Our objects, ourselves: New exhibition inaugurates Tel Aviv artspac

Israeli-American artist Haim Steinbach showcases his latest work at Tel Aviv’s Magasin III.

Haim Steinbach (photo credit: YOUVAL HAI)
Haim Steinbach
(photo credit: YOUVAL HAI)
The Magasin III Museum & Foundation for Contemporary Art in Tel Aviv’s Jaffa area is host to “zerubbabel” by Haim Steinbach, the inaugural exhibition in its new satellite space. Magasin III’s original space is located in Stockholm.
Zerubbabel is Steinbach’s first solo show in his home country, and also marks the launch of a diverse program at the museum, that will feature international and local artists.
Since the 1970s, Steinbach’s art has been a kind of existentialist meditation; taking everyday objects and arranging them in a way that allows the viewer to question their perspective and relationship to the object. The exhibition, which runs until May 19, was curated by David Neuman and includes 10 works by Steinbach from the past five years, ranging from wall paintings to objects presented in boxes. Steinbach sat down with The Jerusalem Post to discuss his art school days, alluding to the Vietnam War and making art about seeing.
Can you talk a bit about your background?
I was born in Israel and lived in Tel Aviv. When I was 13, my parents decided to move and we moved to New York City. I’ve been living in the United States ever since. I was always talented in art.
When I was in elementary school, I took after-school classes with a few other students with our art teacher, who smoked a long cigarette on a stick and was a man.
I also liked music. I learned how to play the accordion. In the US, I went to junior high and then on to high school. I was accepted into a specialized public high school that was for the industrial arts.
When it moved to a new building, it was called the high school of art and design, and it was right down the street from the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) and also what was then the Whitney Museum. I was able to walk to the museums after school, which was very important for me.
Was that a source of artistic inspiration to for you?
The fortuitous situation meant that MoMA was accessible to me. It was important for me to have that artistic exposure. I have to say that when we lived in Tel Aviv, my mother used to take me to the Tel Aviv museum. That was interesting as well.
You went on to study at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn?
Yes, but I left after two years to go to Europe for a year. I took courses at the university in Marseille. I took courses in French and was exposed to the existentialist philosophy.
How does that influence you as an artist today?
It points in the direction of structuralism that by the end of the 1970s became very important. Now it leads to a very current philosophy that’s only surfaced in the art world in the last year, and that’s object-oriented ontology. Once I discovered this branch of philosophy about five years ago, it’s about the perception of objects, which is very relevant to my art.
When I was in France for a year, I also came across the films of Jean Luc Godard, which had a strong impression on me. They break the narrative and the idea of a narrative story, so the sense of time and place is shifted from normative storytelling. It’s very parallel to the thinking of the time in literature. I don’t see it reflected literally in the way that I create, but theoretically definitely.
My work is not structured on the narrative track; every object already has its own narrative. When you encounter an object, your cognition and perception of that object is based on how you know it from the point of view of function, need, or even trauma.
If you had a traumatic experience with a certain object, it will also have a normal function for many people. You had an experience that interrupted your flow of being or of comfort, but another person would have a much more normative experience of it.
It must have been a big change for you going from Brooklyn to Marseille.
I think the bigger change was going from Tel Aviv to New York. Moving to Marseille was a selfmade action. It was something that I decided to do that was counter to what was expected of me, which was to continue my studies at Pratt. But I got bored with school and I needed a change and some distance. That was a very important decision for me.
I wasn’t necessarily ready to come back to the States when I did return after that year. I was fresh meat for Vietnam. So I had to find a way to avoid the draft. One way to do it for more entitled kids like me was to go back to college. So I went back to Pratt to finish my studies with a major in art education.
It was definitely worthwhile to finish. Although I’m sure I would have found myself in art no matter what.
After graduation, I taught art for a year because that was another way to avoid the draft. But you had to teach in a difficult neighborhood, so I got a job at PS20 in Forte Green. After that I just focused on my artwork. In 1971, I was accepted to the graduate school at the art department of Yale University. After I graduated there, I had to figure out how to make a living. So I took an assistant professor position at Middlebury College in Vermont, and I taught art there for four years. Different from my previous teaching post, but it’s all nourishing.
Your artwork focuses on everyday objects and the interplay of their identities and meanings. Can you talk more about that?
The objects I deal with are everyday objects as far as I’m concerned.
The everyday means that you take it with you. In that sense, you encounter is not hierarchical until you set a system of values and say, “This is art and this is not art. This is kitsch.” So I came up with the understanding that if you’re going to make art, then you have to make art about seeing; it’s about what you see and how you feel about it.
But feeling can be very prejudiced. You can feel that it’s an ugly object or beautiful or stupid. If you don’t do that, then every object has something to give; something that’s special and that could be meaningful. The engagement with space and spaces is very important to me, especially the ones we construct for ourselves. When I was growing up in Israel, our space was very based in European culture because we are an Ashkenazi family. Classical music was very important, the radio was always on, playing concerts.
I remember going to a boy’s house whose parents were Persian. I was fascinated by the space, it was completely different; rugs, curtains, couches, the food, everything was different. Later on in life after I had studied art, I still remember that.
For more information: www.magasin3.com/jaffa.