Whether you’re an uninspired art student who needs a boisterous push to get you back to work, or a tired city-worker whose sense of humour needs nudging, the Hans-Peter Feldmann exhibition at the Serpentine Gallery is a chance to shrug off the reality of your world and spend some time with your inner child.
I must confess that within five minutes of arriving at the exhibition, I discovered that my inner child was having a dramatic sulk. Having hurtled through rush hour on the Underground, stumbled over Feldmann’s floor installation as soon as I walked into the gallery (and subjected to the disapproving surveillance of the gallery assistants), I found myself staring up at a large oil painting of a cross-eyed woman, next to another of a man with a superimposed red nose. It felt as if the joke was on me.
Having grown up in post-war Germany with an estimable set of contemporaries including Joseph Beuys and Gerhard Richter, Feldmann’s humour and Duchampian sense of art nevertheless, at times, seems to get carried away with itself. There are parts of the Feldmann exhibition that seem slightly puerile. It’s not inconceivable that the cross-eyed portraits are intended "to sabotage the painting as an object that denotes social class" (as the "Dreams" text from the accompanying exhibition leaflet writes), but it seems to lack witticism and sharpness. The censored nude and the nude with tan-lines are both very droll, but do they go any further than being a one-liner?
However, moving into the West part of the gallery, there is a captivating installation titled Shadowplay. Lights made out of coffee tins shine through carousels, each made from a bricolage of toys, create an ethereal interplay of light and dark on the walls of the gallery. This piece has a particularly magnetic effect on the children visiting the show. Once again, the gallery assistants had to step-in to protect the artwork, but fortunately not from me this time. It appeared that Feldmann had ‘forgetfully’ left a hammer and some other materials on the table, but this seemed to delight the younger audience, who not doubt were scheming about how to recreate the piece at home.
As I continued through the exhibition, my mood lightened. (I would recommend traversing the exhibition from right to left, saving the ‘best until last’). The East Gallery contains a copy of Profil magazine, both the original and the modified edition, which was commissioned by Feldmann and contains no text, just images. Published unintentionally on the same day that Jörg Haider, leader of the Austrian Freedom Party was enthroned, the wordless Profil was wrongly interpreted as a political statement. Feldmann’s more delicate humour here teeters on the edge between political discourse and impishness, swaying towards seriousness and back to merriment. In the same gallery, the piece All the Clothes of a Woman also stands out: each item of clothing this particular individual owned at that moment is documented, from tights hung carefully on clip hangers to a scuffed pair of rollerblades. Here Feldmann’s work deconstructs notions of displays and representation through its playfulness.
The Time Series not only captures instances and gestures of the past, but also produces a beguiling sense of physicality and tenderness. And Sunday Pictures reduces fantasy landscapes and subconsciously formed idealisms to grey-scale pixelated wall-coverings, asking us to re-examine our paragons and to look more closely at our immediate surroundings. But the highlight of the show is really Feldmann's books and collections of images – some commonplace and others remarkable. He highlights the beauty of a book as an art-object. As a pioneer of art-zines, he introduced us to the idea that art can be produced and sold cheaply, pocketed and distributed to environments outside of galleries and museums.
Feldmann's sense of carpe diem combined with his incorrigibility finally won me over. It is an exhibition with many layers and definitely worth the blustery walk across the park. As I left the Serpentine Gallery, I was reminded of the old proverb "He who laughs last, laughs longest," and I can guarantee that whatever you make of the show, it will make you laugh at least once, even if Feldmann himself has the last laugh.
5 facts about Hans-Peter Feldmann to help you show off to your friends:
- He grew up on a farm, where he used to make snakes out of straw
- As a struggling artist, he opened a shop entirely dedicated to thimbles
- He later did work for Louis Vuitton
- He decided two years ago to no longer exhibit in commercial galleries
- He once said, "For me art is like breathing, or perhaps sneezing, I don’t need a theory to do that".