Hans-Peter Feldmann, review by Jack Davies
The Serpentine is currently home to a neat, inaugural retrospective of Hans-Peter Feldmann, charting his playful preoccupation with the symbols of the everyday and people’s attempts to fashion an identity in a cliché-laden world. Born in Düsseldorf in 1941, he first gained attention for his small handmade booklets, ‘Bilder’, charting scenes from normal life: people on bikes, planes, chairs, women’s legs, and so on. These themes of collecting, archiving and repetition persist through the entire exhibition. The cornerstone of Feldmann’s approach is light-heartedness, yet his work, for all its wry irony, poses serious questions about how we choose to tether meaning to our lives, seen in, for example ‘All the clothes of a woman’, which shows a series of photographs of a woman’s wardrobe and with it suggestions of how she might present herself to the world. In some pieces such as ‘Car radios while good music is playing’ there is a clear joke, given life by the title. In others, like ‘A pound of strawberries’ the title allows for a reappraisal of the subject. Feldmann is not over-precious: if the work needs a title, it gets one; otherwise its interpretation is entirely in the hands of the viewer.
We are invited equally informally into Feldmann’s home in the form of a large life-size photographed bookcase, allowed to observe how he has decided to present himself to us. It seems, too, that Feldmann isn’t overtly anxious about the status of his work as ‘art’. Art is around us continually, expressing itself in the surreal details of our lives, or in the poignancy of a memory, expressed as an old photograph. In fact, he is keen to deface the work of others, giving unknown portraits of those perhaps intent on being well-received by society, cross eyes or a bright red nose, or ‘censoring’ nudes, making them seem explicit. He defaces his own works too, seen, for example, in his well-known photograph of two little girls facing each other, one cut out, her identity vanished, just a ghostly gap in the paper.
Showing here for the first time are a series of ladies’ handbags, their entire contents laid out in rows for inspection; the details of a few lives displayed in a cabinet. His new installation ‘Shadow Play’, the only moving exhibit, arranges a large collection of rotating toys and trinkets on a long trestle table. Back-lit, the moving shapes cast eerie shadows that dance and twirl, blending and fading gracefully. Cheap objects crudely laid out take on an ethereal beauty belying their plastic, chintzy origins. Again we are asked to call into question our expectations of ‘beauty’.
Despite the breadth of the exhibition, it feels uncluttered, testament to the way in which the works are allowed to play off each other. Feldmann is amused by the transformation of the ‘classical statue’ from high art to plaster cast garden tat, taking it a stage further by painting them pink and blonde, making their nudity bright and silly, situating them next to fake, colourful pot-plants. Juxtapositions (high/low art, ugliness/beauty, nostalgia/mass-culture, passing of normal time/the impermanence of art) are to be savoured. In testing and teasing and feeling for the seams, Feldmann creates something new and as refreshing as, say, a wall of appropriated seascapes. Although perhaps the cardboard box full of bits of rubbish was one joke too many.