Steenman calls himself a sculptor and performance artist. He studied sculpture, and his methodology and oeuvre are often performative and in dialogue with (and sometimes endanger) his own body. When asked if his work is political, Steenman responds by saying, ‘I think any artwork is political – any time you translate your environment into art, it’s political.’ In his graduation project On n'est pas bien là?, for example, we find ourselves in a scene alongside a slumped human shell in composition with its (and our own) hypothetical micro and macro components. Mammoth, intertwining vertebral columns weave into one another like DNA strands, hanging among exploded microscopic views of hypothetical cell structures. I imagine it being a good view into how Steenman walks around, experiencing the world. It’s us looking at a hollow reflection of ourselves observing the hypothetical anatomical structures around us, representing a ‘plastic world, where originality has collapsed, under a pressure of repetitive production and consumption.’
Clay is a material that seems to suit Steenman’s artistic approach well. Not only is it very impressionable to a myriad of nuanced gestures, but it also offers a performance and an evolution of its own. As Steenman puts it: ‘It goes from soft, to hard, to dry, to dust.’ In the 2017 exhibition The World Is Yours at Mooof, The Hague, the artist constructed a Jan-Steenman-shaped clay sarcophagus, under which he lay throughout the exhibition. It had only holes in it for his eyes and mouth. It took five people to get him under it. ‘I could feel the transformation of it on my own body – that’s the thing that I love the most.’ It was so absurd for audience members to think that someone was actually lying under the sculpture, that they assumed that the eyes they saw in the eyeholes were a screen playing a film. He refers to this kind of engagement with his practice as an ‘objectification of the artist.’ He enjoys this paradox of being alive and never being able to become an object, but being occasionally perceived as one when his body is intertwined with the medium of his work. Those audience members who realised that it was indeed a human, asked in hushed tones if he was okay under there. ‘I was stuck in it – I wanted them to feel stuck in it with me.’ The physicality of clay works in other ways to appeal to Steenman. He boxes five times a week, and he says that working with clay has a similar kind of bodily preoccupation.
Questions, like in his piece Eethuis Kirkuk, in which he places one of his hypothetical anatomical sculptures on a rotating kebab machine, alongside a kebab. It took some negotiating to get the owner of the kebab joint to agree to this installation, and Steenman didn’t want to close it down or to curate the audience. As a result, on the night of the installation, the kebab shop ran like any other night – people coming in to grab something to go and being met with the crowd that came to see the art installation. Again, in an attempt to understand, he’s reframing. Art in a white cube? And what about a kebab shop? It didn’t seem like there was a predetermined objective to this piece, other than just seeing what this new context would mean, how it would change the understanding of what he created. ‘I experiment a lot. I enjoy my happy accidents. It’s about trusting the process and not being in the tunnel vision of what I imagine in my head.’ It stands to reason, then, that he doesn’t see a point in sketching at all: ‘I just start. I play with it. Cover my body in plaster, get a breathing tube and let’s go!’