Simon Starling: In Speculum (Melbourne, Brisbane, and Wellington: Monash University Museum of Art, Institute of Modern Art, and City Gallery, Wellington, 2014.)
Simon Starling’s intricate projects explore the legacies of modernism and globalisation by addressing the peculiar histories surrounding specific objects and sites of art, design, and science. His erudite works address transformations and transmissions across time and space—echoes and dislocations. But, while they bookishly mine history, there is always something unexpected, excessive, witty, perverse, serendipitous, convoluted, counter-intuitive, or crafty about them.
My first in-the-flesh encounter with Starling’s work was at the 2003 Venice Biennale. In the Arsenale, a Fiat 126 car was hung up, wheels-to-the-wall. It had a two-colour paint job: red with white doors, white boot door, and white bonnet. I thought the sporty look might have something to do with its acrobatic performance, scaling the wall, defying gravity. I fancied the work to be a Duchampian gesture, as if Starling were doing to this car what Marcel Duchamp had done for the urinal—turning it in space and reframing it as art to create a new thought for it.
However, when I went to the wall text, I learnt more, much more. It offered a big back story, which made my initial impressions seem naive and irrelevant. I learnt that Fiat introduced the 126 at the 1972 Turin Motor Show to replace the Fiat 500. Later, in the 1970s, they moved 126 production to Bielsko-Biala, in communist Poland, where labour was cheaper. After 1982, the 126 was not sold in Western Europe, but it continued to be produced for the Eastern European market until 2000, becoming a symbol of communist-bloc life. Knowing this, in 2002, Starling purchased a 1974 red Italian 126, made in Turin, and drove it to Bielsko-Biala. There, he bought the white Polish 126 parts—side doors, boot door and bonnet—and transferred them onto his car. Even though the Polish Fiat parts were produced some way away, in a different time, under a different political regime, they fitted seamlessly. Starling had picked his colours so the end result would recall a Polish flag, titling the work ‘Flaga’. Starling drove his Italian-Polish hybrid back to Turin, to exhibit at his dealer gallery there, Franco Noero. Return to sender.
As soon as I read the wall text, Flaga clicked. It was a eureka moment—a reveal. The work went from being puzzling, ambiguous, even opaque, to being totally unambiguous and transparent. I got it. The work was, specifically, about a micro-history (about how this Italian classic ended up being Polish), and, more generally, about a macro-history (about how national brands persist under multinational capitalism). For me, any further reading of the work would now be constrained, framed, by this understanding. Starling’s work, it transpires, often turns on such arcane back stories; things the viewer is unlikely to know to begin with and which they would be unlikely to deduce if coming cold to the work.
After reading the wall text, Flaga seemed straightforward enough—an informative gesture. And yet, soon, it started to beg all sorts of questions. I began to wonder, is the work literal (a straightforward Mythbusters-style demonstration, proving that, yes, Polish Fiats are identical to Italian ones), or, in turning a car into a flag, does it operate more at the level of metaphor? What, where, and when is the work? Is it the thing in the gallery, framed as art, or was it the performance (the journey the car went on)—or somehow both? Is the context of the car’s exhibition crucial or incidental? Is it the same work when shown in Turin (the 126’s city of origin) as it is when shown in Venice (in a show where national reputations are on the line, in a city without cars)?1 Would it be the same work if shown in Poland? Where does the macro-history being represented (the story of Fiat production) and the micro-history of its representation (Starling’s trip) begin and end, or are they imbricated?2
That Fiat 126 hanging on the wall may have embodied—or been a manifestation of—Starling’s idea, but it deliberately fell short of expressing or representing that idea, at least without reference to the wall text as its supplement. Now, I appreciate that, in looking at contemporary art, one experiences this wall-text effect a lot, but mostly it is incidental. However, with Starling, it’s crucial. And, also, ‘getting it’ is only half of it. Before the click, Flaga is an enigma: we wonder what it means. But, after the click, we wonder how it means. The work goes from being puzzling at the level of content to being intriguing for its logic, its ‘form’. The work messes with us—transforms us. Once we have read the wall text, we can’t return to our innocent pre-click engagement with the object. Despite this, writing on Starling’s work (including the artist’s own) tends to be preoccupied with questions of content (what it means)—exegesis. Indeed, it sometimes reads as if there is no viewer and no viewer experience to account for. As much as commentators highlight Starling’s central theme of transformation, they strangely shy away from addressing the way his work remakes the viewer, reframing spectatorship.
