Traps to stop you in your Tracks: Haim Steinbach’s Two Owls

As today is the day that my new translation of Catullus 47 (or, The New Adventures of Poros and Penia) goes on display on the Badlands Unlimited website as part of their Search & Tell project (click the image below to see for yourself), it makes sense to use the Roman poet as a way to segue into a different topic, specifically from the topic of names to that of objects.

Catullus’ buddies in Poem 47 – Veranius and Fabellus – make an appearance earlier in the collection in Poem 12. This poem, addressed to the brother of Asinus Pollio who likes to steal napkins (lintea ) at dinner parties, and has stolen one of Catullus’ napkins which Veranius and Fabellus had sent the poet all the way from Spain. Catullus threatens Pollio with ‘scathing verses’ if he doesn’t return to treasured memento.

In his discussion of this poem, Charles Martin compares the lintea that are either exchanged, gifted or thieved, to poetry books, thus making Catullus’ poetic threat to Pollio tit for tat. Martin compares these poetic lintea to ‘the Roman version of The Stuffed Owl‘, a reference to the 1930s volume The Stuffed Owl: An Anthology of Bad Verse, edited by Wyndham Lewis and Charles Lee. (The title comes a poem of the same name by William Wordsworth, with its line: The presence of a stuffed Owl for her/Can cheat the time).

This reference to The Stuffed Owl in the Catullan context creates an intriguing double-bind. On the one hand, the theft of a precious gift from Fabellus and Veranius, is reduced to scribbled, bad poetry. On the other hand, the threat of ‘scathing verses’ to avenge the theft is set to represent the collection we are now reading. So, is Catullus’ collection comparable to The Stuffed Owl? Or is it a trap?

Speaking of owls and traps, I have been thinking about Haim Steinbach’s objects today, and specifically his work Display#23 – Adirondack tableau, installed in a skywalk at the World Financial Center in 1988 and reinstalled at the Tanya Bonakdar Gallery in 2011 and again at the Hessel Museum of Art in 2013 (sadly I couldn’t find any images from the 1988 manifestation, so ones from the 2011 and 2013 will have to suffice):

Here is an extract of Steinbach’s description of the work from a 2012 BOMB magazine interview with Peter Schwenger:

HS: : Adirondack tableau was a freestanding wall made of hog-pen boards with a window that had two handcrafted owls sitting on its ledge. It was installed in a skywalk at the World Financial Center in 1988. Also, on each side of the wall there was a vernacular bench made of branches from the region. The front of the wall faced the Hudson River and the back, the Twin Towers. The owls also faced the river and beyond. With the installation at the Tanya Bonakdar Gallery in 2011, the triangular plane you mention basically covered a corner of the room—it hid that corner, canceled it.

PS Why did you want to cancel that corner?

HS Well, again it’s a play with space, with walls. And this was a very specific space; there was a long triangular skylight in the ceiling. When we enter a space, we immediately measure it. It’s inherent to us because we know the language. We understand that it’s a rectangular space that we can walk into without bumping into things. But when there is something that doesn’t belong, it will make us question it and go, Strange, what’s this doing here? So that is one explanation of what it’s about. It’s a trap. In your book The Tears of Things, you talk about La Vie mode d’emploi, by Georges Perec. What is the title in English?

PS Life: A User’s Manual.

HS That’s right. And you mention that he wanted to set out a sequence of traps. So mine are architectural traps meant to stop you in your tracks. And what tracks are you going on? Well it’s your mind, your eyes, your nose, your ears, your skin—these direct you as you move through a space. You are already on a trajectory to be somewhere, or you’re looking for something. Bourdieu, the sociologist, reintroduced the concept of habitus to refer to the things that we do out of habit every day that provide us with what we need and, in fact, protect us. It’s things like brushing your teeth or having to eat your meal a certain way, needing to have your kitchen in a certain order, arranging your objects or dressing in a particular way.

I liked the way that Steinbach refers to his work as an ‘architectural trap’ that stops ‘you in your tracks’, specifically as it extends to the objects that he displays in his works, like the two owls in Display#23 – Adirondack tableau. These owls take pride of place as the title of an essay (“Two Owls” ) that Steinbach wrote for the publication following a multifaceted exhibition for the Fondazione Antonio Ratti in 1999 in Como in Italy. While the essay ends by explaining its title with reference to the 1988 installation, it opens with a general observation:

I am interested in the multiple in relation to the work of art One can question how authentic or original any artistic production is, given precedent references to material, information, and knowledge. The practice of artists is about inventing new meaning in relation to the present as well as to time, which is constantly changing. My work has been about vernacular, which is a common form of language, things that we make, express and produce. Vernacular is every day sayings, expressions, proverbs, aphorisms, and allegories. I select and arrange objects which have already been produced, which are mostly pieces from multiples, because just about every object in the world is either from an unlimited or limited edition.

Of course, the two owls are slightly different. While multiples – they are two – they were made by a local artisan enlisted by Steinbach to make them and to make them as identical as possible. This work, then, is trading on the myth of the multiple and how our ‘tracks’ (our senses) can be stopped by these two owls as ‘traps’, since they seems to be the same, but are not.

To return to Catullus’ lintea, the question of the value of his poetry collection compared to The Stuffed Owl, the precious napkin of his friends’ and any old piece of cloth, becomes an equally serious game of ‘spot the difference’ between two multiples. Will the verses Catullus writes to attack Pollio be the same or different to those scrawled lintea stolen from dinner parties? Furthermore, what does this tale tell us about the relationship between authorship and object, intellectual property and books as commodities?

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