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Celebrating Contemporary German Art: Feldmann, Tillmans and Sehgal
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Celebrating Contemporary German Art: Feldmann, Tillmans and Sehgal

Picture of Mélissa Leclézio
Updated: 25 January 2016
Once considered staid, German artists have established themselves as the provocative stars of the contemporary art world. 2012 saw a wave of German art in London with the Goethe-Institut’s 50th anniversary. We look at three artists who exhibited in this summer of German Culture: Hans-Peter Feldmann, Wolfang Tillmans and Tino Sehgal.

Hans-Peter Feldmann

Düsseldorf-born Hans-Peter Feldmann sees himself as an archivist rather than as an artist. Fascinated by cultural artefacts, he has amassed a large number of objects over the last forty years. In the mid-70s, Feldmann produced a series of booklets called ‘Bilder’ (‘pictures’), which included photographs depicting quotidian situations and subjects in a vaguely amateur style. By selecting banal and unremarkable scenes that would otherwise go unnoticed, Feldmann compels us to wonder whether we might be missing the significance of apparently ordinary moments. This and other works like ‘The Time Series’, as well as Feldmann’s exhaustive photographic collection, brought him international acclaim in the 1970s.

Feldmann is celebrated as the artist of completeness, or ‘Vollständigkeit’. He works with a wide range of different objects and vernacular images. These include his own photographs and pictures from cigarette packs, magazines, children’s books, postcards, newspapers, books etc. Presented as un-edited and un-mediated, these artefacts confront the audience with their troubling factuality. Deeply inspired by the Dadaists, Feldmann’s work takes inspiration from several other movements such as Conceptualism, Post-modernism and Neorealism. The systematic style he has applied to his collections reflects contemporary preoccupations such as classification, seriality and mediation. It also questions the peculiar relationship between images and their subjects. According to Felmann, art is ‘a natural function’: like coughing or breathing, it is ultimately a healing process.

Hans-Peter Feldmann’s work was displayed at the Serpentine Gallery in Hyde Park in 2012. The show showed forty years of his works, presenting early works such as the ‘Time’ Series as well as more recent ones including the ‘Handbags and Seascape’ – a collection of traditional oil paintings.

Wolfgang Tillmans

Born in 1968, Wolfgang Tillmans moved to Hamburg in the 1980s where he first encountered the rave/electro scene. Having developed a passion for pictures and clipping in his childhood, he began taking snapshots of the German youth subculture. In 1988, toying with a laser copier in order to obtain altered images, he produced the ‘Approaches’ photographs. Whilst studying at the Bournemouth & Poole College of Arts & Design in England in the 1990s, Tillmans worked on his first photodiptychs and posed scenes. He gained international recognition after many of his pictures were published in magazines such as The Face, iD and Tempo.

Celebrated for his vast range of subjects and scales, the artist creates intimate, confessional portraits as well as large, powerful monochromes. Whether pointing his lens at the ravishing Kate Moss or ecstatic bodies in European nightclubs, Tillmans’ pictures appear raw and display vestiges of the artistic process. The artist also enjoys challenging traditional modes of display. His works are often unframed – sometimes taped or pinned to the galleries’ walls or placed in plexiglass bespoke vitrines. This creates a feeling of temporariness and disrupts the viewer’s emotional relation to the photograph.

Tillmans constantly explores new ways of questioning and interpreting what stands in front of his eyes. His works seek to appropriate and defy conventional portraiture. For that, he was the youngest artist and the first photographer to win the Turner Prize in 2000.

The Common Guild in Glasgow exhibited an important group of Tillman’s works in 2012, alongside more recent pieces selected by the artist. Tillman was also part of the Wide Open School project at the South Bank Centre in the summer of 2012.

Tino Sehgal

Born from a German mother and an Indian father in 1976, Tino Sehgal is a truly multicultural product. His conventional upbringing pushed him to rebel against ‘things’ from an early age. Questioning the emotional value of material possessions, he strictly refuses to take airplanes and thus travels by boat from one continent to the other. This anti-materialistic stance is also expressed in his fascinating and ephemeral works.

After studying political economics and choreography, the German artist developed his own style, which consists in creating comic or intimate situations that encourage interactions between museum visitors and paid performers. For instance, he set up the speech act ‘Ailleurs, ici’ (‘Elsewhere, Here’) at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris in 2003. During the regular museum hours – but at an off-site exhibition space – three guards were instructed to regularly jump off their chairs, walk around in circles and announce: ‘This is so contemporary, contemporary, contemporary! Tino Sehgal, This is so contemporary! 2003, courtesy Galerie Mot!’ Other landmarks include This Progress (2010), a show at New York’s Guggenheim during which visitors climbed the famous spiral staircase while debating about progress and other contemporary issues with different generations of performers.

Sehgal takes up a long tradition of performative arts, from the 1960s-70s ‘happenings’ to Christian Philipp Müller’s performances involving museum staff. However, the artist has added a certain pop dimension to the genre, a sexy trait that allows him to stand out. Furthermore, his works are never photographed, documented, labelled or catalogued: even the shows are rarely announced by press releases and their opening dates often remain vague. But these lived experiences unashamedly operate as material commodities: they can be bought and sold by oral contracts and cost between $85,000 and $145,000 apiece. Critics have argued that it is somehow ironic – almost hypocritical – for the artist to sell his work for such a high price whilst preaching against materialism. Moreover, it has been suggested that while the performances are unrehearsed and improvised, they are also strictly confined to the artist’s scenario and do not allow a real exchange of ideas.

Nevertheless, Sehgal’s work challenges the limitations of the exhibition space – and of the audience itself – by refusing to conform to the museum environment. His interactive performances transform the viewers’ agency by requiring them to contribute to and thus reshape the work in progress. By resisting the mutation of ideas into goods, Sehgal renegotiates art as an alternative means of consumption.

Commissioned by the Unilever Series, Sehgal’s new work was unveiled in the Tate’s Turbine Hall on 2012 as part of the finale of the Cultural Olympiad.

By Mélissa Leclézio

Image courtesy: 1: Julian Stallabrass/ WikiCommons, 2: perhapstoopink/ Flickr, 3: Loz Flowers/ Flickr