It’s interesting to compare Flaga with a later, grander, more convoluted work, The Nanjing Particles (2008). Starling made the work for Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (MASS MoCA) in North Adams. On entering a huge hall, you see a massive photographic mural. It’s an enlargement of an 1875 stereoscope photograph showing a group of Chinese immigrant workers brought to North Adams to break a strike at the Sampson Shoe Company (located on what is now MASS MoCA’s campus). A circle has been cut in each image. Literally and figuratively mining the photograph, Starling extracted a silver grain from each circular section and scanned them in three dimensions using an electron microscope. With this information, he had the forms rendered as massive stainless-steel sculptures at a million times their original scale. The sculptures—enlargements of enlargements—look like shiny, biomorphic Henry Moore sculptures. They also recall the world of computer-generated special effects, particularly the liquid-metal terminator in Terminator 2 (1991). However, despite their high-tech, space-age fantasy look, these blobs were painstakingly forged, shaped and polished by hand, using cheap labour in Nanjing, China.
Of course, it is impossible to get any of this until you read the wall text. ‘The shiny forms reflect the museum’s historic architecture as well as the visitors who have replaced workers in the space, connecting sites past and present through a consideration of global economic conditions’, it points out. For the cold caller, however, the work remains inscrutable. Without the wall text’s explanation, there is no discernible relation between the parts: it’s hard to identify the photographs’ subjects or to see why circles have been cut into them. While we can see that there are two photographs and two sculptures, they seem unrelated: chalk and cheese. Their relationship is an enigma.
While Flaga and The Nanjing Particles have analogous content (linking globalisation with cheap labour), they diverge at a formal level. Flaga involves a revealing demonstration (yes, the Polish parts really do fit), while The Nanjing Particles is built around a fallacy. Like the photographer in Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1966 film Blow Up, Starling delves into the photographs’ grain to a level at which the photographs no longer have anything to say about their subject. Starling brings the tools of rational scientific inquiry to bear on the photographs like some forensic scientist, but the way he does this is absurd. The work is about a kind of false logic—a fallacy of close reading. Perhaps Starling is in denial, avoiding the traumatic nature of the photographs (as evidence of racist exploitation) by addressing them at the microscopic level (where the politics disappear).
Or, perhaps he arrives at the traumatic kernel in a roundabout way. Sure, those big shiny baubles tell us nothing about the subjects of the image from which they were derived—they don’t disclose that history. But, in this, they exemplify what Karl Marx called ‘commodity fetishism’. For Marx, commodities are magically imbued with independent personalities, concealing the fact that they were produced by alienated labour. This may be to do with the way they are styled and marketed by others, but we are also complicit in it, because we don’t want to know.
In The Nanjing Particles, we confront Starling’s high-tech stainless-steel blobs as something marvellous, miraculous, even virtual. Until we read the wall text, we don’t think about their production by hand in Chinese sweatshops, so would not link them to the exploited ‘coolies’ in the older photographs.3 Similarly, we happily replace parts on our Italian car with cheaper Polish ones without worrying about how little Poland’s workers were paid compared to their Italian comrades. As lessons in commodity fetishism, The Nanjing Particles and Flaga work because they don’t instantly betray their origins.
Starling’s current Australasian touring exhibition, In Speculum, debuted at Monash University Museum of Art, Melbourne. It showcases six very different projects made over the course of Starling’s career. Wilhelm Noack oHG (2006), Three White Desks (2008–9), Project for a Masquerade (Hiroshima) (2010), and Black Drop (2012) are bookended by the earliest and most recent works, Le Jardin Suspendu 1998 and In Speculum 2013, both of which have Melbourne connections.
