It seems that the human world and the planet may be at some kind of tipping point; not that I necessarily use this term expressly in relation to environmental climate change, but perhaps there is a wider cultural and aesthetic change in the environmental conditions for culture. It is in the light of this conjecture that I explore an unromanticised approach to art-making, epitomised in the work of Hans-Peter Feldmann. Feldmann was born in 1941 in Düsseldorf, then West Germany. He is a compulsive collector of found images and everyday ephemera who strongly contests the description of himself as an artist. This in and of itself may not be so contentious, but suddenly for me, has work has become unexpectedly topical. At a moment where science seems to dominate every international headline, and where culture has largely been closed for the last 18 months, Feldmann’s odd collections seem to offer a view of human life pinned as in a lepidopterist’s specimen cabinet. There is something unnerving about an artistic brain function that collates and represents the sum total of human nature/existence by its objects, inputs and outputs. Feldmann’s obsessive approach exposes the absurdity of human typologies. This obsessiveness plays out in his pictorial assemblages of the overlooked and mundane; strawberries, shoes, seated women in paintings, lips, romantic maritime works, kitsch floral photography.
He makes witty interventions into traditional aesthetics, ridiculing collections of classical paintings.
He negates paintings of nudes and respectable portraits by daubing them with black crosses, red noses and cross-eyes. His empty seascapes, meticulously rendered devoid of ships or other human presence, are an unnerving and barbed indictment of the emptiness of maritime art – or if one takes a less positive perspective, of a world without human presence.
On the one hand, science continues its unrelenting technological advancement of sensory extensions to enable us to observe, predict and understand the global developments and regional implications of weather, industry, commerce, natural resources and geopolitical change. The tools for scrutiny now extend to individual human facial recognition, which is, by turns, both extraordinary and terrifying. I was reminded recently of the witty school art room equation that stated:
EARTH – ART = EH?
And while this may be a somewhat trite way of expressing that we might describe as being ‘the problem with science’, there is undoubtedly a need to account for human existence in ways other than by various measures of impact damage. I am not for one minute advocating that we don’t manage or address climate or other existential risks, but there is absolutely a piece missing from human understanding of ourselves which has led humankind to have a divided self. I do not mean this solely in material terms, but primarily in developmental and self-perceptual terms.
This scientific/perceptual dichotomy is accompanied by the contest for culture, and was articulated brilliantly by the contemporary philosopher John Searle, who, in his 2013 lecture on The Mystery of Consciousness1, crystallised the problem of choice for those of us torn between wishing to have faith in a conscious experience (value) of the arts on one hand, and knowing the truth of material science on the other:
…So why then … this curious reluctance and curious hostility to consciousness… it is a combination of two features of our intellectual culture that like to think they are opposing each other but in fact they share a common set of assumptions, one feature is the tradition of religious dualism which says that: consciousness is not a part of the physical world, it’s a part of the spiritual world, it belongs to the soul, and the soul is not a part of the physical world. That’s the tradition of God, the soul and immortality.
But, Searle continues:
…There’s another tradition that thinks it’s opposed to this, but accepts the worst assumption: That tradition thinks that we are heavy-duty scientific materialists, consciousness is not a part of the physical world, either it doesn’t exist at all or it’s something else... Science is objective, consciousness is subjective.
Feldmann holds a mirror to humanity in ways that science, with all its apparatus cannot; one might say that the sensory extension that Feldmann uses is not a microscope but more of a periscope, giving us the odd ability to see above and beyond the prosaic ephemera of our daily lives and to see into our subconscious selves through the paraphernalia of our conscious behaviours.
Over the past three articles, I have explored artists that use motifs and materials to place the viewer uncomfortably on the horns of a dilemma; our interpretive resources tested to breaking point as we are forced to choose between the evidence of our eyes (sentience) on the one hand, and trust in objectified (worldly) knowledge on the other. My conclusion, therefore, is that this contest is very much alive.
1 Searle, J.R. (1993) The problem of consciousness, Consciousness and Cognition, 2, pp. 310–319, and TED Talk (2013).