KünstlerInnenporträts 43

Conversation with Haim Steinbach

Jan Avgikos

Jan Avgikos: In 1985 you had an exhibition at Cable Gallery and that seems to have been a pivotal point in your work. The quality of the shelves themselves changed – that was the first time you began to produce and display the triangular shelves, so to speak, the "Formica" wedges. Also, you displayed objects on the shelves that were brand new and mass-produced, in multiples of two's, three's, or four's. Could you talk about the shifts that are represented with the Cable Gallery show in 1985?

Haim Steinbach: Well, by then I had been working with objects for almost ten years and with the idea of including everyday objects in an art discourse, as a form of art making. What was really interesting was that it was so difficult to have my works noticed. For instance, Helene Weiner of Metro Pictures took interest in my work and included me in a show at Artists Space back in 1979. Afterwards she used to tell me, "Stop by and show me what you are doing, bring slides." I did that regularly and, yet, for whatever reason, the work was never included in any of the activities of her gallery. I had to ask myself, what is this barrier between what I do and the reception of this work? One thing that was obvious to me, was that no one at Metro Pictures was actually exhibiting objects. This was the big difference in terms of the space and identity of the object – as an object of art, as a marketable art commodity. So, the issue was what would make these objects that I arrange, that I contextualize and recontextualize, that I bring to a home, and bring back to my studio – what would allow them to be recognizable and desirable as something that has a value, an art value.
At a certain point I realized I had to find some kind of format to present them that would clarify them, that would give them a certain authority. I realized I would have to come up with some kind of functional unit that would still do what I wanted it to do – a unit that would be furniture, that would be sculpture, and that would function as a shelf. At a certain point, through this kind of questioning, I came up with this basic triangular unit. It was functional and generic and had all the structures of the shelf – the horizontal level, the vertical part that supports it and the diagonal frontal plane which closed up the space underneath. With the diagonal plane I had this extra surface that I could work with, that I could give an identity to. The first shelf that I did was just a plywood shelf, and then I realized that I had these areas where I could interact with surfaces, because objects have surfaces too, and we perceive them through their surfaces. I decided to cover the surfaces with a plastic laminate. (Formica is just one company of plastic laminates. There is Laminart, there is Wilson Art – many different companies make plastic laminates.) The first shelf was covered and also closed on the sides with a blue laminate. I put a couple of objects on it, and it seemed to really clarify the position of the objects. But right away I realized that I didn't like the sides closed, because by closing the sides you are hermetically concealing the structure. With the next shelf I left a side open, and with the side open you could see the crosscut of the wood structure and the thin layer of laminate, like a skin on top of that structure.
For me, this became a functional shelf that also was a reference to the construction of objects. When you look at an object you see the cover, but you don't really know what it's made of until you hit it and you realize it's got a "ting" and you say it's metal; or until you hit it and it breaks and you say it's ceramic. We identify objects by their look, but very often we are deceived by what they are really made of. So, that is how this shelf functioned for me and, immediately, I realized it was very effective because it had many possibilities in terms of changing the colour, or changing the space, for one object or another. Also, this particular shelf, as with the earlier shelves with brackets and boards in the Artists' Space installation – allowed me more space to set several objects and relate them to each other.

JA: Certainly, one of the ways that the shelves were received – and this had to do with the climate of the times, the discursive climate of the '80s – was that they were appropriations of Minimalism. Did that ever figure into your strategy?

HS: Well, there are a couple of things involved here. You were talking about the show in 1985 at Cable Gallery, where my work was noticed with this new group of works. The works in the show were very carefully edited. It was strategic because, as I was saying, I was trying to find a way to make the objects noticeable. While before I included used as well as new objects, this time I focused mostly on brand new objects, right out of the store, and placing them on this newly conceived triangular shelf, and it occurred to me that, indeed, the economy of an object that you buy in a store is an economy of multiplicity. Because the object is mass-produced there always exists more than one. Given that reality, I came to the realization that I should see what the difference is between two of the same and, say, one that may be the same as others but that's on its own, like the one that you buy for your own use. One of the first shelves that I made was a shelf that had a wicker basket, that was mass-produced but, nevertheless, still had this kind of folklorish association.

JA: We're talking about the Cable show?

