Hans-Peter Feldmann's Serious Jokes at the Serpentine Gallery

Hans-Peter Feldmann's Serious Jokes at the Serpentine Gallery
Hans-Peter Feldmann at the Serpentine Gallery, April 2012
(Photograph: Thierry Bal)

At the end of our conversation yesterday, Hans-Peter Feldmann gave me a small black and white photograph of the girl who would become Queen Elizabeth II, aged 8 or 9. The cute child has the quiet confidence of those born into the ruling classes; her pose is uncannily grown up. In an outburst of romanticism surprising for a hardened conceptualist of his kind, Feldmann told me how everybody was in love with the royal princess. "Romy Schneider was nothing compared to her."

This cheap picture, an "unlimited edition" print made especially for Feldmann's solo show opening today at the Serpentine Gallery, is the artist's work in a nutshell — and not simply because of his staunch refusal to give in the art market's reliance on rarity. "It's only ink and paper," he said. "[The image] happens in your head." Feldmann is best known for his collections of found images and seemingly random photographs assembled in picture books or pinned to the wall. But his interest lies beyond the seen, in between the frames, in what photography cannot capture: here, the future queen's devoted following. The cluster of images "Car radios while good music is playing" is another case in point, a doomed-to-fail attempt to picture what escapes the visual, purposefully open to subjective interpretation.

The Serpentine Gallery exhibition is concise but dense, taking visitors through the German artist's forty-year career, from his first handmade publications to his latest composition: a series of 15 seascape paintings, their textured waves echoed frame after frame. "You see freedom in these paintings," he said, gently mocking the idea that a seaside view somewhat broadens one's horizon. Each picture was made by a different painter between 1850 and 1950, but they are all saturated with the same delusional yearning for escape, a saturation rendered suffocating by the simple process of repetition.

Although art history from Michelangelo to Man Ray is a constant reference point for Feldmann, the artist relishes schoolboy-like pranks. In the show, his version of Courbet's "L'Origine du Monde" sports bikini tan lines; 19th century portraits are professionally altered to be cross-eyed or red-nosed; classical sculptures are painted in Technicolor hues. Feldmann talks about art as a "joke," a "kick in the side" of the overbearing presence of his forebears. "Humour is something with a very serious background," he once told Hans Ulrich Obrist. "It's an easy way of approaching a problem and an attempt not to despair of doing something about it."