Store art: individual retail becomes an iconic brand worthy of conservation. How German artist Hans-Peter Feldmann’s former shop is transformed into an art installation at Munich’s Lenbachhaus.
This inspiring article was originally published in German, titled ‘Der Lebens-Laden’ and written by Annette Bosetti for ARSPROTOTO magazine in fall 2017.
Shops magically attract Hans-Peter Feldmann. Founded in 1975 in the old centre of Düsseldorf, Germany, his shop is the most important thing in his life. 40 years later, he closed the shop down and sold it with the help of a resourceful Berlin gallery owner. Not to a retailer, but to Lenbachhaus, a museum in Munich. Just as the store presented itself daily during business hours, with its dazzling merchandise, with walls following the original architectural outlines, shelves, counter and cash register, lamps, shop windows and the bicycle which used to park in front of the shop, it was moved in its entirety to Munich’s Lenbachhaus. Feldmann had to pack everything carefully with several helpers. Mountains of boxes contained thousands of items; two trucks transported the precious cargo from the Rhineland to Bavaria.
The Shop Is Reinterpreted As a Work of Art
An object of marvel: the first real retail business is now exhibited in a German museum. With the move and acquisition, a unique metamorphosis takes place. The curiosity shop for technical antiques and tin toys from around the world, once run with great passion, is reinterpreted and newly valued as a work of art. That sounds like a clever move. Perhaps someone who isn’t internationally acclaimed artist Hans-Peter Feldmann should try it too.
The question thus seems justified: can a business be art? The artist nods. The art and the shop touch the same feelings, the same strategies and goals in Hans-Peter Feldmann’s life. Feldmann says all art springs from an idea and that all process derived from it is laborious and a constant trial: ‘it’s a back and forth in this phase’, not unlike with the store. He always tried to find objects and goods that were treasures in his eyes. He had to endure these moments of tension, of testing whether what was special in his eyes would be able to arouse desires. Both cases, he says, revolve around his recognition, and the recognition of the extraordinary.
Easter Bunnies at Christmas Time
Just one example: Feldmann placed Easter bunnies in his showcases for Christmas time, ‘and the customers thought it was great’. ‘My ideas were rewarded.’ In his shop, there was more art than in many a museum. ‘Many museums could be a shop,’ Feldmann says, ‘and many shops could be a museum. This is just a border walk, because there is an overlap between a museum and a shop.’
Born in Düsseldorf in 1941, Feldmann likes to tell the story of how he became a shopkeeper. ‘In the 1970s and 1980s there was no thinking that one could survive on art. One had to see to making a salary. In 1979, I stopped participating in the art market. I wanted to stay away from the scene for ten years.’ In addition to the art he continued to create privately, the store project became both an artistic expression and lots of hard work.
A chemical engineer by training, he always had a keen interest in science. In his first shop opposite the Düsseldorf Kunsthalle, the highlights were antique technical measuring devices such as photographic, nautical and geodetic instruments. Additionally it featured tin toys, which were his hobby.
He was familiar with doing business and his motto was quite simply: ‘shop here cheaply to sell there expensively.’ From his father, who ran a drugstore in the small town Feldmann grew up in, he had learned the basic economics. The business was buzzing and no other store fare and wide held anything like Feldmann’s range. The only other small shop selling photographica in Düsseldorf, Feldmann bought.
Local Business with a Global Reputation
The customers came from all over, many came to Feldmann after visiting the Kunsthalle. Large advertising agencies used his rarities for advertising appearances and shootings. They payed 10% of the price for a loan. He was also able to sell some pieces to museums. Feldmann, a buyer with a good instinct around the world, was well known in the collectors’ scene. His reputation reached as far as Tokyo. A Japanese business traveler in Paris decided to make a detour to Düsseldorf to rummage around Feldmann’s shop. His trouvaille was a pince-nez with cut glasses. Feldmann still remembers that it cost 25 Deutschmark at the time, and that he had once discovered the entire box of pince-nez in Scotland.
Angela Merkel’s Head on a Lemon Squeezer
Feldmann was internationally oriented, advertised, bought in China, Syria, Austria and Scotland, and in cities like Chicago, Milan or Birmingham. He lovingly decorated his shop window with things as wacky as a plastic queen with waving arms or a surrealist wall clock; with tiny Eiffel Towers he held a true rarity in Düsseldorf. And Angela Merkel’s head sits enthroned on a lemon squeezer. The items on offer in his four shops over the years – for a while he even ran two at the same time – is near impossible to list. Across the old town of Düsseldorf he was called the ‘retro Feldmann’. But to arbitrariness he gave no chance. Each item met his ideas exactly. He sold neither candlesticks, silverware nor carpets, he emphasizes. And those who might speak of his shop as a ‘junk shop’ have understood nothing. That annoys Feldmann.
Hans-Peter Feldmann ran his business in the same intuitive and spontaneous way in which he explores the world for his multifaceted conceptual art, dissects and reflects on the social relationships between people, captures and illuminates the mundane of everyday life, and keeps reinventing himself.
One time, a London dealer had sold him a considerable number of photo frames. Only later Feldmann noticed the botch, new frames had been styled to look old. When he noticed that his customers still bought the frames, the businessman in him strategically changed course. ‘From retro to new,’ he says with a smile. The store thus became even more colorful.