Le Jardin Suspendu was made for Strolling: The Art of Arcades, Boulevards, Barricades, Publicity, a show that included several emerging Scottish artists, held at Melbourne’s Heide Museum of Modern Art in 1998. The Museum occupies Heide II, an iconic international-style building from the 1960s, the former residence of modernist art collectors John and Sunday Reed. Although the Reeds planted their grounds with exotic trees, they left a large indigenous River Red Gum, which bears a boat-shaped scar, apparently inflicted by an ancient Aboriginal canoe-maker. The contrast between the modernist house and the scarred tree prompted Starling’s work.
Paralleling the construction of that wooden Aboriginal vehicle, Starling built a model aeroplane from another kind of tree. He made a scale model of a 1920s French ‘Farman Mosquito’, the plane that featured in Le Corbusier’s seminal 1923 book Towards a New Architecture, where it provided an analogy for the modernist home as ‘a machine for living’. After flying the radio-controlled model over Heide II, Starling installed it inside, on a glass table, by a window, looking onto the garden.4 The wall text starts: ‘A 1 : 6.5 scale model of a 1920s French “Farman Mosquito”, built using the wood from a balsa tree cut on the 13th of May 1998 at Rodeo Grande, Baba, Ecuador, to fly in the grounds of Heide II, Melbourne, designed in 1965 by David McGlashan and Neil Everist’. We are left wondering why Starling is quite so specific. He doesn’t use a generic modernist airplane, but the Farman Mosquito. He doesn’t use just any balsa wood, but ‘wood from a balsa tree cut on the 13th of May 1998 at Rodeo Grande, Baba, Ecuador’.
The wall text prompts us to make these connections, when otherwise we wouldn’t.5 It goes on to force the Ecuador connection: ‘Two years after Heide II was built, the Spanish explorer Vital Alsar journeyed from Ecuador to Australia by balsa-wood raft, landing at Mooloolaba, just north of Brisbane. His 8,600-mile voyage showed the possibility, if not the proof, of the cross-pollination of ideas, goods, and people among the ancient cultures of the Pacific. Paralleling the building of the Aboriginal canoe, a modern structure was built from another kind of tree: an aeroplane for Heide.’
The model modernist airplane looking out at the garden, with its scarred Gum tree, reminds me of the famous match cut in Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 movie 2001: A Space Odyssey, where a bone, a prehistoric tool hurled into the air by an ape ancestor, transforms into a spaceship. Starling also makes a poetic link across time and space, and yet his work couldn’t be more different. Kubrick’s cut is concise, it makes an explicit point: from prehistory to space age in the blink of a cosmic eye. We are not presented with anything extraneous or distracting, so the point is clear. What kind of bone it is or who built the space ship is downplayed, irrelevant. By contrast, Starling overloads Le Jardin Suspendu with specificity and detail.
A study in digressions and segueways, Le Jardin Suspendu is a non-sequitur, a shell game. On the one hand, if the work is intended to be a poetic analogy, Starling offers too much information—information we don’t know how to use. On the other hand, if it is intended as history, it is peculiarly wilful. Starling leaps from one space-and-time, or one anecdote, to another, as if by free association, drawing an implausibly long bow. As much as he mimics the manner of the historian, the links he makes in the work are not causal ones that already exist in the world but associations that exist in his head, which he then proceeds to reify. Like a conspiracy theorist, he conflates the scatter-brained logic of his mapping with what he is mapping. The work may be logical—yes, McGlashan and Everist’s international modernism had its roots in Le Corbusier and co.; yes, balsa is another kind of wood; and, yes, balsa comes from Ecuador—but it is logic in the service of sophistry. Where is he going with this? Up the garden path!
