Like the pedestal and the vitrine, the shelf is a mode of display that also displays itself. Shelves convey seriality, recess, or storage. Unlike the pedestal (with its elevating, singular import) or the vitrine (which protects and glosses), there is neither preciousness nor real closure to the shelf. In this sense, the shelf displays that Israeli-American artist Haim Steinbach has constructed over his 40-year career are consumer apparatuses twice over: first, as ways of showing off treasure; second, as ways of stashing surplus when that treasure becomes (or reveals itself as) trash.
Spanning his entire oeuvre, Steinbach’s large retrospective at the Kunsthalle Zurich assembled not only found objects but nested these, in turn, within architectural and commercial displays. These referenced themselves: the word ‘Bauhaus’ – both movement and hardware store – beside the exposed sheet rock and MDF of the constructed walls subdividing the Kunsthalle’s four large rooms. Wall text and exhibition title once again the world is flat. (2014) was not only a reference to the latitudinal levelling of a shelf, or retrospective, but to those cultural forces – companies, designers, artists, curators – that collapse ornament and essence, design and artwork, shelf and object. Sweepingly habitated, the show contained rooms within rooms, photographs, lent artworks, artworks in reproduction and probably thousands of objects arranged by Steinbach from the early 70’s onward. Nodding to Pop as well as conceptual practices, with a dash of Institutional Critique, Steinbach excavates and redisplays (Western) mass-produced cultural goods: kettles, sneakers, Mondrian patterns, tacky wallpaper, toys and the personal collectibles of recently deceased Jan Hoet. Stable was the neat object-support dynamic: Little Orphan Annie and dog on a shelf made of Spiderman masks (Shelf with Annie Figurine, 1981).
Steinbach has layered sociological sensitivity to the resonance of (mostly American) goods. Not just their semiotic kernels (or supports) but their husks, imprints and halos. With typological acuteness, he overlays them with the consonance or dissonance of musical notes. Take the gratifying discord of a box of Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes next to three state-of-the-art dog chew toys in it is III-1 (2008): a child is a tiger is a dog; art is both sugar-coated and indigestible. There’s something photographic to Steinbach’s techniques of juxtaposition and superimposition. While comprised mostly of three-dimensional objects, the tucked away mise-en-abyme of Display #55 – North South East West (2000) was a small colour photo of a man observing art in a room filled with anthropological artifacts. Anthropology turns in on itself: eight ‘primitive’ wooden masks are indeed that, but from Switzerland (loans from the Historisches und Völkerkundemuseum St. Gallen). In Shelf with Ajax (1981), a can of Ajax bleaching agent rests on a branch-like shelf that looks like something from Snow White (1937). This makes sense: Ajax, like snow, is white, like bleach. Capitalism, which produced Disney’s fay icon, is a sort of cleaning agent (the strong Ajax), disinfecting the commodities it creates, killing them off (with bleach or an apple) and supplanting them with new ones – like Steinbach’s own works.
Steinbach is never openly critical of capitalist processes; he knows they are integral to our identities. English psychologist D.W. Winnicott once identified a class of objects he termed ‘transitional’ which, like Linus’ security blanket in the Peanuts comic, are inseparable from a child and essential in helping the childhood ego distinguish between it and world. The objects here take on this transitional character albeit on a societal scale. Hence the nostalgic playrooms Steinbach alludes to (Shelf Arrangement for Helene, Sydney, Amy and Eric’s Playroom, New Rochelle, NY, 1982) are almost grating (nobody totally likes re-entering their childhood room). Whereas Pop would surf on the currency of familiar icons, Steinbach’s eschewing of contemporaneity for the outgrown, faded glory of transitional things pickling in old bedrooms lends the exhibition a macabre note. With such distancing and estrangement, the character in Shelf with Snoopy (1981) takes on a dark tenor. Basics (1986), a teddy bear in soldier gear is a perfect instance of death drive – resting and restive. The exhibition has a brilliant memento mori with Shelf with Cookie Jar (1982) – the ‘cookie jar’ is actually a skull that opens up with a lid. The sign, as semioticians have often asserted, is at once a container (cookie jar) and tomb (skull). Like the shelf.