of my Time as a Waiter. Two images of a bath are shown; the text alongside reads "Bath. Before and After”. In the second image, the bathmat has been rumpled. A black and white photographic image shows two children. One child stands astride a scooter and reaches out to touch the forehead of the other, but where the finger ends, the second child has been cut out. A shadow stretching out across the base of the image and a white silhouette is all that remains of the removed youngster. There is something curiously touching about the moment depicted, its beauty brought out by the sight of the stark gallery wall beneath the image.

Shadow Play is given a room of its own. Beyond a black curtain, Feldmann has placed a multitude of kitsch toys and ornaments onto turntables. Light is shone across them to create a constantly moving forest of shadows on the far wall. The filtered glow is soft and murky, and the drifting shapes conjure up archetypal images. There are two planes taking off, a dog catching a frisbee, newlyweds posing for a photo, a gentleman’s pipe, Michelangelo’s David, and the Eiffel tower. In the foreground, the lights, made from old coffee tins and a jumble of wires, cast a harsh glare across the real objects, which are far from the ideal forms they project. Barbie is contorted into an uncomfortable position, the bride’s veil turns out to be cheap gauze, and the dog is suspended at an abnormal angle, held up by a metal stick protruding from his rear. Even the turntables are cheap plywood. This feels like Plato’s cave in reverse. The shadows show us perfect forms, but directly before us the reality is inescapable. By showing these projections, Feldmann makes visible the qualities in these objects that fascinate him.
In a new work, Feldmann has bought the handbags of five women for €500 each. The bags, complete with contents, are laid out in separate vitrines. The piece recalls the voyeurism of an earlier work, a set of photographs from one of Feldmann’s earliest books, (Bilder 11, 1969), which contains a series of seated, skirt-wearing, women’s knees, photographed front on. The societal taboo of venturing into a woman’s bag unannounced is pervasive. The bags are identified by name, city, and age, and whilst they contain a fair crossover of expected items: makeup, purse, phone, tampons, cards, scrunchies, and keys, each bag also has a personality. Suzanne, Berlin, 38 years has amassed a mess of coin change, sugar sachets, and cigarette filters, whilst Renate, Cologne, 43 seems tidy and organised, she even has a toothbrush. There seems a risk that a gesture of this nature could border on the perverse, but it doesn’t. The handbags are met with a polite curiosity; it is enjoyable to meet a person this way.

Before leaving the show I find myself returning to Time Series (1974). It is not one work but several series of photographs, which include a boat moving down the Rhine and a window being cleaned; a whole roll of film expended, capturing an incremental passing of time and an otherwise inconsequential act. There is a poetry in the gestures, like the other pieces, Feldmann seems to have captured something that can’t be present in the gallery. The time passing in these images is the equivalent of the mass of the strawberries, the music blaring from the car radios, the perfect forms hidden in the kitsch models, and the women who are only present through the contents of their handbags.

Hans-Peter Feldmann, 11/04/2012 - 05/06/2012, Serpentine Gallery, Kensington Gardens, London, W2 3XA. www.serpentinegallery.org

Hans-Peter Feldmann
Installation view, Hans-Peter Feldmann
Serpentine Gallery, London
(11 April - 5 June 2012)
© 2012 Jerry Hardman-Jones

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