Frances Loeffler in Cura, Issue 21, Spring 2016

A Grammar of Nonsense: Display and Language in the work of Haim Steinbach

‘O’er the seas that have no beaches, to end their waves upon,

I floated with twelve peaches, a sofa and a swan.

From Mervyn Peake, A Book of Nonsense, 1972

Soap has much to say. May it say it with volubility, enthusiasm.

When it has finished saying it, it no longer is.

From Francis Ponge, Soap, 1967

‘Why is a raven like a writing desk?’, asks The Hatter in Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865). The work of Haim Steinbach similarly invites us to consider the affinities and dissonances between things. In his installations and arrangements, he brings together found, borrowed, and gifted objects that are both ‘related and different’, as one work is titled. ‘Why is a mermaid like two plastic frogs?’, we might ask when viewing Steinbach’s the bather (2011), ‘or an iron like an exercise bike?’, in Untitled (ironing board, iron, exercise bike, Muybridge collotypes) (1995). As Alice discovers, there are no answers to such riddles. If there is no reason here, however, there is rhyme. Curves and colours repeat, almost like assonance in verse, and objects form temporary communities with one another (and with us). The neon green frogs and the forest green mermaid’s tail are similarly triangular, for example, and as bathers, it is possible that they have shared the rim of the same tub. The iron and the exercise bike jibe with each other’s parts (the metal tubing, the rubber handles and feet) and every week they are ritualistically set in motion.

Steinbach’s interest in plucking everyday, common objects from the world around us and putting them on display has been visible in his work from the very beginning of his career. In the late 1970s, for example, he cut linoleum lifted from old apartment floors into geometric strips, and presented the reassembled parts in portrait format on the wall. This small act of displacement represented a major shift. With their abstract, symmetrical designs, the ‘Linopanels’ recalled the artist’s recent work as a minimalist painter. As an artistic material, linoleum is in many ways in keeping with minimalism’s purist ideologies. It is quotidian, industrial, and mass-produced. Steinbach, however, uses the material once it has already fulfilled this function. He appropriates it one step further down the line as a found or ‘recycled’ object that is redolent with individual, personal histories, the scuffs and imprints of those that had walked over it for many years. Lifting this cheap, everyday flooring material onto the wall, he asks us to view it as art. More than that, he asks us to see it as not just a material serving the purpose of artistic form, but as an object in its own right.

Around this time, the artist began an ongoing set of works with the pithy title ‘Display’. As with the Linopanels, these brought into play regular, domestic elements usually set aside from the rarified sphere of the art gallery. For Display #5 in 1979, for example, Steinbach covered sections of the walls of the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art at Cornell University with patterned, colourful wallpaper. He also included a makeshift shelf with a ball, an artwork by the American artist Herbert Ferber, and his own shirt on a hanger. Then in his well-knownDisplay #7, which took place at Artist’s Space, New York, that same year, he painted the gallery reception desk blue, covered the walls with strips of wallpaper, and placed found and borrowed objects – a jar of pheasant feathers, an ornate wooden box, the small statuette of a fishermen – on shelves running around the perimeter of the gallery. These early ‘Display’ pieces heralded many aspects of his later work. The inclusion of other artist’s work in his own, for example, the handmade and later standardised wedge shelves, the arrangements of objects, and the use of scaffolding and sheetrock walling.

Various definitions and discussions have circled these works over time, ranging from Neo-Geo (short for Neo-Geometric Conceptualism), appropriation, commodity fetishism, and institutional critique. Alongside these largely artworld debates, however, there is a strong sense that the social aspects of why and how we put things on display remains at the centre of the work. Steinbach is as much interested in how we display objects in the home, as he is in what happens in the gallery. Some of his early ‘Display’ works, in fact, were never shown outside his home (which doubled as a studio), but were nevertheless titled, documented, and recorded. This focus on the social and personal is made clear in works, such as his Shelf Arrangements in which he took a series of photographs documenting his works nested in the homes of friends, who were also invited to re-arranged the works in situ. Another example is Display #59 − North East South West (2000), in which the artist visited people in their homes in order to ask them questions about how and why they chose to live with the objects they do. Their thoughts were then shown in video documentation in the gallery, alongside arrangements of their belongings. A highly personal and intimate portrait of each lender, such works extend far beyond artworld myopia and into questions of community, travel, migration, the local, belonging, memory, and desire.

Alongside this emphasis on the social, another important aspect of Steinbach’s concept of display is the way it extends to language. The artist collects words, phrases, and fragments of sentences that he finds in books, magazines and newspapers and incorporates them in his installations. In a process that closely recalls the inclusion of newspaper clippings in the works of Synthetic Cubism, Steinbach treats these as he would any other found object, calling them ‘found statements’, and displaying them in the original typeface. But he goes further than merely de-contextualising a sentence, transposing it from one site to another. The statements may vary in scale, and are often positioned in ways that evoke narrative and personification. The work no elephants (2008) might, for example, trumpet loudly from on high, while his and to think it all started with a mouse (2004) peeps around a corner at ground level, inviting viewers to follow the tale/tail (‘mine is a long and sad tale, said the mouse to Alice. It is a long tail certainly, said Alice…’1). With the use of these display tactics (typology, positioning, scale and site), the artist asks us to actually see language, rather than simply reading it. It calls out to us (yo), greets us (hello again), asks us to look, and look again (you don’t see it do you).

