“I cannot describe my museum; You need to feel Es!” That’s what German collector Désiré Feuerle says, choosing his words carefully. He talks about the Feuerle Collection, the private art space he founded in 2016 in a huge former WWII telecommunications bunker in central Berlin, which uses his collection of contemporary art, Chinese furniture and early Khmer sculptures.
While this isn’t the only museum in a Berlin bunker—Karen and Christian Boros have another—the Feuerle Collection is unlike any other. First of all, visitors – only 10 at a time, who must book in advance – have to hand in cameras and cell phones at the entrance, or at least turn them off. There are no labels on the works, which range from ancient sculptures to cutting-edge contemporary art. Visitors are immersed in darkness in a “sound room” and listen to John Cage for a few minutes Music for Piano No. 20before they were allowed to move into the underground room.
“I designed the room as a cleaning tool before entering the collection,” explains Feuerle. “The whole idea is to be really quiet, I want people to do it feel the pieces rather than just seeing them.” When I ask about the missing labels, he says there is an introduction before the tour and art educators are on hand to provide explanations.
What visitors discover upon exiting the sound space is an imposing array of Khmer figures, each seated in a cone of light, and Chinese furniture, from a Han Dynasty (206 BC) bench. Works of contemporary art are also on display: Nobuyoshi Araki Photographs of bound and shackled women, Adam Fuss smoke photograms, a wall sculpture by Anish Kapoor.
Feuerle talks to me over the internet from a white-walled office somewhere in the bunker; He is wearing an open-necked white shirt, his dark hair is slicked back in some disorder. He also takes a very sensual approach to presenting the collection, hoping that visitors will ‘feel’ the art rather than have it explained to them.
He admits that the travel restrictions due to the pandemic were too tough: “Normally,” he says, “I’m never in one place for long, I usually spend half the year in Asia. The region has been so important my whole life. . . I think that “old” Europe is a bit pessimistic. . . It’s good for me to be in contact with other cultures, other ways of thinking.”
I say that Asia encompasses 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 by their inner senses,” he replies. “Art from Japan is ruled by respect and discipline. The results are very different, even if they have 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 a versatile collector with a passion for many areas – from Sèvres and Meissen ceramics to Picasso and Otto Dix. But unlike his father, Feuerle says: “When I’m doing something, I concentrate fully on it. Although I like many different things, my aim was to work for the museum in a focused way building an important group of pieces.”
Encouraged to travel the world as a youth, he made his first collector’s purchases in Hong Kong when he was 16 – “a little Ming horse for children, I was amazed at the glaze” – and a Han Dynasty mirror : “I’ve always been in love with Asian art.” His studies took him to London and then Sotheby’s in New York, where he laughs: “I was the longest-staying intern, I was constantly moving through the departments, Impressionist and modern paintings, contemporary Japanese artworks, Russian art, jewelry – you name it!”
In the 1990s he founded his own gallery in Cologne, where he prides himself on having pioneered the connection of contemporary art with other fields. He rolls out a long list, including: “Eduardo Chillida and the neckrests of the 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 a space of his own and am surprised when he replies that it was in his mid-20s: “By the time I was 26 I was already buying things, whether I had space for them or not. I always had the idea of finding a space to install the artworks the way I think they should be installed.”
“I wanted to create something completely different, for the senses,” he says. “I get very bored in most museums. But if we do something in the collection, for example show an imperial table that nobody would normally look at, the installation with contemporary art makes it young and contemporary again. And I’m rewarded with a very young audience – the collection is particularly popular with young people.” I ask about the visitor numbers and he tells me that they have around 10,000 visitors a year, 60 percent of them from Berlin, between the ages of 18 and 34 and mostly women.
In fact, visiting this subterranean hall, dotted with massive concrete pillars, is an “experience”. Visitors can also take part 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 take part in a gong bath, a 75-minute relaxation practice (€30).
It’s been five years since he opened the museum and I ask him if he’s made any changes given that experience. “It’s perfect the way it is,” he says, adding, “I have other works in my collection, but I don’t want to show them just because I have them. . . even moving one part could disrupt the entire installation!”
I ask him how he finds his way in the difficult field of antique collecting with its provenance and plundering problems. He doesn’t answer directly, instead emphasizing two things: passion and trust. “When you buy from a collector, you have to trust him. But passion rules the day. Also, you must be willing to take risks. Sometimes you don’t realize how important something is until later, when you already own the piece.” He cites an imperial lacquered chair from the early Qing Dynasty (17th century) that, according to research, was in the emperor’s bedroom.
Coming to the end of our conversation, I pose the inevitable question: how will he sustain the museum going forward? “I want it to be there when I’m gone,” he says, but again he’s imprecise as to the actual plan. “People who are close to the project and have some power, I hope they will do the right thing. There is still some time to turn this into a more concrete project.”