Viewed individually, many of Andrzej Steinbach’s photographs wouldn’t appear out of place in a fashion magazine. The young woman with a shaved head and an ambivalent gaze in Figur I, Figur II (2015), for instance, could seamlessly have illustrated a 2016 i-D feature titled ‘The Radical Resurgence of the Female Buzz Cut’. There is an androgyny to Steinbach’s models that would sit comfortably within contemporary publications drawing on counter- and youth-cultures.
It is only when Steinbach’s images are viewed serially within an exhibition that larger questions are raised: about the political import of style, culture and identity, and their representation through photography. Why, we might wonder, is a figure in Untitled (Ordinary Stones/Reading) (2016) clutching The Invisible Committee’s 2015 book To Our Friends? And what is Steinbach’s intention in interspersing portraits of a young woman with unassuming photographic studies of the titular ‘ordinary stones’?
To Our Friends is the second book by the anonymous socialist collective The Invisible Committee. Their first, The Coming Insurrection (2007), which declared the ‘imminent collapse of capitalist culture’, was decreed a manual for terrorism by the French government, leading to the arrest of nine of the book’s authors. Taken in this context, it seems likely that Steinbach’s ‘ordinary stones’, despite being depicted as unembellished museological artifacts, are intended to inspire direct action or even destructive revolt. And, by extension, is it also possible that the Nike baseball caps and oversized bomber jackets worn in the photographs reference the uniform of the new foot soldiers of the radical left rather than being mere elements of style without substance? This question remains unanswered, however. Certainly, Steinbach issues no direct call-to-arms with these portraits: he seems more interested in the conventions of photographic portraiture and how cultural mores are transposed and communicated via stance, gesture and apparel.
A grouping of five images from the series ‘Figur I, Figur II’ depicts a black woman fashioning a T-shirt, step-by-step, into a niqab. Currently, there is perhaps no more politicized article of clothing than the religious headwear worn by Muslim women. In some Muslim countries, a woman can be arrested for going out unveiled; yet, conversely, in certain European countries, such as France and the Netherlands, a woman can be fined for wearing a burka in a public place. While critics argue that the burka and niqab oppress women, many Muslims choose to cover their heads and faces not only for religious reasons but also as a means of expressing their cultural identity. In other words, their decision to dress this way may not be out of necessity but, rather, an alternative form of cultural identification to that portrayed in Steinbach’s photographic portraits of young women in Western clothing.
Steinbach’s exhibition in Hamburg was directly followed by a second show, inaugurating Galerie Conradi’s new space in Brussels. This also featured works from ‘Figur I, Figur II’ and ‘Ordinary Stones’ but with one addition: an improvised bat, fashioned from a piece of a supermarket shopping trolley, which the artist found at a protest in Frankfurt. In a short text about the object, he observes: ‘It points to an important aspect of artistic practice: the love for form, turned into a weapon.’ For Steinbach, it seems anything – the human body, a T-shirt, a stone – has revolutionary potential. All that’s needed is the right attitude.
Main image: Andrzej Steinbach, FIGUR I, II (detail), 2014/15, pearl print, 90 x 60 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Galerie Conradi, Hamburg