In the same vein as art collectors, artists are also interested in collecting art. Damien Hirst collects the work of artists who influenced him, including Francis Bacon, Andy Warhol and Jeff Koons. The private collection of Indian miniature paintings of the artist Howard Hodgkin was even exhibited at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford earlier this year.
The German artist, Hans-Peter Feldmann, has made art out of collecting. In his practice he gathers images from visual culture and mundane objects from various sources transforming them into intellectually stimulating works. The Serpentine Gallery hosted a comprehensive exhibition on the ‘archivist of visual culture’ work.
Upon meeting Feldmann he presents more as a banker than a stereotypical artist. The man in his seventies wears a pristine, but anonymous, grey suit, although his attire doesn’t imply that his art is dull: on the contrary, it is full of lively humour, ranging from odd and witty, to deadpan and absurd.
The exhibition starts with some self-mockery with a collection of six caricatures where Feldmann posed for various street artists during a weekend in Madrid in 2010. Feldmann doesn’t want to be filmed, nor does he want his interviews to be taped, but he doesn’t mind being drawn – these caricatures are an illustration of an artist who takes himself with a pinch of salt.

In the adjacent room there is an example of Feldmann’s deadpan humour with a work called ‘Car radios whilst good music is playing’. It’s a collection of black and white pictures he took of his car stereo when a ‘good’ song was played on the radio. Feldmann tells me that he considers rock ‘n roll of the 1950-60s, Elvis Presley, to be good music and the work is a reflection of the memory of moments in which he felt good whilst driving his car. Some people sing along to the radio whilst in their car when they are happy, others take a picture of the radio.

In an amusing interview* with Hans Ulrich Obrist (co-director of the Serpentine Gallery who himself collects interviews and discussions with artists), Feldmann talked about the importance of humour in art. “Humour is always an attempt to outmanoeuvre or break apart something very serious. Humour is something with a very serious background. There is no ad lib humour – there is always a kind of desperation behind it. It’s an easy way of approaching a problem and an attempt not to despair of doing something about it. Humour is important”.

Feldmann’s radios are an example of his deadpan humour, but he can also be deadly serious, as shown by the work displayed opposite the radio piece. For the magazine ‘Profil’, an Austrian equivalent of the German magazine ‘Der Spiegel’, Feldmann suggested to reproduce a complete reprint of the issue with the pictures but without the text. Coincidentally it happened to be the issue in which the cover featured a picture of the right-wing politician Jörg Haider being installed into the Government. In the same interview with Obrist, Feldmann commented on the work: “The issue was immediately interpreted as a political commentary… this met with quite a positive reaction in Austria because it said: ‘we’ll write and say nothing more, we’re speechless’.” It’s an interesting take on the adage ‘A picture is worth a thousand words’.

I ask Feldmann if collecting has been a tradition within his family? “No, my parents were poor so they didn’t have any money to collect anything”, Feldmann answers. As a young boy Feldmann did collect stamps. “I had a nice collection of stamps as my father owned a drugstore, which necessitated a lot of correspondence, invoices etc., which meant I had ready access to different stamps. It was quite an expansive collection compared to that of my friends”. 
The exhibition doesn’t include this memorabilia, but it includes a black and white picture of Feldmann’s collection of books. In the same way that you can gain a sense of a person from going through their CD collection, here you have a sense of Feldmann’s eclectic nature from the mixture of books, which includes books by John le Carré, Franz Kafka, Arthur Schopenhauer, Ian Fleming, and art books on Yves Klein and the Neue Sachlichkeit, all of which are housed in an ordinary Billy bookcase.
I don’t spot books on the shelves from the prolific Feldmann himself. One of his books, ‘Interview’, is an original and playful book that he produced in collaboration with Obrist. The book’s concept was that, via e-mail, Obrist would send questions and statements to which Feldmann would respond with an image. To the question ‘My favourite colour’, Feldmann responded with a close-up image of a woman’s lips with crimson red lipstick; in response to the statement ‘Art at home’ Obrist received an image in his inbox of a kitchen table with four chairs placed with their back to the table.
A chair displayed in the North Gallery that is placed upside down on a plinth with the title ‘Memory of my time as a waiter’ encapsulates Feldmann’s dry humour but with the rest of the objects displayed in the room I’m missing the humour – or am I taking it too serious – as it puzzled me what to make of a chair hanging on suspenders, the series of five hats placed one on top of the other (a reference to the surrealistic humour of the Belgian artist René Magritte?), a collection of toy animals placed on a carpet, or of the hammer covered in blue knitted wool!

In the final room Feldmann presents his latest collection: women’s handbags. He obtained these bags by offering women €500 for their bag and its content (minus certain valuables). Feldmann approached anonymous women in restaurants and women he knew, and he says the women readily accepted his offer. In total he amassed a collection of 11 bags, of which five are exhibited in separate vitrines.

At first glance, the idea sounds like a feature from a glossy magazine where models, style gurus and socialites reveal what they have in their bags: sunglasses, lipstick, nail polish, all predominately luxury brands. These items are flashily presented on a page, making it look like an advertisement, but the contents of these women’s bags doesn’t tell you anything about the identity of the owner.
In reality, the content of the woman’s bags that Feldmann collected turn out to be far from glamourous as they contain remnants of gum wrapping, sugar bags, shoe bags with pumps that women wear to and from a restaurant, a folded business card for a shoe repair shop, tampons and tissues. Looking at these bags and their content, we can indulge our voyeurism and start to imagine the women behind the bag. From the content of the red handbag of Renate, 43 years from Cologne, we consider whether she is into the arts as she has an invitation to a festive evening of the artists Fischli/Weiss at the Ludwig Museum; is she organised as she carries a mobile phone charger with her; does she have long hair as there are three hair bands in the bag; is Italian food her favourite cuisine as she has several business cards for Italian restaurants in her bag?
The audience gathers around the vitrines, curious and voyeuristic as we all are, to see the content of these women’s bags but Feldmann says that this work is not about voyeurism, but about breaking a taboo. “As a child I was fascinated to look into my mother’s handbag, but it’s one of the things I didn’t dare to do”. Has his fascination now been indulged? “Yes”, he laughs, “I have gathered a collection of 11 bags, which is enough. It’s time for me to collect something else.”
Written by Thierry Somers
*Kein Interview, KW Institute for Contemporary Art, Berlin, 2010.
Hans-Peter Feldmann, Serpentine Gallery until 5 June.

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