Critics’ Picks

View of “Marlin Underground,” 2012.

View of “Marlin Underground,” 2012.

Washington, DC

Dan Steinhilber

The Kreeger Museum
2401 Foxhall Road, NW
September 11–December 29, 2012

Tucked away in a marvelous Philip Johnson–designed building in Washington, D.C.’s tony Foxhall neighborhood, the Kreeger Museum is as proud of its building as it is of its handsome, modest, modern collection. The Kreeger commissioned Dan Steinhilber to create a site-specific solo show, and so he did, but he considered the building not as a museum but rather in its context as a former home. Rummaging through the old belongings of David and Carmen Kreeger and selecting long-hidden and discarded ephemera—a loveseat, an ironing board, three horrid stuffed marlins—Steinhilber reveals a secret history of the institution. He recorded unique testimonials of everything he found—a space heater cranking up, a smoke alarm beeping its test message, a trunk being dragged here and there, and so on—in order to collect a library of noises.

Marlin Underground, 2012, is a percussive piece of music that he rescues from the cacophony. Routing each sound from a central board to its source using audio equipment and transducers, Steinhilber makes it appear as if the grumble of a dented metal garbage can, for instance, is coming from inside the can itself—when in fact the sound is being replayed back through the object. The disconnect between the almost accidental quality of the found instruments and the intricate purposiveness of their orchestration is striking. The melodic whole music that Steinhilber compels from so much clutter imparts an animated, anthropomorphic quality to the junky instruments—as if the viewer had entered the Kreegers’ garage and stumbled upon an orchestra of Pixar rejects performing a Ballet Mécanique.

Steinhilber’s found things are deployed throughout the gallery with sculptural precision; a tower of five gray plastic bins is truly a poor man’s stack of glittering Donald Judd boxes. An adjacent gallery features a more conventional Steinhilber: a room-filling, inflated, walk-in plastic balloon, the insides of which he has embedded with shredded plastic bags. He has always favored discarded, misfit, and renegade materials, but in this exhibit, he has used them to author a convincing and far-reaching work of music—a variation on a theme, and an extension of his sculptural range into the realms of music and technology.