Open Katalog/Catalogue by Hans-Peter Feldmann in the middle to find the Director’s Foreword, that inevitable piece of writing directors of important exhibition spaces feel compelled to produce for any given exhibition catalogue. While I usually have no problem simply ignoring these kinds of pages, here it’s hard. Where else would once see a very formal portrait of Julia Peyton-Jones and Hans Ulrich Obrist (Serpentine Gallery), both shown cross-eyed? Elsewhere, this theme pops up again. There is a spread that shows four paintings, their subjects (three people plus a pair of dogs) cross-eyed. What’s going on here?
In more ways than one, Hans-Peter Feldmann is a trailblazer. To describe him as a “conceptual artist” probably is correct – I imagine the same people who actually do read these aforementioned texts by directors might nod their heads now (or whatever they do when try to nonchalantly show approval); but in another sense, this label deprives the artist of too much for it to be truly useful. For a start, the term “conceptual art” is such a massive turn off for most people outside of academia and the very narrow confines of the academic part of what is commonly called the art world that it might be better to retire it (assuming, of course, that we would want a larger number of people to engage with this form of art).
If anything, Feldmann shows that you can engage with photography (and visual art in general) in ways that disseminates what it does and how it is being used, while at the same time providing that insight in ways that not only unmask the spectacle of photography, but that also give insight into why we go about all these strange ways of making or dealing with pictures, and that is fun. And funny. You don’t ask the writers for your catalogue to pose cross-eyed for nothing.
“I like humour a lot. Humour is always an attempt to outmanoeuvre or dissolve something very serious. Humour is something with a serious background. There is no ad lib humour – there’s always a kind of desperation behind it. It’s an easy way of approaching a problem and an attempt not to despair, to do something about it.” – Hans-Peter Feldmann
Many of Feldmann’s earliest investigations of photography date back to a time when such an engagement was actually new. Given how ubiquitous work with archival or vernacular photography has become these days, there is something amazing about seeing it being done before it was en vogue. This is not to diminish the various efforts done today – many of them are clearly very good. But in Feldmann’s varied output you can see many of the strategies that now seem so familiar applied first. What is more, photobooks have always played a bit role for the artist.
Katalog/Catalogue comes with a long conversation between Feldmann and Obrist, a lively exchange that really helps put the artist’s work into perspective. In addition, seeing all this different work together in one place greatly faciitates understanding more about the ideas. It’s one thing to see, let’s say, spreads from his “Pictures” booklets (“12 Pictures,” for example, contains twelve photographs of planes in the sky). It’s quite another thing to see formal classical paintings of people where there has been a clown nose painted on top of the faces. “One Pound of Strawberries” shows photographs of all the strawberries contained in Feldmann’s particular pound.
Confounding when seen in an isolated fashion, taken together all these various pieces are part of Hans-Peter Feldmann’s universe: Things are either taken at face value and then driven to its (seemingly) logical conclusion; or they are subverted in the most straightforward way. It’s conceptual, and it’s not. It’s dead serious, and it’s just ridiculous at the same time. It’s very German, yet it speaks of something utterly universal – our desire to understand what is going on, our occasional desire for all this seriousness to fall away, and even if it’s just for a short moment.
What do you do if you win a major art prize that comes with $100,000 and an exhibition at the Guggenheim? Why, of course, you display 100,000 $1 bills in the exhibition space. That’s not really conceptual, that’s just dada driven to a contemporary extreme.
Katalog/Catalogue; photography/art piece by Hans-Peter Feldmann; conversations with Hans Ulrich Obrist and Helena Tatay; 232 pages; Walther König; 2013
(source of quote: taken from the conversation with the artist included in the book; I changed the English translation of Feldmann’s words slightly)