“I have always been in love with Asian art” — collector Désiré Feuerle
“I cannot describe my museum; you have to feel this!” So says German collector Désiré Feuerle, choosing his words carefully. He talks about the Feuerle Collection, the private art space he created in 2016 in a sprawling former telecommunications bunker of World War II in the center of Berlin, which presents its range of contemporary art, Chinese furniture and ancient Khmer sculptures.
Although it’s not the only museum in a Berlin bunker – Karen and Christian Boros have another – the Feuerle collection is unlike any other. To start, visitors – only 10 at a time, who must book in advance – must turn cameras and cellphones over at the entrance, or at least turn 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 few minutes to John Cage Piano Music No. 20before being allowed to enter the underground space.
“I designed the piece as a cleaning tool before entering the collection,” says Feuerle. “The idea is to be really calm, I want people feel parts rather than just seeing them. When I ask the question about the lack of labels, he says that there is an introduction before the tour and that artistic mediators are on hand to give explanations.
What visitors discover upon leaving the sound room are an imposing series of Khmer figures, each seated in a pool of light, as well as Chinese furniture, ranging from a Han dynasty (206BC-220AD) bench to a four-poster bed of the 17th century Ming dynasty. Along with them are exhibited works of contemporary art: photographs by Nobuyoshi Araki of bound and bound women, photograms of smoke by Adam Fuss, a wall sculpture by Anish Kapoor.
Feuerle talks to me over the Internet from a white-walled office somewhere in the bunker; he wears an open-necked white shirt, his black hair swept back in some disarray. He also takes a very sensory approach to presenting the collection, hoping that visitors will “smell” the art rather than have it explained to them.
He admits that the travel restrictions due to the pandemic have been trying: “Normally, he says, I am never in the same place for long, I generally spend half the year in Asia. The area has been so important throughout my life. . . I find “old” Europe to be a bit pessimistic. . . It makes me feel good to be in contact with other cultures, other thoughts.
I say that Asia covers many different cultures: is it China in particular, since he collects imperial Chinese furniture? “Chinese art and philosophy have concept and structure as their essence. The art of Thailand and Cambodia is structured from their inner senses,” he replies. “The art of Japan is controlled by respect and discipline. The results are very different even though they come from the same religious background, which makes this part of the world very appealing to me.
Feuerle comes from a privileged family: his father was a doctor and an eclectic collector, passionate about many fields – from the ceramics of Sèvres and Meissen to Picasso and Otto Dix. But unlike his father, Feuerle says, “When I do something, I focus entirely on it. Although I like a lot of different things, for the museum my goal was to work with a focus on building a significant body of pieces.
He was encouraged to travel the world in his youth, and his first collectible purchases were made in Hong Kong at the age of 16 – “a small Ming horse made for children, I marveled at the glaze” – and a mirror from the Han dynasty: “I have always been in love with Asian art. His studies took him to London and then to Sotheby’s in New York, where, he laughs, “I been the longest intern, I kept browsing the shelves, impressionist and modern paintings, contemporary, Japanese artwork, Russian art, jewelry – you name it!
He established his own gallery in Cologne in the 1990s, where he is proud to have pioneered the combination of contemporary art with other fields. He lists them extensively, including: “Eduardo Chillida and the neck rests of the Ming and Song dynasties; Gilbert & George with antique clocks; Rosemarie Trockel with scientific instruments; Richard Deacon and silver teapots and coffee pots from the 17th to the 20th century – which I also collected myself at the time.
I ask him when he first started thinking about having his own space and I’m surprised when he replies that it was in his twenties: “At 26, I was already buying things, whether I had space or not. . I always had the idea of finding a space to install the works of art the way I think they should be installed.
“I wanted to create something really different, for the senses,” he says. “I get very bored in most museums. But when we do something in the collection, for example, show an imperial table that nobody would normally look at, setting it up with contemporary art makes it feel young and contemporary again. And I am rewarded by a very young audience – the collection is particularly popular with young people. I ask for attendance figures and he tells me that they get around 10,000 visitors a year, 60% of whom are Berlin-based, between the ages of 18 and 34, and mostly women.
Indeed, visiting this underground room, dotted with solid concrete pillars, is an “experience”. Visitors can also take part in an incense ceremony, inspired by a 2000-year-old Chinese tradition but now presented as a contemporary art performance (€500 per person), or a gong bath, a relaxation practice 75 minutes (30 €).
It has now been five years since he opened the museum and I ask if he has made any changes in light of that experience. “It’s perfect like that,” 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 a part could disrupt the entire installation! »
I ask him how he navigates the difficult field of antiquities collecting with its problems of provenance and looting. He does not answer directly but emphasizes two things: passion and confidence. “When you buy from a collector, you have to trust them. But passion dominates the day. Also, you need to be prepared to take risks. Sometimes you don’t know how important something is until later when you already own the part. He cites an imperial lacquer chair from the early Qing dynasty (17th century), which according to research was in the emperor’s bedroom.
We come to the end of our conversation and I ask the inevitable question: how will he sustain the museum in the future? “I want it there when I’m gone,” he says, but as to the actual plan, again, it’s vague. “People who are close to the project and who have power, I hope they will do the right thing. There is a little time left to make it a more concrete project.