Sep 14 – Nov 12, 2022
White Cube Hong Kong
50 Connaught Road, Central
+852 2592 2000
Tuesday – Saturday, 11am – 7pm
White Cube is pleased to present ‘tin drum’, an exhibition of new and recent work by Haim Steinbach. Featuring works made in the past two decades, the selection reflects the artist’s engagement with the everyday object and the aesthetic and cultural implications of methods of selection and display.
Since the mid 1970s, Steinbach has made structures and devices for presenting various found objects, in particular employing a wedge-shaped shelf based on 40, 50 and 90 degree angles, constructed in several parts and finished with a coloured, plastic laminate. Working within the methodologies of presentation rather than representation, his art sets in train a nexus of associations, enabling multiple potential themes to emerge from the arrangement of these common objects. ‘I [see] my works as an engagement with the here and now, with the archaeology of what exists and what we all participate in,’ Steinbach states.
In the ground floor gallery, a group of sculptures in red and black directly reference the palette of the Russian Constructivists. Formally coherent yet thematically expansive, they draw on both the history of art and mass culture, on the unique and the ubiquitous through their precise object-oriented language. solar light (2016), for example, consists of a black and red wedge-shaped shelf on which a black rubber Kong dog chew, a plastic solar-powered bear and a metal Star Wars lunch box are arranged in a row. Objects circulating in everyday life, they hold strong mnemonic value, and here are destabilised through their re-arrangement and re-contextualisation.
Steinbach first introduced the Kong dog chew toy to his shelf works in around 2005, and here it acts as a kind of punctuation mark and a connecting thread linking the works in the ground floor gallery. When stood upright on one of Steinbach’s shelves, the object takes on a quasi-architectural presence, its repeated curves also reminiscent of modernist sculpture by Constantin Brâncuși and Hans Arp. This play of shifting associations, where an object’s meaning relies on the ‘contingency of their placement’, is central to Steinbach’s practice. He explains: ‘By placing […] dog chews next to a lunch box […] What does that say about lunch?’
Steinbach’s use of objects in his shelf works is akin to words in a poem, notes in music or the forms in a painting, where rhythms and repetition, similarities and differences, vividly animate the whole. As the artist has said: ‘We communicate through objects just as we communicate through language’. If we understand the objects in Steinbach’s works as words, the shelves provide a sort of grammar or structure and Steinbach likens their role to that of the five-line musical staff or the grid of a chess board. In the work El Lissitzky II-4 (2008–12), whose title references the Russian artist and co-founder of the Suprematism movement, two minimal red and black toy cars sit alongside a large dog chew, on top of a red and black shelf. The whole is tonally and formally balanced: the geometric black section of the shelf on which the cars are placed, for example, is echoed in the black dog chew, while the dog chew’s spherical undulating form are rhythmically echoed in the car’s bright red wheels.
The exhibition borrows its title from his 2011 work tin drum, consisting of a crimson shelf on which Steinbach has arranged four objects: a toy Vinyls Attack figure, two small dog chews placed on a raised section, a Star Wars figurine and a short section of aluminium ducting. As Steinbach says, the title alludes to the 1959 novelThe Tin Drum by Gunter Grass as well as being a specific type of object and the sound of metal. In pointing to an object that is not physically present in the work, the name also calls attention to itself as another found object, an ‘extra’ in the work. While several surprising visual links between the objects occur – the aluminium colour of the duct matching the silver tones of the toy and the gaping black mouth of the Vinyls Attack toy repeating in the pure black of the dog chews – a history of materiality, of manufacturing, labour and industry, of progression and detours, necessity and waste are also brought into play. These themes are explored again in nocturne (2022), which, as its name suggests, is dark in hue: a dark grey shelf accommodating four dark objects. Two identical lunchboxes (Star Wars-themed, in the shape of the Millennium Falcon), another dog chew and an electronic Robosapien toy figure humorously point to narratives of good and bad, and the propensity for strict moral divisions in children’s stories.
Two works in the upstairs gallery feature the Danish designer Dansk salt and pepper mills. The mills are emblematic of the popularisation of Scandinavian design and, like Star Wars lunchboxes, are sought after as collectibles as well as being functional, everyday objects. In placing them next to sections of metal ducting in one work or an owl-shaped piggy bank in another, Steinbach invites the viewer to consider the ways in which we ascribe value to objects and how this both reflects and shapes our identities. In Untitled (hard hat) (2013), Steinbach employs a different mode of display, this time using a framed wooden box with a glass shelf to present an olive-green hard hat, adorned with a grinning shark face. Vitrine-like, as if showcasing a prized artwork or an object of considerable value, Steinbach encourages us to re-consider the curious ephemera of everyday life, here suspended in a temporal pictorial space of display.
Linking with themes in the ground floor gallery, the power of colour as an ideological and anthropological device is further suggested in the wall drawingstarbucksroast (2017), a large rectangle of coffee-coloured paint. It invites multiple possible triggers for reflection: from the ubiquitous presence of coffee in contemporary life and its function as social ritual, to its lucrative commercial potential as well as, perhaps, the narrative of brands, franchise, expansion and globalisation. Steinbach considers both the colour and its name (taken from a shade of brown produced by the British paint company Dulux), to be found objects and, as in his shelf works, draws out from them multiple associations. Most viewers encountering this work will think of the coffee conglomerate Starbucks but others might connect it to the character of Starbuck in Herman Melville’s classic 1851 novel Moby Dick. Steinbach’s masterful interplay of word and form, name and work, evident throughout his practice, here links colour to semiotics, art, literature and politics in one singular gesture.