It is painful to see how the Serpentine Gallery spends so much money from the Lottery Fund and UK tax payers in the wrong projects. A week and a half ago, a friend of mine who lives in the Middle East posted pictures in Facebook where the Serpentine’s Director of Exhibitions, Hans Obrist Ulrich was giving a presentation in Abu Dhabbi and a few weeks before he was giving a conference in Brazil. His job seems to be to travelling around so as to be ‘up to date’ with the globalising trends of curatorial ‘globalisation’. I am repeating myself on purpose, here, and for the sake of irony.
The impact of this strange (and ‘absent’) arrangement between Obrist and the Serpentine is for all to be seen if it is born in mind that, currently, there are two pointless shows (Haim Steinbach’s, in the main building of the institution and Martino Gamper’s show in the newly refurbished one). In other words, the Serpentine is spending a lot of money to illustrate a very simple curatorial point which could be stated as follows: ‘Shelves are important. They are pieces of design but they can also frame works of art and even become works of art in their own right. Understanding the museum institution as ‘framing art’, a museum should be considered the ultima ‘art shelf’. So there you go. That’s what the Serpentine has to say about ‘objectualism’. Whether shelves are the right way to problematise this is a different question that the curators shockingly do not find relevant to ask themselves.
Thus, while in the New Sackler’s Wing, Martino Gamper fails to transform design into an art experience, at the Serpentine’s main building a considerable number of works by Haim Steinbach are displayed. The show functions as a retrospective of sorts spanning his forty year career, during which he has participated in what, Michael Fried has called, ‘objectualism’ or, in simpler terms, ‘minimalism’.
Up until the mid-1970s, Steinbach explored minimalism’s limitations through painting calculated placements of coloured bars around monochrome squares. He then abandoned painting to create work using the material linoleum, made to resemble a diverse range of historical floor designs. By the late 1970s, Steinbach had begun to investigate spatial questions, honing in on the daily rituals of collecting and arranging objects. One could say that the difference between Steinbach and minimalism is that Steinbach focusses in the indexical process that (according to the minimalists) transforms an object into art. The way Steinbach explores this process is by problematising the frame and the plinth as key institutional elements of ‘art-marking’.
The problem with Steinbach’s work is it repetitive dullness. This show makes it evident that he is a one trick pony and that his body of work comprises only one idea which is repeated over and over and illustrated in rather undifferentiated ways.
There is, of course, a nod at collecting as a ‘practice’ and as a topic for which Steinbach has invited the public to participate by presenting their salt and pepper shakers forming a new work for the exhibition. According to the curator: ‘Each with their own history and story, the salt and pepper shakers carry meaning from a former context and, through their display, the connection between the private and the public sphere is made’. This is pompous silliness presented as ‘uncovering alternative meanings inherent in the objects, while subverting traditional notions of display and hierarchy’.
I believe the Hans Obrist’s Serpentine is reaching the point of no return. Just a thought.