HS: Yes, this is a work that was in the Cable show. It consisted of the basket on one side, on a section of the shelf that was laminated with a brown laminate. Next to it, on a Naples yellow laminate, which was a larger section, there were two footballs that were set on stands. The footballs were identical of exactly the same make. That was a procedure that I began to apply to the other works that ended up in this show. Now, the thing about the Minimal association – that's a perfectly valid association. These shelves were paired down to their essential structural elements and corresponded to minimalist thinking. But for me it was even more important that they were generic supports for objects. When I think of Minimal Art of the early '60s, all those cubes and squares and the discourse around them – ABC Art, the Art of the Real, Object Art, I also think of how Donald Judd talked about his Minimal boxes as "specific objects", how he detested the identity of Minimal Art.
This so-called Minimal shelf was an elementary form that was really functional. You have to understand that my work was shown in a highly esoteric art context in which 80% of the viewers who came to the opening of the show knew the history of Minimal Art. The minute somebody said, "Oh, it's like Judd," you had twenty people saying, "Oh, the 'Judd' shelf." In fact, I don't think Judd ever made a form that hung on the wall that was triangular. He made a triangular metal piece on the floor once, so it was quite different. The Minimal reference is an art term that is a globalizing term, and the minute you use it in an art context you give the work a raison d'être. If you don't understand the work, or are having difficulty understanding that you are actually looking at a group of objects sitting on a shelf, and you feel that it is like art, you explain it in the art terms that you know. I think that this was an exclusive art world interpretation. Of course, I too am aware of this history. It's not that I've not included this aspect in my work. But, what I am trying to say is that the response was exclusive. It was inclusive of Minimal, and exclusive of objects.

JA: One of the ways in which your work was contextualized in the '80s – indeed, it was seen as epitomizing the notion of "commodity art." There was so much cultural critique being written at the time, and there was a perception that a lot of the art of the '80s was critical of the commodification of values in our society. Alongside that language and the theorizing of who we were in the '80s, culturally speaking, your work became synonymous with discourses on commodification. And commodity art – just aiming for the simplest definition of the term – was an art that self-consciously addressed its own complicity with market conditions. I am curious how you felt your work figured in the dialogue on commodification. Were you comfortable with that discussion?

HS: It's not a question of being comfortable or uncomfortable with it because it's inevitable that this discussion would have come into place and that it continues. Clearly, Duchamp had a phenomenal influence on art, especially since the '60s. He is probably the most influential artist of the century, at this point and time, which is curiously interesting. Now, it has been said about Duchamp, and I'll read a quote, that "the Readymade demonstrated allegorically that the work of art in capitalist society cannot escape the status of a commodity." I think it is this issue that comes from Duchamp and that entered the discussion. For myself – here I was bringing objects into the gallery – objects that were presented as art works and at the same time were displayed in their multiplicity. Suddenly they were being bought and sold, after ten years of being involved in this work and not selling anything. In fact in 1985, a few months after the closing of the show at Cable – by the way, at that show there were about eight works and not one sold – all the works were sold and there was a line of people wanting to buy my work. That became a real issue because there was a phenomenal reaction to the fact that this was happening. I think it's very interesting – I mean, to me especially, given that I know my history – and it makes sense that there was such a reaction, it was like an awakening after a shock. If no one was thinking about it and no one was interested in it, and if suddenly this work sells, it really raises an incredible awareness of something unusual happening. It was as unusual for me as it must have seemed to be to everybody else.
Now, given this quote I just read about Duchamp, the commodity discussion makes perfect sense. I believe what I was doing, in one sense, was continuing to underscore this point that Duchamp was making. But I think I was also taking it into another and very different level. My work with objects was moving into the social sphere of the everyday object. Duchamp's work, while seemingly beginning in the same place, ended up somewhere else. His objects ended up being ideas, or metaphors, in the way that he worked with them and in the way that they have come to be understood. For instance, a work such as "Fountain," which is a urinal that is usually hung vertically on the wall, is placed horizontally on the floor and called "Fountain." That is a dictate on the object, by the artist, which totally transforms the meaning of the object. What I did, and what I still do, is to simply present the object in its normative way – the way it sits in a place next to another object – and reflect on this position of one object next to another. So, in a sense, I don't privilege specific objects with a unique idea about this object or a unique metaphor imposed on that object, but I rearrange objects that may be re-arranged in another situation, at another time, in another way. Therefore, I am entering the world of objects of the everyday, bringing objects of the everyday into play, and interacting and reflecting on them. In this sense, I believe, my work is an inversion, as a directive for the object, to that of Duchamp's.

JA: If I am hearing you correctly, you are talking about your engagement with objects being open to the point that you anticipated their meaning would be generated differently according to every viewer that came in to participate with the work. Am I understanding this correctly?

