It‘s not easy to exhibit books. Like coins, they need to be handled to be fully appreciated. So how to do a retrospective about Erik Steinbrecher? An artist who has produced over 100 works in printed matter: books along with posters, invites and inserts, mostly with images, often with collaborators and always with witty titles like ARABESQUE À GOGO (2003), STUBBORN STATUE (2006) or SCHLUSS MIT ÖKO (Enough with organic, 2010). The answer: leave it to the Kunstbibliothek, the exhibition space of the Berlin State Museum’s Art Library, where books rule. Usually only tourists, students and lone guards cross paths in this modest site inside the Kulturforum, which also houses the soon-to-move Gemälde Galerie. It’s not the top address for contemporary art. Yet Steinbrecher and curator Michael Lailach turned what could have been a disaster – or a mere bore – at any other institution into a real joy.
The show’s title set the cheeky tone of the show: Erik Steinbrecher ‘ÜBER ALLES’ (above, about and on everything) cites the first lines of the old German national anthem, which the Nazis spoiled, but with scare quotes and the emphatic oomph of all caps, which were used to list all of the titles of Steinbrecher’s works, dating from the period 1995–2012. While alluding to Germany’s troubled history, the Berlin-based Swiss artist confounded the professional supremacy of the solo retrospective with his own desire to comment on everything in the world and, perhaps, with the classic museum’s drive to be encyclopaedic, if not the encyclopaedia itself. Yet only 50 printed works were on display in 31 fancy-schmancy vitrines. Whoever pined to go beyond the glass could enjoy the books, ready-to-read, near seating at the exhibition entrance. In short, the vitrines were the spectacle; the reading area, a backstage to get up close and personal with the stars. Also at the entrance was the big, blow-up wurst KULTURWÜRSTCHEN (Culture Weenie, 2007) which visitors could inflate with an electrical hot air pump. As this work suggests, Steinbrecher not only frequents the printers but has also produced an impressive array of videos, sculptures, collages, photographs, found objects, either as independent works or as complements to the printed stuff. Each virtine offered a heady mixture of paper and other works; the fun was figuring out what came first – the publication or its ‘accesssories’ – and if they even belonged together.
Take Vitrine 6, which presented the book ASTRA-TURBO (2012) and found objects from the series FIX & FERTIG (Totally Wiped Out, 2010–12). The book was displayed open at a page with a black and white photograph of a car tyre running over a cigarette pack; a crushed pack – Marlboro’s special blend black – was included in the vitrine with other black found objects, from an umbrella to a bottle of black olives. Yet the resemblance was deceptive; the book is a loner while the objects are relics from the performance FIX & FERTIG (2011) at Geneva’s Centre de la photographie (where visitors were invited to handle the black objects and to voice their feelings in a megaphone for everyone in the centre to hear – an eerie mixture of a tool for mass communication at political rallies and the bear-it-all of instant online sharing). Other works looked like artefacts from the history of the book’s production. Vitrine 7 showcased not only the booklet FRUTTA (Fruit, 2012), which includes colour photographs of painted-over, rotting apples, but also works from the series FRUTTA (2009): a row of citrus fruits – fake, painted, real – in varying states of decay, perhaps the rejects from the audition for the photoshoot. While painting fruit, Steinbrecher developed a unique approach to collage. He photographs found objects on top of found photographs to create the illusion that all of the elements in his final picture once occupied the same physical space. My favourite was (FRISÜRCHEN) (Little Hair-do, 2011): wigs curled up, like sleeping cats, on the faces of portraits of dainty models, themselves sporting elaborate dos.
Without mentioning the word digital, Steinbrecher reminded us that the printed book has always been an object and thus naturally belongs with other objects, whether found or shaped anew. A shared, interactive sculpture, the book moves effortlessly from one hand and eye to the next, without losing its power to create an intimate experience for each reader (try lending an e-book to a friend without handing over your device). The vitrine display – versus the hands-on reading area – may have alluded to the digital-analogue split in reading. In the wake of e-readers, traditional books – at home in both private and public spheres while preserving the border between them – are no longer just stories; they make us wonder with what other objects, people and spaces they have shared.