Static art media don’t lend themselves to storytelling, which is inherently diachronic. For instance, so-called ‘history paintings’ don’t really narrate stories so much as illustrate them. You have to already know the story (the ‘before’ and ‘after’) to appreciate the narrative component. Three White Desks is all about this. Starling presents the ‘dots’, then provides a text explaining how and in what order to join them.
The work is based on an obscure sidebar story from art and literary history. In the late 1920s, long before he would become the famous expressionist painter, Francis Bacon begins making sleek modernist furniture in London. Through his friendship with expatriate Australian painter Roy de Maistre, Bacon is commissioned to create a beautiful writing desk for the expatriate Australian writer Patrick White. When White returns to Australia in 1947, he sells the desk—a move he will regret. Later, he tries to get a Sydney cabinetmaker to remake the desk from a photograph, but the result is shabby, not a patch on the original.
Inspired by this tale, Starling sources the original photograph of White’s desk, gives it to a Berlin cabinetmaker and asks them to produce their best estimation of Bacon’s original. The Berlin cabinetmaker does so, photographs their desk, and sends the image to a Sydney cabinetmaker and asks them to reproduce their desk in turn. The Sydney cabinetmaker does so, photographs their desk, and sends the image to a London cabinetmaker and asks them to reproduce their desk in turn.
With each reiteration, qualities are lost. The first desk is attenuated, lacquered white, with shiny handles; the third is squat, robust, unpainted, au natural. Starling brings the desks together, installing them in sequence on top of their travelling crates, accompanied by a print showing various source and reference images, including views of Bacon’s early furniture studio, of his later painting studio, and of White’s office with the original desk. Of course, if you don’t know the story, you would not assume the desks are genealogically related. That narrative has to be read in.
Each time you make a copy, you lose something of the original and gain something new. Like a game of Chinese Whispers, Three White Desks demonstrates this principle of ‘generational loss’. For antipodeans, like White, like ourselves, this may remind us of our provincial condition and how earlier generations of our artists misunderstood modernism, because their view was distorted and diluted by distance, and because they received it through ‘translations’—typically copying it from photographs.6 But Three White Desks is also a more general comment on the fragile nature of reception, one cross-referenced to our own reception of it. Onto the story of White’s desk, Starling superimposes the story of himself making his work, and, onto this, we superimpose ourselves, as viewers, making sense of that work, providing our own interpretation. As interpreters, we become hermeneutic cabinetmakers, interpreting Starling’s interpretation of Bacon. Three steps, like the three desks. Here, Starling and ourselves are implicated as translators of history, adding something of ourselves in the process.
Anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss used the term ‘bricoleur’ to designate the ‘jack-of-all-trades’, the tinker who adapts what is at hand to his needs. For Levi-Strauss, the bricoleur is the polar opposite of the engineer, the specialist who operates systematically within a discipline, always using the right and designated tool for the job. Starling has often been called a bricoleur. But if he is a tinker, he’s a high-end one, with access to specialist equipment and expertise. What happens when you place the engineer’s systems and tools in the hands of a bricoleur, a dilettante, a tourist?
Engineering is the subject and medium of Starling’s film-sculpture Wilhelm Noack oHG. Noack is a long-standing Berlin metal-fabrication firm. It had links with the Bauhaus, worked on projects for the Third Reich, was involved in the post-war boom in architecture and exhibition-making, and now fabricates works for artists. While living in Berlin, Starling made a four-minute 35mm film documenting the Noack workshop and archives. He didn’t bring tracks, dollies and cranes, but instead mounted his camera on the metalworking tools and trolleys he found on site (devices clearly designed for other purposes). With its eccentric camera movements, his film suggests the point-of-view not of a human subject but of the workshop itself, as if the film were the workshop’s own self-portrait.
Film projectors are typically constructed so they can present a variety of films. However, Starling had the Noack team fabricate a bespoke projector capable of projecting his film only. It has a novel looping device, resembling a spiral staircase, of a type Noack frequently build. The device transports the precise length of Starling’s film, so you can see every foot of film cycling through it at once: the entire film is constantly on the move.
