Executed in 2008, a defining moment 1 is a signature example of Haim Steinbach’s celebrated shelf works. Upon a gleaming laminated wooden ledge, two resin cast sculptures – modelled after Edgar Degas – sit alongside two rubber dog chew toys and a polystone rhinoceros. Arranged with minimal simplicity, Steinbach’s seemingly random assortment of readymade objects forms part of his ongoing enquiry into the ways in which meaning is structured and modified. By juxtaposing seemingly incongruous items – ranging from the curious to the mundane – Steinbach encourages us to re-evaluate our understanding of them. His shelves represent a kind of visual poetry, operating through a mixture of rhyming couplets and dissonant free verse. In the same way that words shift their meaning and purpose when juxtaposed in verse, so too do Steinbach’s objects assume new values in relation to one another. The Degas sculptures encourage us to see the chew toys as pieces of design: as examples of shape and structure independent of their function. At the same time, the chew toys have an inverse effect on the sculptures, recasting them as mass-produced commodities. The rhinoceros, too, undergoes similar shifts in meaning: in one light, it is a hand-carved ornamental souvenir; in another, it is a child’s play-thing. As such, Steinbach marshals the unremarkable props of everyday life into a system comparable to language: a set of discrete entities that – like words – take on new significance when arranged in a certain way. By elevating the entire set of characters onto a pristine shelf – displayed before the viewer like artefacts in a museum – Steinbach brings us face to face with the fundamental principle of human communication: that nothing stands in isolation, and that meaning is always contingent.
Steinbach first came to prominence in New York during the 1980s. Initially his practice seemed to find much in common with that of Jeff Koons, who, like Steinbach, was exhibiting in the East Village during this period. However, whilst Koons sought to create perfect simulacra through highly sophisticated methods of sculptural engineering, Steinbach remained firmly rooted in the legacy of Marcel Duchamp, channelling his artistic investigations through readymade, shop-bought items. The chew toy quickly became one of his most important objects, favoured for its indeterminate appearance: a simple, organic form – not instantly recognizable – that could be interpreted in a number of different ways. The conceptual ambition of Steinbach’s shelves led to widespread critical acclaim over the following two decades. In 1995, a major survey of his work took place at the Castello di Rivoli Museum of Contemporary Art in Turin, followed by solo exhibitions at the Museum Moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig, Vienna, in 1997, the Neuer Berliner Kunstverein, Berlin, and the Haus der Kunst, Munich, in 2000. In 2014, he was the subject of an important solo exhibition at the Serpentine Gallery, London. Through playful configurations of inconspicuous objects, his shelves continue to expose the basic semiotic principles that govern every aspect of our lives.