Israeli American Haim Steinbach’s survey show at the Serpentine Gallery was a homage to his eccentric interest in everyday objects as art.
Delivering what appears to be a thrift shop of modern jumble that is purposefully curated into the adjoining galleries; Steinbach’s exhibition initially appears disappointing, deficient in some way. As upon closer inspection you become aware that the well-choreographed configuration of miscellaneous objects on shelves, doll’s houses elevated onto erected scaffolding, against museum prints attached to the gallery walls, are all donated. Selected by committee, collected, chanced upon, and purposely bequeathed to the Haim Steinbach exhibition, in a charitable act of social trade. And as a consequence once again the world is flat. could masquerade as either antique showroom or as an expanding theatre of props that are temporarily out of use. In what becomes less an exhibition of Steinbach originals, if such a thing were ever to have existed, and more a series of shows within a show. Yet rather than feeling short-changed, Steinbach’s Duchampian play-making urges the show to come alive, and rightly requires of us a healthy level of curiosity; as though invited to ransack through someone else’s belongings. Turning such idiosyncrasies over, there is then something wholly rewarding about coming into contact with a ‘Steinbach’; as his name might well come to serve as a palpable experience. Encouraging as he does his audience to scrutinise what constitutes our understanding of art; of the politics of display, and of the significance of the artist’s hand, in a show of works we might well have assumed were entirely of his making.
For all of the uncertainty there is still a sophisticated matrix of exchanges at the centre of this exhibition that has us wondering what is valuable from what is easily available tat. Yet such calculated distinctions do little to serve our comprehension of what it is we are looking at; and knowingly Steinbach would rather we re-examine everything; from the objects organised in these puzzling make-shift spaces, to the merchandise outside; and further afield, to the discarded utilitarian objects in our own possession. Interviewed by curator Hans Ulrich Obrist, Steinbach eloquently professed to ‘know that (Wassily), Kandinsky said a long time ago: ‘Alles ist erlaubt’, which means ‘everything is allowed’, and for that we have a wooden shelf with a globe resting on it, 1980; found vinyl text on the wall, that reads, ‘And to think it all started with a mouse’. 2012; A 1950 Jean Prouve black lacquered oak rolling stool, courtesy of Maja Hoffman and the Luma Foundation; a child’s dress, Germany, 1930; a porcelain horse, by American artist Karen Kilimnik, 2010; a hand coloured engraving by R.H. Laurie, England, c.1831, depicting a goose with small tablets covering its profile, courtesy of the Museum of Childhood. Untitled (Amnesiac Skull), Mike Nelson, 1998; a still life of four tangerines, cast in bronze by Swiss artists Ugo Rondinone, 2008. All of which serve as a muddled anagram of Steinbach’s making.