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Haim Steinbach

tin drum /
White Cube /
Hong Kong /
Sep 14 – Nov 12, 2022 /

Four horizontal display shelves line the exhibition walls of White Cube’s ground floor gallery. The open shelves are lined with groupings of objects – rubber dog chew toys, robots, spaceships and monsters, metal Star Wars lunch boxes. The display is reminiscent of a child’s bedroom, with cherished objects lined up on shelves in a way that may be cryptic to an outsider but hold personal meaning to the child.

Angular and wedge-shaped, the shelves and the objects are all in a palette of black and red, sitting in stark contrast against the white walls. Two geometric, black and red toy cars sit beside a snowman-shaped black dog chew toy atop a red and black shelf. The work, El Lissitzky II-4 (2008-2012), references the Russian artist who cofounded the suprematism movement. Allusions to the Russian constructivist movement are echoed throughout the four shelf arrangements, creating a formal visual cohesion. 

El Lissitzky II-4 by Haim Steinbach, Plastic laminated wood shelf, two wood and resin cars and rubber dog chew 44.5 x 69.9 x 25.4 cm, 2008-12. © Haim Steinbach. Photo © White Cube (Kitmin Lee)

‘tin drum’ – named after a 2011 work, tin drum, in the exhibition, which consists of bits of galvanised metal ducts, and also alluding to the 1959 novel by Günter Grass – features nine works spanning almost two decades of New York-based Israeli artist Haim Steinbach’s career. The artist introduced consumer items and banal everyday objects installed on walls, cabinets and shelves into his oeuvre in the late 1970s. Display shelves have featured detergent boxes, trainers, toilet plungers, plastic toys and various mass-produced everyday items and trinkets, both utilitarian and not. 

Like Marcel Duchamp before him, who elevated ready-made, mass-produced objects to art, Steinbach divorces everyday objects from their quotidian context to highlight the hierarchies of value we place on them. Arranged on shelves in a gallery, these objects prod us to question the value and status of art. What do we consider art and why? What is given value and what isn’t? Where does the commodity end and art begin? Why do we acquire and display things?

Untitled (s&p shaker, ducts) by Haim Steinbach, Plastic laminated wood shelf, wooden Dansk salt shaker and pepper mill and galvanized metal ducts, 54.9 x 76.2 x 22.9 cm, 2022. © Haim Steinbach. Photo © White Cube (Kitmin Lee)

Initially, the absurdist arrangement of mass-produced objects into consumerist still-lifes conveys a cold, detached sterility, but Steinbach’s work is more than a cynical critique of consumerism and commodity fetishism. The exhibition speaks of modern life and histories, personal and cultural. Experimentation with modes of display, rather than production, underpins Steinbach’s practice. His carefully thought-out, curated arrangements are open to a multiplicity of meanings, although the works do have their own visual grammar, playing with metaphor and symbolism. Viewers are invited to map out connections between the objects from both their formal and cultural attributes, and associations can be based on colour, form, words, a particular art movement or the viewer’s own personal history and memory.

Nocturne (2022) features four similarly dark-hued objects on a dark grey shelf: another black rubber dog chew toy, two identical Star Wars lunch boxes in the shape of the Millennium Falcon – objects that are both functional and collectible – and an electronic Robosapien toy figure. Placed beside the dog chew toy and lunch boxes, symbolic of play time, treats and nourishment, the objects allude to the division of morality, of good and bad, reward and discipline, in narratives used to shape children’s values. But the objects in this gallery also evoke the 1980s and its obsession with the space race and laissez faire capitalism, as well as the birth of the internet and other technologies, so that even without deciphering the visual language the artist has formulated, they conjure associations of the era particular to the viewer.

Exhibition view of Nocturne. Haim Steinbach, tin drum, White Cube Hong Kong
14 September – 12 November 2022. © Haim Steinbach. Photo © White Cube (Kitmin Lee)

In contrast to the ground floor works, tied together by their formal attributes and futuristic, mass-produced theme, the works in the upstairs gallery have a nostalgic quality to them, suggesting a throwback to an older generation. The objects are arranged on four shelves in a palette of olive green, blue, yellow and brown, and have a folksy, hand-hewn 70s character to them. The earliest work in the exhibition, six feet under (2004), looks like a shelf of charity shop kitsch: a pair of plastic feet are arranged on a shelf between a plaster frog, a ceramic pig and a pair of vintage yellow wooden clogs. In Untitled (salt and pepper shakers, piggy bank) (2022), a plastic owl appears on a blue shelf beside Danish wooden salt and pepper mills, objects that are both functional and sculptural or decorative. The arrangements look like they have come from a domestic interior, plucked from your grandparents’ living room and kitchen perhaps, and transported into the gallery – merging the private and the public spheres, and collapsing the distinction between display and exhibition. 

six feet under by Haim Steinbach, Plastic laminated wood shelf, painted wood shoes, ceramic pig and plastic feet and ceramic frog, 96.5 x 175.9 x 48.3 cm, 2004. © Haim Steinbach. Photo © White Cube (Kitmin Lee)

Displayed in a closed plywood cabinet, Untitled (Hard Hat) (2013) features a khaki green combat helmet with a sinister shark grin. It is reminiscent of the helmets worn by young US soldiers in the Vietnam War. The semiotics of colour are further explored in starbucksroast (2017), a painted, coffee-coloured wall that suggests the role of coffee in contemporary life, and also raises the issues of globalisation, both the brand in the title and the trade and supply chain of commodities. But it also more immediately calls to mind the 70s interior trend for orange and brown wallpaper and furnishings. The artist creates psychological and emotional spaces, playing with memory, both collective and personal. 

Steinbach is an archaeologist of modern society. His works are not just appropriations of object as commodity but also of object as an artefact of internalised personal history and an exploration of the universal human compulsion to acquire and arrange things for display. The artist understands that consumption is integral to our identities. Objects tell stories about ourselves – our belief systems and values, our culture, our aesthetic – and they help us make sense of the world around us. The things we collect are manifestations of desire but they also anchor us to times, places and people. The arrangements of objects are a commentary on selfhood as much as consumption.

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