Of course, any system concerned with the arrangement of objects so that we may consider their identity is profoundly linguistic and Steinbach’s work is no exception. The earliest classification systems have relied on naming, and as Michel Foucault made clear in The Order of Things (the French title Let Mots et les Choses, ‘words and things’, seems particularly apt here), it is only through the codes of language that we are able to understand ‘the order of things’. Steinbach’s work upends these codes, inventing its own categories, its own syntax and grammar. As taxonomy, it perhaps most closely recalls Luis Borges’ well-known description of ‘a certain Chinese Encyclopaedia’, in which animals are categorised into: ‘those drawn with a very fine camel-hair brush’, those that, ‘have just broken the water pitcher’, ‘those that from a very long way off look like flies’, and ‘etcetera’, among others.2 In this hyper-linguistic atmosphere, titles naturally take on added significance. Many play with the slippery semantic relationships between objects and language. The punctuation-like ‘Kong’ objects Steinbach frequently uses on his shelf works are dog chews, for example, but their squat, black forms also resemble the eponymous fictional ape. In many instances, works are titled using a ‘found statement’, simply adding another object into the arrangement.

There is also a literary quality to Steinbach’s work. Poetry comes to mind in particular, with its condensed forms and strong use of metaphor. The French ‘poet of objects’ Francis Ponge (1899-1988) seems especially affiliated, not only in his life-long dedication to studying and writing about objects, but also in the overlaps in their choice of subject matter (both have used the sponge, gravel, and soap in their work). Alternatively, the repetitious sound ‘Cra Cra’ evoked in the face-on view of the work crate & barrel (2008) recalls the ‘da da’ of Dadaism. Certainly, in its use of found material and love of the absurd, Dadaism seems closely aligned. However, Tristan Tzara’s instructions on making a Dadaist poem were to cut words from a newspaper, put them in a bag and shake gently, take out each cutting one after the other, and ‘copy conscientiously in the order in which they left the bag.’ Steinbach’s work with its carefully thought-out arrangements never quite submits to this total dismantling of reason and logic. In this sense, it is perhaps closer to the nonsense poetry beloved of Carroll. For a start, nonsense poems have been described as more verbal than any other type of literary genre, with a liberal use of literary devices, such as made-up words, personification, and puns (as works such as i went looking for peaches, and came back with a pair (2011) attest, Steinbach is also fond of the odd pun). In addition, the Nonsense World has been said to consist of an unresolved tension in which order and disorder, fiction and reality, are perpetually in play and in check. Nonsense sticks to set literary rules, such as the normative rules of grammar, plot structure, and fixed rhyme schemes, but creates a carefully-crafted alternative reality that is often humorous and absurd.3

Steinbach’s arrangements also knit familiar things together in unfamiliar ways. While it always deals with real things from the real world, reality-warping mirrors and reflective surfaces (see Untitled (mirror, lunchbox 1-1B), 1990) offer portals to another place. Here, imagination is key. Consider the work the roots. Two plastic drainage pipes, a Darth Vader – light-sabre extended – the wood-carved figure of a walking man wearing an old-fashioned travel cloak, the gnarled root of a tree, and a dog chew ‘Kong’. It only requires a small stretch of the imagination to see the play of meanings extend across these objects, literal and metonymic, suggesting the notion of heritage, origins, becoming, the search for ‘one’s roots’, the root-like plumbing structures beneath one’s sink, as well as the actual root of a tree. Fiction, therefore, is at the heart of Steinbach’s concept of display. When we present ourselves and our things to the world, we tell stories. Objects tell stories. Fiction is a necessary function for us then, as social beings. It is how we make sense of the world and part within it.

Let us stay for a moment with the man in the traveller’s cloak. One of Carroll’s most favoured literary devices was the ‘portmanteau’ word, which has been described as the ‘quintessence of nonsense’.4 Translated literally from the French as ‘carry cloak’, the origin of the term refers to a leather suitcase that opened in two parts, which was used by travellers to carry their clothes. In literature, as Humpty Dumpty explains in Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There (1871), it refers to the collapsing of two words into one. An example would be the word ‘slithe’ in the mirror-language poem Alice reads, The Jabberwocky, which is formed from ‘slithery’ and ‘lithe’. Perhaps when he arranges objects on shelves, he creates the visual equivalent of a portmanteau. Even the shelves themselves are often a fusion of disjunctive parts, combining units in different colours and on different levels from one another. Things separated at birth are brought into conversation with another, not in complete synthesis, but maintaining their distance from one another, as in the works either (2002) and or (1999). The vehicle in which they travel might not necessarily be a suitcase; it might also be a box, a shelf, a drawer, a crate, a barrel, a cabinet, or a ‘big brown bag’.

Further to the subject of opening suitcases, bringing things together and keeping them apart, the word ‘display’ comes from the Latin ‘to fold’ and ‘apart’ (‘plicare’ and ’dis’), or in its old French usage, desploiir, to unfold or unfasten, knots, banners or scrolls. As Steinbach’s work makes clear, words, as with any of the things around us, come with a history. Each is a small case carrying stories furled with it. Steinbach’s work provides a platform on which the case may be opened and its contents proffered to us to be seen anew. It is a playing field as level as a shelf. Every small thing counts in this unity, and while things remain as separate parts nothing can be separated out: the table edge, the window ledge, the wallpaper, the floor. As viewers, we are of course included in the equation. The instant one walks into a Steinbach installation, the ensemble is activated and begins to sing. You have to pay attention because, while the tune is familiar, the language is new. It’s a different order of things.