HS: Yes, relatively so. And I say "relatively" because I work in an open-ended way, which means I leave several doors open in the presentation and arrangement of objects. I also play with certain possible associations that may or may not happen between the objects. So, it's a play between chance and arbitrariness, and definite affinities of objects, or possible affinities of objects. It's always a play with the possible, and when you play with the possible, things happen. And things are also not happening, which might be another possibility. Another idea that I think applies to my work – in the sense of the idea you raise of an infinite possibility – I think about my relationship to objects, and the way that objects come into my world, and pass through my studio. It's a kind of nomadism of objects. A nomadism because there is constant movement and change, now and then stopping in a place that is a relative place in a continuum of movement.
The shelves are units that are fragments of other units – any triangular shelf with the cut on the left and the cut on the right is a fragment from another shelf, like cars on a train. In this respect it is an on-going activity. The objects shift and the colours may shift, or there may be no colour but, instead, just white or black. It's an on-going movement of objects into places that have minute changes from one unit to another. In fact, all these units are part of a possible continuum.

JA: Just to go back and take another swipe at this issue of commodification and the idea that your art was synonymous with perceptions of what commodity art was about in the '80s. When the rhetoric of Postmodernism was forming, emphasis was placed on examining conditions of alienation in late capitalistic culture. Your work was discussed in relation to the idea of alienated labour, as well as investigations that had to do with dismantling certain ideals – the ideals of authenticity and originality, for example. While interest in conditions of alienation in society may have served as a discursive context for your work, did it also serve your intentions as an artist? 

HS: It's interesting, the way that you describe the discourse of alienation in the '80s. How it comes off as a discourse, towards which there is this incredible reaction, as if the work is involved with alienation and brings up this terrible awareness of these terrible conditions.

JA: Well, wait now. I'm not so sure it's the work that brings it up, but the objects that you used were a primary host for that discourse. I mean, there is one, there are ten, there are a million of these objects. In some sense there is an allegorical dimension to that, one that allows us to reflect on our own condition.

HS: We have audiences, critics, thinkers, art historians, artists, and so on, who have ideas about this condition of alienation and what must be done about this malaise. And I think you're saying that looking at my work at that time, there was a response to something that was felt or considered as a reflection of this alienation – in the objects, and in the way that they were arranged and presented. For me, the work was a play. The work was an involvement with the objects that my culture produces. And it was a way to come to terms with my culture, and with myself, trying to understand my relation to these objects and my feeling about them. This relation and feeling that I had was not totally alienating, not totally alienated, not simply about alienation, nor about presenting alienating conditions of things. It was a play on the images and the things that come across as I look at the landscape of objects and the products of my society. Anyway, the discussion of alienation is not a new discussion. And it is not a new idea that pertains to the '80s alone.

JA: It seems to me that the lay of the land in the '80s was one in which the rhetoric of Postmodernism was so strong that it structured the work and the viewer's experience of the work, without necessarily addressing other dimensions that might include the intentionality of the artist.

HS: I believe that my work is very radical. Why? Because it deals exclusively with objects. Objects that are untouched by the artist, unaffected by the artist – not transformed, not painted, not bricolaged, but simply placed, one next to the other, on a very basic shelf. You can call it "Modernist," à la Mies van der Rohe and the Modernist canon of the streamlined, simplified object. It's a contemporary shelf, it's not a Baroque shelf. It's a shelf of our time, and it has the simplicity, austerity, and beauty – as well as the coldness – of a high-rise stainless steel and glass building. And on this shelf – on this paradigmatic shelf – there are objects placed very clearly, one next to the other. Looking at this in the context of art, in the context of our art world, which is full of myths of the originality and subjectivity of the artist, I can see a response that says, "This is so sterile, so cold, so alienating." That, in itself, would elicit this kind of response before even thinking about it. If you cannot find a warm spot in a warm object that's on the shelf because, contextually, it's next to a cold object, and it's on this very defined, clearly constructed unit – people associate that with something that's not personal, that's not in the home. They associate it with a counter in the supermarket. And the supermarket is this so-called capitalist, alienating place that we all have to go to. We enter through a door, and find ourselves being led by the nose, like we're on a conveyor belt, throughout this place and to the check-out with our bag full of things. We've just gone through this alienating experience, and we have our capitalist products in our hands, and we go home to our warm, personal, unalienated location. When I reflect on this situation, there could be a vast audience who would thus respond to the work because the work is so absolute in the way it defines the place of an object, the arrangement of the object, and the mode of production of the object.

