ASPN, Leipzig, Germany
Consider an inscrutable, untitled photograph by Andrzej Steinbach from 2013. At its centre is a record player, its plastic cover worn and scratched. Strewn around it are a Lonsdale jacket, cigarettes and other paraphernalia. This picture is included in Steinbach’s show ‘The Parallax View’ at ASPN, comprising three sound works on vinyl as well as 15 photographs, pinned simply to the wall. The photographs seem both noisy and hermetic: cobblestones and pieces of brick are presented like geological specimens, placed in front of grey wallpaper or on sheets of glass, where they have left dirt and scratches. Two pictures of streetwear jackets, draped over a chair or flung in a corner, also shirk interpretation. They seem to be codes that can only be deciphered by initiates – as with the first picture mentioned above, whose militant backstory is revealed only if one knows that Andreas Baader hid a gun inside a record player in his cell at Stammheim prison.
A key to Steinbach’s series can be found in the six photographs featuring people. The subject of Untitled (pose I) (2016), for example, is a shorthaired young woman wearing a black coat, leather gloves and baseball cap. She peers out of deep-set eyes, her fists clenched. At the edge of this picture – clearly referencing fashion photography – we see a removal box with the word ‘Attention’ printed in five languages. Another photograph is a close-up of tattered clothes over scratched skin. The work’s title, Untitled (activist) (2016), suggests that these injuries are the result of a politically-charged scuffle. In Untitled (reading) (2016), on the other hand, the woman with the baseball cap is reading a book by the anarcho-situationist collective The Invisible Committee, known for its text The Coming Insurrection (2009). These less obscure literary and fashion cues allow the series to be gradually deciphered, revealing a subtext of revolt; the stones suddenly can be read as projectiles. The photographs’ unapproachability is indicative of a defensiveness to a ubiquitous (governmental) gaze that calls for aesthetically normed and unambiguous content. In this context, it is no surprise that the show’s title alludes to the apparent shifting of objects when viewed from different perspectives, as well as referring to Slavoj Žižek’s eponymous book from 2004.
The sound works in the exhibition deal with the theme of revolt more explicitly. On one of the soundtracks, Liste (2015), a female speaker reads out the names of the Baader-Meinhof gang, albeit defamiliarized by her French West African accent. As in the photographs, a form of distrustful, coded speech is audible. Steinbach takes a similar approach for the sound work Talkshow (2015). A television chat show from the late 1970s, now a YouTube classic, that ended with Nikel Pallat, the singer of German left-wing rock group Ton Steine Scherben, smashing a table with an axe, is re-enacted in dramatically compacted form. In this clearly structured radio play, which lacks the shouting and confusion of the television episode, the reason for Pallat’s meltdown comes to the fore: the co-opting of left-wing alternative arts by ‘market-based competition’. This seems an accusation that could also be levelled at Steinbach. But the way his approach functions in exactly the opposite way: instead of allowing for his work to be ‘co-opted’, he is interested in how ambiguity and political non-conformism can garner artistic expression given the ascent of smooth, commercial pictorialism. Unlike Pallat’s confrontation, Steinbach’s approach does not immediately land him outside of the room.