Some time around 1980, after a decade of activity, German conceptual artist Hans-Peter Feldmann made a big decision - to destroy all of his own artwork still in his possession and to withdraw from the art world. It was almost ten years later that he ended his self-imposed exile, most notably to work on an exhibition at Portikus, Frankfurt and the accompanying Werner Lippert publication Das Museum im Kopf (The Museum in the Head, 1989). His most recent solo exhibition, yet another decade on, focused on his principal fascination and method of working since putting down his paint brushes in the 1960s - collections of photographs mounted in enigmatic handmade books.
Apparently, Feldmann never signs a work, doesn't want a price list lying around the gallery, and if someone buys one of his books it is on the understanding that the edition is potentially limitless. There is method in this retail madness, but to understand it it's necessary to immerse yourself in the image world that he has accumulated for himself. In this exhibition two works were displayed on the walls, and the remainder in vitrines. Blicke aus Hotelzimmerfenstern (Views from Hotel Windows, 1975-99) was shown in both forms. On the wall it was a patchwork-like spray of colour photocopies with city names scrawled beneath each. The other original under glass was the same assortment of images in the form of cheap prints stuck into a spiral-bound album.
A complete description of the things Feldmann has captured with his roving camera is impossible, and that, it would seem, is part of the point. His system is arbitrarily to draw back the curtains in various locations and take a photograph of the world thus revealed. The resultant photographs are both curious and impassive out-takes; you never get the whole picture. There are eye-catching highlights, such as a spectacular lightning strike, but these are images that simply reflect good fortune. His gaze seems to have remained steady and tries to look at everything. Other works, such as Blicke aus Wohnungen (Views from Apartments, 1970s-90s), recall similar conceptual assaults on art photography. You could think of John Baldessari's series of intentionally 'bad' photographs or Ed Ruscha's streetscapes. Feldmann's 'Die Brücke' (The Bridge, 1974), for instance, is a series of 36 images - the number of shots available in a roll of film - taken from a car. Sometimes figures are caught like butterflies against a grainy black and white chemical shadow of the bridge's metal railings. The photos are mounted in pairs in the little grey cardboard book; you can't avoid thinking about the time passing between shots, moments inevitably unrecorded as the mechanism wound on.
Feldmann also collects amateur photographs and treats them with equal regard to his own. One striking example on display was 'L'Amore' (1992), a series of six images documenting an inter-racial, extra-marital romance: man by flower bed, woman by flower bed, man in hotel room naked, woman in hotel room naked, man with legs splayed on bed, woman with legs splayed on bed. Here the camera was the non-judgmental companion. (Why don't we have a phrase for the visual equivalent of a love letter?) Included behind glass were: Paris (1995), 30 shots mainly of the Eiffel Tower taken from a 'humorous' angle, and Strapse (Garters,1970s), tiny erotic pictures of crotches tucked into the folds of a novel. In another vitrine were works marked 'unbuyable books'. These too were old volumes augmented by photographs or objects such as an insect squashed onto a page, a feather bookmark or a brittle portrait. Perhaps the most mysterious of these works was Buch mit Maske und Visitenkarte (Book with Mask and Visiting Card, 2001) - a black mask and a visiting card arranged on the open pages of an obscure novel.
Feldmann is an artist whose work deserves to be better known. His is the art of archiving, collecting and mounting, sorting through what others might dismiss as banal or superfluous. There is often a large dose of melancholy involved but also an implicit refusal to equate mass with trash, the inexpensive with the valueless or the fleeting with the insignificant.