JA: I would have to say, as well, that given the language of the '80s, those associations were more privileged than others. The objective critical dimensions of the work were much more noted, even valorized, rather than more subtle, subjective dimensions. Would you agree with that?

HS: I would agree 100%; this kind of response was absolutely total. There was hardly any sense of another response or interpretation. It always returned to the same interpretations: simulation, abstraction, consumerism, commodity art, Neo-Pop, Neo-Geo, Neo-Minimal. These blanket descriptions did not once address what poetic association might be there, what metaphorical evocations might come out of it.

JA: In 1988 you had an exhibition at Jay Gorney's gallery on Greene Street in which the objects you used included an elephant skull and elephant footstools. It struck me at the time that this was a new element or direction in your work, and I'll tell you why. The elephant skull, those elephant footstools – they were real in a way that laundry boxes or lava lamps didn't seem to be "as real." Certainly, the elephant skull had an expressive power and evinced emotional dimensions I had never noticed as playing on the space of the shelves before. Could you comment on that exhibition and, if it was such, the types of objects and subjectivities you were working with.

HS: Well, the work you are referring to, which I showed at Jay Gorney in 1988, is titled "Untitled (elephant footstools, elephant skull)". It consisted of one shelf that had an elephant skull, and another shelf with five elephant feet that were made into stools and that had cushions made out of zebra hide. There was, indeed, something phantasmagoric about this work, something shocking and awe inspiring, because these were the remnants of an animal which, on the one hand, is presented as a skull – mind you, without the tusks, which made it look even stranger than what an elephant skull may look like with the tusks – and, on the other, as footstools. If anything, to me, this work is much more unreal than real. Yet it was, and is, as real as any of the other works with objects. One could say, it's a different reality. Maybe this work engaged a more subjective response because it deals with the identity of the elephant and, furthermore, it evokes the portrait of the elephant. The elephant – it sounds like there was one elephant – but, in fact, there were five feet, not four, and they may have been from five different elephants. There were quite a number of contradictions in this work, aside from its appearance and attraction or revulsion.

JA: Perhaps this is the point to discuss, briefly, the linguistic properties of the objects. You have talked before about querying the very definition of the object. Is it real? Is it fake? Is it fetishistic? Is it a ritual object? I would think those kinds of questions come into play as the range of objects you were working with began to expand. Do those linguistic questions continue to be of relevance in the work?

HS: I think that linguistic questions are at the base of my work.

JA: Questions of definition, structure, meaning, identity.

HS: They are a constant in my work. We bring great projections unto objects. We associate experiences, places in time, and personal histories with objects, and there is a language that goes on in the way we interact with objects socially, culturally, and politically. This language operates on many different levels. For example, certain objects belong to the kitchen. They never appear in the living room. Certain objects belong in the child's room. When the guests come, they get taken out of the living room, and so on. These are languages that we take for granted, and these are areas that I am involved with – and that bring with them issues of identity and aspects of ritual. First and foremost, I think my work is about ritual, about the ritual of the everyday – the everyday placing, and moving, and changing, and bringing in, and taking out of objects.

JA: You commented before that one of the symbolic subjects of your work has to do with vulnerability and instability.

HS: Well, to me, it's really basic, obvious, very much there. If you are working in an area that's an in-between area – in-between borderlines of definition – your position is constantly shifting. That in itself brings an element of instability. When you work with objects and you are involved with the substitution of objects as a regular, ritualistic way of working, you are in a territory that's a destabilized territory. I'll give you an example. Traditionally, in art, the artist is a maker of icons – the icon as sculpture, as painting, as a work of art. Collectively, people have a very high esteem of these art objects, and supposedly, when they are good and successful, they have a certain stability – an economic stability. They are supposed to have value. When you are working with objects that have no value, or little value, or even if these objects that have little value are included in a work with another object of high value, and you say this is my work – I think a collector could feel very uncomfortable and unstable about this situation.
I had an opportunity to do a work for a collector, and this collector had a work of art by an Italian artist named Leoncillo. I proposed to make a shelf work that incorporated the Leoncillo sculpture and two other objects. This is for a collector who had said, "Come, do a work for me and pick whatever you want." When I picked the Leoncillo, she said, "Oh God, but not the Leoncillo!" What does that mean? Apparently she must have felt insecure about this, and it brings up a problematic in terms of the value of this object, and a real problematic in the case of my work. Furthermore, you are dealing with works, or a work, that is a combination of other works, or other objects that may or may not be art. ItÆs about a grouping of objects which are placed in an unfixed way on a shelf. I say, "Place it this way." But your cleaning person cleans it and moves it to the side, and you say, "Ah, wait a minute. Is it in the right place? Is it the way it's supposed to be?" You have to interact with this thing, and you have to place it back in the right place. Then you begin to raise the question – Is it the right place? It engages the viewer in an activity, a curating activity that may be very discomforting. And that's a problematic in the work.

