Darth Vader, Spider-Man and Roxy Music: Haim Steinbach and Martino Gamper at Serpentine

By Emily Beeson | 11 March 2014

Exhibition reviews: Haim Steinbach: Once Again the World is Flat; Martino Gamper: Design is a State of Mind, Serpentine Gallery, London until April 21 2014

Click on the picture to launch the gallery

Looks can be deceiving: Haim Steinbach's show at the Serpentine Gallery seems like a garden-variety canvas-on-wall exhibition. A collection of the American artist's grid-based paintings - key works from the 1970s - catch the eye, inviting the viewer to step a little further in. And after these few steps, things begin to get very interesting indeed.

Courtesy Haim Steinbach
Haim Steinbach, Shelf with Ajax (1981). Wood and plastic shelf; Ajax cleanser can
The traditional gallery environment quickly becomes a jumbled and personal world of half-built platforms and scintillating surfaces, on which a fantastically odd array of items are laid out like holy relics. Steinbach's series of paintings lay a knowing trail into rooms where vast pieces of scaffolding support a display of strange found objects and installations.

This showcase features works from iconic points in the artist's 40-year career. As such, a sense of narrative fills the space.

From tiny items of cutlery and other pieces of assorted tat to plastic busts of pop icons such as Darth Vader and Spider-Man, the notion of display is turned right on its head. A mountain of shelving towers over the viewer like a grandstand, with Steinbach's dolls houses and zany pieces of furniture in place of trophies and rosettes.

François-Marie Banier
Portrait of Haim Steinbach
Concepts of commercial promotion and the value of collecting material goods clash with lofty theories of aesthetics and the emotive presence of bizarre personal shrines. Objects that resonate history fuel an uncontrollable urge to touch absolutely everything, whilst the intimate, semi-exposed air that the scaffolding brings to the show heightens the desire to examine and inspect every item.

A train of hundreds of salt and pepper shakers weaves through the exhibition. This kitsch hodgepodge of items began life as a small collection loaned by the friends and family of gallery staff.

After a call to the public resulted in an overwhelming response, a salt and pepper army took form, each set with its own particular story. These small objects communicate, quite excellently, material culture's impact on our sense of identity and indulgence.

2014 Hugo Glendinning
Martino Gamper, Installation view, Design is a State of Mind
A short walk across the park to the Serpentine Sackler Gallery proffers another wondrous trove of bizarre cultural artefacts, all perfectly placed on smart shelving units.

Martino Gamper's exhibition greets the viewer with a stylish bang. A huge folding wooden bureau that looks to be made of dazzling green malachite stands tall amid shining varnished surfaces.

“The pieces tell a tale”, says the London-based Italian designer. Comprised of shelving systems from the 1930s to the present day, this is a medley of curious objects curated from the personal collections of Gamper's friends and colleagues.

Plastic sunglasses, Roxy Music records, 70s toys, clay bowls and goodness knows what else tantalise the eyes from every side. Culturally juxtaposed icons, such as Mickey Mouse ears, are displayed amid paperweights, plastic shells and a large model of a cauliflower.

From handsaws to wooden spoons, baby monitors to taxidermy, the power of display is celebrated here. Across from a Booksnake shelf filled with stones and pebbles are two rooms housing a long table stacked high with design compendiums and almanacks and smaller tables filled with intricate and blunt paperweights.

Angus Mill
Portrait of Martino Gamper (2014)
The former of these dark rooms invite the viewer to arrange the books for themselves, creating a personal display that examines its own design-based subject matter.

The two unique exhibits are a feast for the eyes. Take your time – there is so much to see in such a rich context. Just try to keep your hands off everything, if you can.

  • Open 10am-6pm (closed Monday). Admission free. Follow the gallery on Twitter @SerpentineUK‎.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

More exhibition reviews from Culture24:

Making Painting: Helen Frankenthaler and JMW Turner at Turner Contemporary

Get intimate with Stanley Spencer's Heaven in a Hell of War at Pallant House Gallery

Richard Hamilton is a man of many parts at Tate Modern and the ICA

Visit Emily Beeson's blog and Twitter.

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