Wilhelm Noack oHG is a study in self-reference and self-regard. The machine is so extravagant and absurd that our attention is split between watching the film and watching the projector, between looking at the representation of machinery and the machinery of representation. As the real clatter of the projector gets conflated with the film’s recorded soundtrack of workshop noises, Wilhelm Noack oHG makes an analogy between the projector and the workshop, and between the cinema (the obsolete medium of film) and old-school engineering.
It is often said that Starling’s work is about histories—about investigating and recovering them. But Project for a Masquerade (Hiroshima) goes the other way. It takes a true story and proceeds to bury it in a fiction. The film outlines a proposition for the performance of a Japanese Noh play, conflating two tales of duplicity—one fictional, one true.The fictional story is Eboshi-ori, the 16th century Japanese tale of a noble boy, Ushiwaka, who disguises himself to escape his past. The true story is the Cold War saga that evolved around Henry Moore’s 1965 sculpture Nuclear Energy. Installed at the University of Chicago, this monument marked the site of the first self-sustained nuclear reaction—the birthplace of the atomic bomb and the nuclear age. Perversely, Moore later placed a second, smaller version of the sculpture into the collection of the Hiroshima City Museum of Contemporary Art, with its name changed to Atom Piece.7
In the film, we don’t see the play performed. Instead, Starling shows us historical source imagery relating to Moore’s story and footage of master mask maker Yasuo Miichi crafting the masks for the play, while a voiceover interweaves the Moore and Eboshi-ori stories and outlines the casting. The Moore story is already full of duplicity. While his sculpture looks like it conflates a human skull and a mushroom cloud (a hybrid image favoured in Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament posters), Moore would later pretend he had based it on an elephant skull. At first, Starling seems to want to find out where Moore really stood on the bomb. However, before we can get our heads around the implications of this true story, Starling obfuscates it, filtering it through Eboshi-ori.
As the film explains, Starling would have his play’s characters represented by Western figures, personages who straddle the worlds of fact, fiction and myth, including Moore, Sean Connery’s James Bond, art-historian/Soviet spy Anthony Blunt, Joseph Hirschhorn, Enrico Fermi, Goldfinger’s henchman Odd Job, Colonel Sanders, and Moore’s sculpture Nuclear Energy/Atom Piece (as Ushiwaka). Characters played by characters—double and triple agents. Rather than clarify anything, we are enveloped in an intrigue of multiplying allegorical possibilities—a hall of mirrors. (The film is shown accompanied either by an installation of the ten wooden masks for the play, considering their reflections in a wall-sized mirror, or by two masks, based on the two sides of Moore’s sculpture, confronting one another.)
Riffing off themes of deferral, duplicity and doubling, the film’s ultimate subject is masking itself. Starling plays on the Janus-like aspect of Moore’s sculpture, as if to raise the question of whose side Moore is really on. However, rather than clarify things, his voiceover overloads us with information, stretching our capacity to take it all in, loosening our grip on the true story. We are left wondering where we are being led—towards the truth or away from it? Starling makes us question the motives and veracity of the narrator (his stand-in). Is he guide or deceiver, offering information or disinformation? Starling, too, is a potential double agent. On a formal level, he demonstrates the ultimate artistic spy craft. Instead of creating a work to be interpreted through a supplementary wall text (his standard m.o.), Starling tricks us by turning the wall text into the work (becoming the film’s voiceover), while neglecting to make the work itself (the play). Thus, Starling fabricates all the evidence for something that never exists.
Starling’s works remind me of Connections, the pioneering 1978 British television series presented by science historian James Burke.8 Subtitled ‘An Alternative View of Change’, Connections offered novel narratives of scientific discovery and invention, linking diverse places, moments and disciplines. Burke’s approach was counter-intuitive: one episode traced the invention of the chimney, knitting, buttons, wainscoting, wall plastering, glass windows, and private bedrooms to the Little Ice Age, while another connected the development of the movie projector to improvements in castle fortifications prompted by the invention of the cannon. Favouring a principle of historical contingency over one of historical necessity, Burke rejected the conventional teleological view of ‘progress’, and emphasised the way discoveries were often inadvertent and would be co-opted to ends no one could have anticipated. Connections epitomised a new rhizomatic take on history that would become hugely popular. Today, airport bookshops brim with pop-science and cultural-studies bestsellers that tell big-picture stories through history’s unlikely and belated details—such as the pencil or salt.
