‘I was always in love with Asian art’ — collector Désiré Feuerle
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“I cannot describe my museum; you have to feel it!” So says the German collector Désiré Feuerle, choosing his words carefully. He is talking about the Feuerle Collection, the private art space he established in 2016 in a vast former second world war telecommunications bunker in central Berlin which shows his array of contemporary art, Chinese furniture and early Khmer sculpture.
While this is not the only museum in a Berlin bunker — Karen and Christian Boros have another — the Feuerle Collection is quite unlike any other. For a start, visitors — just 10 at a time, who must book in advance — have to hand over cameras and mobile phones at the entrance, or at least switch them off. There are no labels on the works, which range from ancient sculpture to cutting-edge contemporary art. Visitors are plunged into darkness in a “sound room”, listening for a couple of minutes to John Cage’s Music for Piano No 20, before being allowed to move into the underground space.
“I designed the room as a cleansing tool before entering the collection,” Feuerle explains. “The whole idea is to be really quiet, I want people to feel the pieces rather than just seeing them.” When I ask about the lack of labels, he says there is an introduction before the tour and art mediators are on hand to give explanations.
What visitors discover on leaving the sound room is an imposing series of Khmer figures, each sitting in a pool of light, as well as Chinese furniture, from a Han dynasty (206BC-220AD) bench to 17th-century Ming-dynasty canopy bed. Displayed with them are works of contemporary art: Nobuyoshi Araki photographs of bound and trussed women, Adam Fuss smoke photograms, an Anish Kapoor wall sculpture.
Feuerle is talking to me over the internet from a white-walled office somewhere in the bunker; he wears an open-necked white shirt, his dark hair swept back in some disarray. He also takes a very sensory approach towards how the collection is displayed, hoping visitors will “feel” the art rather than having it explained to them.
He confesses that the travel restrictions due to the pandemic have been trying: “Normally,” he says, “I am never long in one place, I generally spend half the year in Asia. The region has been so important throughout my whole life . . . I find that ‘old’ Europe is a bit pessimistic . . . It does me good to be in contact with other cultures, other thinking.”
I say that Asia covers many different cultures: does he mean China in particular, since he collects Imperial Chinese furniture? “Chinese art and philosophy have concept and structure as their essence. Art from Thailand and Cambodia is structured from their inner senses,” he responds. “Art from Japan is controlled by respect and discipline. The results are very different even if they come from the same religious background, which makes this part of the world very attractive to me.”
Feuerle comes from a privileged family: his father was a doctor and an eclectic collector, passionate about many fields — from Sèvres and Meissen ceramics to Picasso and Otto Dix. But unlike his father, Feuerle says, “When I do something, I fully concentrate on it. While I like many different things, for the museum my goal was to work concentrating on building up an important group of pieces.”
He was encouraged to travel the world as a youngster and his first collecting purchases were made in Hong Kong when he was 16 — “a little Ming horse made for children, I was amazed by the glaze” — and a Han dynasty mirror: “I was always in love with Asian art.” His studies led him to London and then to Sotheby’s in New York, where, he laughs, “I was the longest-staying intern, I kept moving through the departments, Impressionist and modern paintings, contemporary, Japanese works of art, Russian art, jewellery — you name it!”
He started his own gallery in Cologne in the 1990s, where he is proud to have pioneered combining contemporary art with other fields. He reels out a long list, among them: “Eduardo Chillida and the neck rests of Ming and Song dynasties; Gilbert & George with antique clocks; Rosemarie Trockel with scientific instruments; Richard Deacon and silver tea and coffee pots from the 17th to 20th centuries — which I also collected myself at the time.”
I ask when he started thinking about having his own space and am surprised when he responds that it was in his mid-20s: “At 26 I was already buying things regardless of whether I had room for them or not. I always had the idea of finding a space to install the artworks in the way I think they should be installed.”
“I wanted to create something really different, for the senses,” he says. “I am very bored in most museums. But when we do something in the collection, for instance, showing an imperial table that no one would normally look at, installing it with contemporary art makes it young and contemporary again. And I am rewarded with a very young audience — the collection is particularly popular with young people.” I ask for attendance figures and he tells me they receive about 10,000 visitors a year, with 60 per cent of them Berlin-based, between 18 and 34 years of age, and mostly women.
Indeed, the visit to this subterranean hall, dotted with solid concrete pillars, is an “experience”. Visitors can also participate in an incense ceremony, inspired by a 2,000-year-old Chinese tradition but now presented as a contemporary art performance (€500 per person), or a gong bath, a 75-minute relaxation practice (€30).
It is now five years since he opened the museum and I ask if he has made any changes in the light of this experience. “It’s perfect as it is,” he says, adding: “I have more works in my collection, but I don’t want to show them just because I have them . . . even moving one piece could disturb the whole installation!”
I ask him how he navigates the fraught field of collecting antiquities with its problems of provenance and looting. He doesn’t answer directly but emphasises two things: passion and trust. “When you buy from a collector, you must trust them. But passion rules the day. Also, you must be prepared to take risks. Sometimes you don’t know how important something is until later, when you already own the piece.” He cites an imperial lacquer chair from the early Qing Dynasty (17th century), which research found had stood in the emperor’s bedroom.
We are coming to the end of our conversation and I ask the inevitable question: how he will sustain the museum in the future? “I want it to be there when I am gone,” he says, but as for the actual plan, again he is imprecise. “People who are close to the project and have some power, I hope they will do the right thing. There is a bit of time to make this a more concrete project.”