Museum Ludwig, Cologne, Germany
With this comprehensive retrospective of the work of the 62-year-old ‘anti-photo-artist’ (as he is described in the exhibition’s publicity material) several generations’ worth of anonymous pictorial products have found their way into the Museum Ludwig. Placed side by side along the wall of the museum are colour copies made by Feldmann of publicity photographs signed by assorted stars of yesteryear. Pictures of Romy Schneider, who starred as the Austrian Empress Sissi in West Germany’s most successful family film of the 1950s, are followed by former 1970s Bundesliga football stars, their blue jerseys as faded as their glory.
For almost 40 years now Feldmann has been collecting such images, along with police ‘Wanted’ photos, newspaper adverts for underwear and more intimate domestic images such as family photographs and holiday snaps. The effect of this kaleidoscopic collage is to echo the in-built obsolescence of Pop products, epitomized by the numerous once-treasured autograph albums that Feldmann picks up cheap in flea markets. At ‘Art Exhibition’ - the show’s title - the effect is to challenge the hallowed vaults of the Museum Ludwig with an orgy of kitsch and trivia. Scholarly labelling of the works, and information such as title and year of execution, have been almost entirely waived.
Who still remembers Nabil Harb, shown here in a snapshot looking young and relaxed, sitting in a café? Harb was a PLO fighter shot dead at the age of 23 by the Federal German border patrol when they stormed a hi-jacked airliner in Mogadishu. The name of the Somalian city still conjures up the ghosts of the German autumn of 1977, the culmination of the Red Army Faction’s doomed battle against West Germany’s political establishment. Die Toten 1967-1993 (The Dead of 1967-93, undated), a room like a mausoleum, parades all those killed as a result of left-wing terrorism in Europe - perpetrators as well as victims, both protagonists and bystanders - in a black and white gallery of press images.
Feldmann’s choice of studio portraits and news photos is clearly selective and levelling, an approach that has led to his being identified by some as a precursor of 1980s Appropriation art. Yet he is no mythologist of the mundane. His staged greed for imagery tends to document the passion of a treasure hunter rather than the analytical exactitude of an archaeologist. Feldmann explicitly avoids turning art into commentary. Everything is allowed, and quantity just breeds more quantity. Laconically and euphorically his art continually declares, ‘All of this is out there.’ Feldmann’s incorporation of the banal into art is entirely without argumentative bravado or grandiloquence.
The show also includes sculptures made by Feldmann from objects found in supermarkets and garden centres: plastic funnels piled into a colourfully banded tower, for example, and ivory-coloured dice arranged into a square. These are then mounted on cardboard box pedestals or displayed in vitrines. But images and objects are accorded equal treatment. Light pastels, the hues of the hand-coloured etching, suffuse both the black-and-white xerox of a mountain idyll and a Neo-classical plaster figure. Feldmann transforms glossy original photographic prints into pale copies, and department store posters into silk screenprints.
One of the artist’s friends, a collector of ceramics - filled one room of the show with kitchen plaques and cocoa pots from the 1920s. In the back room Feldmann installed three cells from a women’s prison, including original furniture and sentimental images of babies blinking into the camera, and a new-born child cradled in a muscular male arm, traced from a photograph with a felt-tip pen.
The final room of the exhibition featured the colourful, finely detailed series ‘Zeitbilder’ (Period Pictures, 1970s), comprising Feldmann’s own black and white photographs of the city. In one sequence two young women undress to sunbathe under the trees at the edge of a playing field. In Feldmann’s world every image is part of a series, and of absolutely equal value to the next. People move through the sequences with a clockwork regularity and link the successive images into a single moment, perpetually prolonged.
Catrin Lorch (translation by John William Gabriel