Raquel Moss

Visiting the Feuerle Collection in Berlin

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It was the first week of good spring weather in Berlin when I went to visit the Feuerle Collection, a private art collection comprising Southeast Asian sculptures, Imperial Chinese furniture, and contemporary art. I was early to meet my friend, so I sat in a nearby park, taking in the sun and watching a family get in their first grilling of the year.

I had read about the Feuerle Collection on some hip Berlin blog, and to be honest I was most intrigued by the collection’s location — a WWII bunker in Kreuzberg which has been minimally refurbished to house the artworks, and become a part of the collection itself.

The core theme of the collection is juxtaposition, and my descent from the bright Spring sunshine into the dark bunker certainly added to my experience.

Visits to the museum are by appointment only, and by some luck my friend and I ended up alone for our visit. We were met outside by a security guard, then sent in and introduced to our guide. She took us downstairs and our tour began.

The visit begins with some minimalist music which plays while you stand in an almost completely dark hallway. Neither my friend nor I were sure what to make of this. We were probably meant to be sombre and take it seriously, or more likely just ‘be in the moment’ and let the music wash over us.

Unfortunately, to me it all felt a bit too melodramatic — standing in the dark in a bunker, listening to a strange ‘minimalist’ composition, waiting to be led into an art collection. It felt staged and it didn’t suspend my disbelief, which is the key criterion by which I’ve come to judge audiovisual artistic performances. If you can make me forget for a moment that I am an awkward woman questioning everything and wondering if I’m doing the right things to fit in, then you’ve succeeded. This part of the collection didn’t do that for me, but at least it was short.

Next, you’re led into a large and dimly lit room, and the mood changed swiftly from melodrama to genuine drama. Turning the corner and getting your first glance at the collection is pretty breathtaking. The room is large and open, minimally lit, and filled primarily with Khmer sculptures.

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Unlike many museums, the collection doesn’t have signage — you have to ask your guide questions to find out about the artworks.

My friend and I wandered through the works in silence before I eventually worked up the nerve to ask questions of our guide. It felt odd — like I was part of the performance. Each tour is unique, with its visitors creating a new script every time. I felt like I needed a cheat sheet or some prompts — what do other people ask when they visit? Am I asking the right questions? What if there’s some secret trove of information that I don’t know to ask about? The guide offers no hints.

I only remember two questions that I asked. First, I asked the guide which was her favourite work, and why. She pointed towards a Khmer statue towards the centre of the room and said “this one, because he looks calm”. Well, I couldn’t argue with that. He had that benign, serene smile that reminds me of the Bayon temple at Angkor. To be honest though, I had hoped for a more interesting answer — perhaps a work with a rich history, or one that depicted an interesting myth. Perhaps I just wasn’t asking the right questions.

The second question I remembered asking was about the politics — what do the Khmer people think of these statues being here? Have there been any efforts to repatriate them? Yet again I was disappointed by a cool and uncomplicated answer along the lines of “they don’t mind”. I didn’t drill into how Mr Feuerle came to possess the statues, but I would be interested to know.

I’m curious about what happens if a guide has a particularly reticent group. On the spot, I don’t think I asked very good questions. What if I hadn’t asked any at all?

Contrasting the ancient works are a few pieces of contemporary art. Torus by Anish Kapoor looms at the back of the first floor, reflecting the solemn room and looking alien amongst the carved stone works.

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A glass wall along the side of the room reveals another artwork — a flooded room. The bunker room is filled with clear water that replenishes itself. Our guide said you can sometimes see edies as the water moves, but to me it just looked like an empty room. I’m still not sure about calling the room ‘art’. If it’s part of the collection, what is its message? How does it add to the story? I have some ideas, but it would have been nice to hear some opinions on it.

The second floor housed mainly Chinese furniture, but it also contained my favourite pieces, all contemporary. Cristina Iglesias’s Pozo XII was hypnotic — a bronze sculpture in the shape of an intricate valley, with a running water stream. It was beautiful, I circled back to it a few times. I also enjoyed two pieces by James Lee Byars — sculptures that acted as companions, including one that incorporated an ancient piece along with the modern. Sculptures by Zeng Fanzhi were also gorgeous, and I thought they paired nicely with Iglesias’s Pozo XII.

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On both floors there are works of erotic photography by a Japanese artist. I remarked at the time that the photos were no better than what you can get on Tumblr, which in 2019 is no longer true in light of Tumblr’s porn ban (😭).

Overall, my experience at the Feuerle Collection was mixed, but I think that says more about me than it does the collection. I always connect more with art that explores the absurd and irrational — art that has its tongue planted firmly in its cheek. While there are elements of surrealism in the Feuerle Collection, for the most part the mood is serious, solemn, and stark.

Setting aside my own proclivities, I still feel like there was a moment of connection missing in my visit. The theme is juxtaposition — the ancient and the new beside each other. The stark concrete bunker and the intricate stone statues. Erotic photography amongst Ming dynasty writing tables. But what was the overall message?

Contrast is valuable because of the light and shade it casts — highlighting or diminishing facets and therefore creating a new perspective. Juxtaposition shouldn’t just be for its own sake. It should provoke thought, or bring out a certain message. At the Feuerle Collection, I found that perspective lacking. There was no iconoclasm, or social commentary that I could discern. I wanted more narrative than was offered, and if not conclusions, then at least a message to consider.

There was lots to like at the Feuerle Collection, though. As I noted, I loved the contemporary works, and it was a pleasure to see a variety of Khmer works. The bunker itself is a moody foil for the art, and the flooded room ended up being one of the more thought-provoking pieces for me, as an exemplar for consideration in the question “What is art?”

I also enjoyed the experience of having to ask our guide in order to find out more about the collection, though I wish that I had known that was the case before I visited, so that I could study up a bit. Having the place to ourselves was a nice bonus, and it definitely made for a calmer experience than visiting a crowded gallery.