“Incidentally, just to get this straight,” Hans-Peter Feldmann tells his bemused interlocutor in a conversation of 2005, “I don’t see myself as a photographer…I see myself as someone who looks at pictures. And also someone who steals pictures, from all over.” Feldmann, born in Germany in 1941, is one of those artists — like Joseph Beuys or Marcel Broodthaers — who have pulled off the elusive and paradoxical feat of being canonized for their continually counter-canonical challenge to the making, viewing, selling and showing of what, for want of a better word, is — often doubtingly — called art. Inspired by the Dadaists, Situationists, Fluxus and the Vienna Actionist, Feldmann took from them what he thought they had in common — the idea that “art is an event, an impression, a feeling and more. It’s never really the object. As in music, the piano is not the music, it is only a tool.”
Typically, a Feldmann retrospective will have very few objects or images that have been created by him in the ‘original’. What one is confronted with is an ongoing collection of ordinary things, including books, pictures and paintings, re-arranged, remade or re-presented in a variety of rigorously conceptualized arrangements, in which their value shifts from the realm of the material to the terrain of ideas. The best example would be the booklets he made by stapling photocopied images together, taking the typological photography of his native Düsseldorf to a radically simpler, yet unsettling, level of conceptualism. When Feldmann got the Hugo Boss Prize in 2011, he encashed the cheque for $100,000 and pinned the entire sum, in $1 notes, on the walls inside the Guggenheim — creating a work about money that cannot be sold, moved or collected (whereas Warhol’s 1962 painting, 200 One Dollar Bills, fetched $43.8 million at Sotheby’s in 2009).
Performance, conversation, documentation and book- making come together in INTERVIEW (Walther König, 28 euros), in which Feldmann and his friend of 20-odd years, Hans Ulrich Obrist, have a curiously witty exchange: Obrist sends him a question in writing, and Feldmann answers it with an untitled, undated and unattributed image. It is, in every way, an original collaboration made out of stolen images, in which the book is the work as well as the event. But it also becomes part of Feldmann’s and Obrist’s larger projects.
As an art historian, a co- director of the Serpentine in London, and one of the art-world’s most powerful curators, connectors and catalysts, Obrist’s frenetically pursued obsession is to archive interviews with artists, curators, art historians, writers and other institution-builders in the arts. His interviews could take the form of 24-hour marathons or they could be short, end-stopped exchanges where the questions remain constant; they could also be rambling conversations full of invaluable personal digressions, as in his Brief History of Curating. In Obrist’s mind, it all comes together as “an endless conversation”, initially inspired by Marcel Duchamp’s transcribed conversations with Pierre Cabanne, and Francis Bacon’s with David Sylvester.
In this book without page-numbers, titles, dates and picture-credits, one of whose openings is reproduced above, it is impossible to tell jest from earnest — either in the tone of Obrist’s deadpan yet insistent questions, or in the intriguing reticence of Feldmann’s pictorial answers. “Your favourite actress?” Coronation photo of Queen Elizabeth. “What role does chance play?” Black-and-white photo of intersecting electric wires with lots of birds sitting on them. “Do we need holes?” Two hanging masks with prominent eye-holes. “What meaning do different materials have for you?” A man carrying the bloated body of a dead buffalo on his back. “What were your favourite literary influences?” ‘Dance of Death’ silhouette from Bergman’s Seventh Seal. And, on the facing page, “How would you like to die?” Badly cropped colour photo of a hand holding a revolver inside a black, knitted, woollen cover.