JA: It's interesting that, on one hand, the objects and the shelves are actual – as you've mentioned before. No representations of things, but things in and of themselves. And yet, the relations between each of the objects on the shelf are not fixed at all. This brings to mind the idea of process in your work. One of the ways your work is discussed – albeit, usually in clichéd ways – is that the process of the work has to do with "shopping." That, of course, interprets aspects of process from the perspective of the artist's activity. But you're talking about process as being inherent to the work in other ways.

HS: Well, it's interesting that you bring up this notion of shopping. My work as an artist has been discussed at various times as having something to do with shopping. On the one hand, it's a kind of mystification of what I do as an artist. On the other, it is a register of something that's very basic to what I do and that has been recognized, but not necessarily interpreted correctly or fully. Shopping is a collective activity that we are all involved in, but shopping is also traditionally associated more with the feminine. I feel an affinity with this position. Let me explain. Shopping is a ritual, it's something we do without thinking about it. It's something we have to do in order to survive, and it's something that we all do every day. Imagine, talking about an artist doing his work in terms of shopping. That situates the whole practice of art in a completely different place than that of the traditional, mythic position of the artist making or creating original works of art in the studio. It displaces the artist from the studio to the street. It involves the artist in some kind of a ritual that's a non-art ritual, a common and everyday ritual. In that sense, I think, it's a very accurate pointer to the place from which I work. Not that I shop every day. In fact, I look more than I shop. I think about what I see more than I shop. I take my time deciding about how to put together a group of objects more than I shop. But shopping as a collective activity points to the ritualistic aspects of this work.

JA: Let's talk a little about the function of the personal in your work. You were seen as part of the so-called second generation Postmodern artists of the '80s. That would be you, Jeff Koons, Ashley Bickerton, Peter Halley, and others. Koons and Bickerton, for example, put themselves at the centre of their work – autobiographically, imagistically. That never happened in your work. Even though you do the selecting and arranging of objects, there's no apparent autobiographical dimension in your work. And yet you do cultivate personal spaces.

HS: My work is not my "body and soul". My relationship to my work, to myself, to the audiences that I perceive myself being involved with, is not one which brings back, or invites, a response in terms of myself and my unique place in the work. This also has to do with a sense of identity of self. I think someone like Koons, or Mike Kelley, or Robert Gober – they have very specific, personal, American identities. Their work is very connected with an origin that has to do, specifically, with such an experience. I too am an American, my name is Haim Steinbach. One part of my name is Hebrew; the other part is German. I was travelling in the Black Forest in Germany and I came across a town named Steinbach. Possibly there's a guy by the name of Joseph Beuys who was born in Steinbach. And he reflects, works, evolves, and defines himself and his art in terms of the specific experience and identity of his place and time. My identity, as an artist, in relationship to my work, and the work that comes out of this relationship – is, I believe, displaced in a certain way.

JA: In conjunction with the idea of ritual in your work, Mario Perniola has written an essay on your work and talks about an idea of moving away from mythic to ritualistic meaning. If I'm correct, he associates a kind of sadness, or demystification, with the idea.

HS: Yes, I have to say that Perniola's text on my work, which was written for my show at the Castello di Rivoli in Torino a year ago [1995/96], is focused on an important direction that the work takes. I would like to read a quote from his text, which I think is very pointed. He states that "... to comprehend work such as this, one has to rid oneself of a number of prejudices and, above all, to break free from the preconceived hostility towards ritual repetition that characterizes the Western philosophical tradition from Plotinus to Diderot and from St. Augustine to Lévi-Strauss. For this tradition attaches value not to ritual, action repeated, but to myth, the recounting of an action that was performed once only, and is regarded as capable of imitation but not of repetition. Herein lies the difference between the dimension of rituality linked to the problematic of the same and of its reiteration and the dimension of theatricality, linked to the problematic of the original and of its imitation." Furthermore, he adds later: "Artistic activity therefore is no longer understood as mimetic action but rather as ritual action."

(New York, April 1997)

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