Having just recently graduated from the Royal Academy of Art (KABK) in The Hague, Jan Steenman created an opportunity to travel to San Pancho, Mexico, to work on a private commission. When asked about his new surroundings, he revealed that there was a necessity to temporarily relocate to Guadalajara, some 300km away, as a result of unrest and ‘disturbances caused by the cartel.’ Ominous-sounding, Steenman insisted that he couldn’t share any further details of this commotion. Throughout our discussion, it became apparent that Steenman finding himself in a situation like this – an admittedly far cry from his recent art-school turf – was testament to the jump-in-face-first approach to the way that he lives his life, and the way that he creates.

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.’

Une Évolution Mécanique de l’Être, 2018 Performance ± 15 min Latex rubber 1,80m
This work is by no means purely theoretical. The pieces that he created for this graduation installation are painstakingly made out of clay, resins, coated and coloured – and more than twice his height. Steenman is a hands-on kind of guy, both mentally and physically. He noted that undoubtedly his father – a craftsman – bestowed upon him a certain curiosity. It continued to become clearer, that the manual infatuation also came from what Steenman refers to as an obsession. ‘I’m obsessed with clay. Obsessed. I even wrote my thesis about clay.’ Then, just like when you open up someone’s favourite photo album, Steenman starts mapping aspects of the origins of this silty seduction. He cites the Egyptian deity Khnum (god of the source of the Nile) who, with the annual flooding of the river, brought silt and clay. And then goes on to tell me about his research into pottery in the Ptolemaic period, and the miraculously intact crockery that was found at Elephantine, created between the fourth to the second century BC. ‘It’s all there in our history. Ceramic was one of the first synthetic materials.’

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.

The World is Yours, Performance and Sculpture, Mooof, The Hague 2017
This bodily preoccupation can also sometimes be unsettling to the viewer. Most notably his collection of performances humorously titled Self Inflicted and Spontaneous Traps from 2016. In one, he is confronted by the weight of a very, very full water balloon, which he needs to fight his way from under after it doesn’t pop, and before it starts crushing him. In another, he is hanging from a bridge in what appear to be suspenders, while elsewhere he rollerblades in his living room. All testament to the very hands-on research that some could imagine doing but would not necessarily subject their bodies to. This physical fearlessness is something that draws viewers in, and hopefully allows Steenman to ask the provocative questions that he’s meaning to.

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!’

On n’est pas bien là?, 2018 Clay, plaster, metal, silk, epoxy resin, plastic yellow astrocyte: 1,00m x 2,85m Siting figure: 0,70m x 1.25m
The World is Yours, Performance and Sculpture, Mooof, The Hague 2017
The exhibition Yummy Yummy at Flatlands Gallery in Amsterdam that featured elements from his graduation project closed at the beginning of March. He is still in Mexico, hopefully staying safe, and he’s someone we will be closely keeping an eye on in the coming years.


This article appeared in DAM72. Order your personal copy.
Decolonialism, 2019 Made in Mexico, San Pancho Charcoal on paper A3 (30 x 42 cm)
Jadis, 2017 Performance ± 20 min Latex rubber, clay, plaster, metal, wood 1,80m