Another time, he demonstrated his persistence. At Sotheby’s in London, an old film camera was up for auction. On his way there, Feldmann got stuck in traffic. It wasn’t looking good, but he absolutely had to have this camera. He simply abandoned his car and ran there on foot. The lot came to the call the very moment he entered Sotheby’s, and for a few thousand pounds he bought the object of his desire.
Back to the Art World, Thanks to Thimbles
Feldmann finding his way back to the art world, where his steep international career took its course, is owed in part to the fact that he sold thimbles in his shop, which particularly interested Kasper König (*1943). One day he visited the store to – quite inconspicuously – buy a thimble for his wife. Casually, he tried to persuade Hans-Peter Feldmann to participate in an exhibition at the Frankfurt Portikus. König had been the rector of famous art school Städel since 1987 and was curating the exhibitions. With a persuasive as well as flattering argument, he convinced the man behind the counter. To his students, König said, he was a role model who they considered as one of their generation. ‘That’s how I got back in,’ Feldmann remembers, and that the vanity of old age was what drove him. At forty, the second half of life began for him. He would have preferred to stay young. In 1989, he exhibited at the Portikus and never regretted it.
Women Prisoners Become Protagonists of an Art Book
If you ask an actor about his most important film, he usually mentions the current one. Not so Hans-Peter Feldmann. Questioned about his most important work, he gives different answers at different times. In 2010, art historian Georg Imdahl stated that his key work was ‘all works with women’, of which there are a plethora – photo series, collages, albums. The most touching and extensive, however, is his little-known field research project with women prisoners in Cologne-Ossendorf. Over the span of a year, the artist had visited the inmates of the prison, talked with them and staff, taken photos. He thus documented life in this place of social and emotional darkness and concludes that most detainees are victims of society. The resulting artist book, published by Walther König, is a testimony to Feldmann’s empathy and humanism. This work of early 2000 has changed him, says the artist.
Asked about his key work again more recently, he cites his series of 101 black and white photos, ‘100 years,’ in which he places people in all stages of life, from newborn to old, in a row to document the becoming and passing of life. This is his most important work, says Feldmann, but the store is his greatest work, particularly ‘in terms of volume.’ While he would still enjoy running it, it had become too much work, and he closed it mainly on grounds of age.
Almost daily he goes with his wife Uschi to the ice cream shop located across the street from his former shop. ‘Like the murderer drawn back to the crime scene, I sit almost every day at the Café Roma on the corner Berger/Hafenstraße.’ Everything to do with the shop is still very emotional, he confesses. In Düsseldorf, he would not have wanted to see the shop remain, because he would only have returned to it again and again. Munich is not too close, yet not too far away either.
‘The Shop Here Is Not a Shop!’
Curious things took place at Lenbachhaus, since the store was first built there in 2015. As was perhaps to be expected, a visitor asked: ‘Is this art or are they still working on it?’ Museum supervision, for a long time, was also unaware of the importance of the newcomer. A guard asks the artist, ‘what’s going on here?’ ‘A shop’ Feldmann answers. ‘But that’s already downstairs,’ the guard retorts. ‘There’s a shop downstairs, and there’s a shop here,’ Feldmann explains. ‘But the shop here is not a shop!’
Another museum worker had set his eyes an object from Feldmann’s shop as a present for his wife’s birthday. He offered 10 Euro for a figurine, and all explanations notwithstanding didn’t want to give up. His stubbornness also stands for a general lack of understanding of conceptual art. Unlike in its past life, the shop in its moment frozen for eternity, has a hard time with a vast majority of people. It should henceforth be regarded as the work of art which it has now become. In the museum space of the Lenbachhaus, the installation stands as an eloquent testimony to the recent history of conceptual art.
One cannot, must not and should not want to understand all art today. Even Feldmann admits that he doesn’t understand many pieces of contemporary art. He says, to him kitsch has value because kitsch is art without tears. Bringing kitsch to the museum amuses him tremendously.
According to conventional categories, Feldmann can be difficult to capture. He’s only kidding, claims a famous Düsseldorf colleague, in misjudgment of his complete works. Feldmann is his own cosmos, a kind of non-artist with a non-studio. At the same time, he’s a worthy successor to Marcel Duchamp or Andy Warhol. He is connected with Duchamp by the objectness of his art, perhaps even his attitude of refusing art. With Warhol, he shares an impartiality towards the commercial and pays homage to popular culture.
Just now, Hans-Peter Feldmann has again entered new artistic terrain. In mid-October 2017 he presented a series of his first ever fashion photos in Munich at publisher Lothar Schirmer’s. Fashion and women both hold great appeal for him. A three-day fashion show accompanied the vernissage. Madness, he rejoices. And an opportunity to re-visit his beloved shop again.
Read the original version written by Annette Bosetti for ARSPROTOTO in German here. Many thanks to the author for the opportunity to bring this piece to the attention of brand managers and those outside German art clusters who would otherwise have missed it.
About the author:
Being the curator of our Unique Retail category, Alexander is convinced this – in his eyes stunning – shop story is a fitting example. Not least, it’s unique in being the longest post featured on this blog to date. Please share your feedback with Alexander directly via LinkedIn or in public by writing your comment below. And if you enjoyed this article, consider sharing it!