Starling’s film Black Drop could almost be an episode of Connections. It is set in a Steenbeck 35 mm film-editing suite. We see the editor trying to order diverse footage. As the fragments are assembled, a complex history emerges linking Captain Cook (1728–79), French astronomer Jules Janssen (1824–1907) and Starling himself (1967–) as observers of successive transits of Venus. The film explains that Janssen developed his ‘photographic revolver’ to accurately time a sequence of photographs showing the transit. Although the device proved ineffective on the day, Starling argues that it was a precursor to Étienne-Jules Marey’s photographic rifle and the Lumiére Brothers’ cinematograph. Thus, Black Drop links astronomy to the birth of the movies. Starling includes his own footage of the 2012 transit, shot on film—an already obsolete medium (and in black-and-white to boot). Starling predicts it will be the last time the transit will be recorded on celluloid (the next transit will be in 2117).
On the one hand, Black Drop is a relatively conventional documentary, with an explanatory voiceover, and a beginning, a middle, and an end. On the other hand, it is eccentric, enclosed, and self-referential (it shows itself being made and it addresses the invention of the technology with which it is made). While the account it provides is ostensibly all true, in focussing on the editing studio, Black Drop admits that history is also a provisional construction.
If Starling made his name by making works in static media that pointedly require wall texts to furnish their narratives, his foray into narrative filmmaking with Project for a Masquerade (Hiroshima) and Black Drop finds him reabsorbing the wall text back into the work.
The most recent work in the show, In Speculum, was prompted by a visit to Museum Victoria, Melbourne, to view the Great Melbourne Telescope, which is currently being restored. When built in the nineteenth century to study nebulae (clouds of gas and dust in outer space), it was state of the art. Of course, these days, science has little need for optical telescopes; they’ve been replaced by radio telescopes and deep-space probes. Starling was particularly taken with the telescope’s reflecting speculum mirror.9 Made of cast metal, it is circular, with a central aperture. It weighs one-and-a-half tonnes. Starling made a series of photographs of other components of the currently disassembled telescope reflected in it, creating the odd impression of the telescope looking not outwards but at itself—the mirror capturing and reflecting bits of the telescope usually invisible to it and its users.
Returning to his studio in Copenhagen, Starling made a film with the Swedish cinematographer Maria von Hausswolff. Her camera was trained on a telescope mirror that Starling turned this way and that to reflect images arranged about him in the space—miscellaneous views of studios and workshops, and related historical and contemporary photographs, diagrams and technical drawings. Von Hausswolff’s job was to try to keep the images in focus. Although the film was subtitled Studio Edit, there was no editing: the film was a single take the length of a roll of film. The appearance of editing was created by Starling’s switching from image to image using the mirror. In the Melbourne show, Starling inserted the Great Melbourne Telescope’s speculum mirror into the gallery wall and projected the film through its aperture onto the opposing wall, so his film was also reflected in the face of the mirror, thus reversing the normal process in a telescope (where light falling onto the speculum mirror is reflected onto another mirror and back, through the speculum mirror’s aperture, to an eyepiece). With its circular images, the film looks like an old magic-lantern show—another forerunner of the cinema—crudely shuffling slides to put things in order, attempting to create a narrative.
Starling is a conceptual artist. We think of conceptual art as ideal (to do with the world of ideas), rather than material (to do with actual things). This is exemplified by classic ‘idea art’ from the 1960s, by artists such as Joseph Kosuth, who understood their practice as philosophy waged by other means. But times change and conceptualism has now become resolutely impure, being embroiled with all that it once opposed. Instead of addressing platonic abstractions (‘concepts’), Starling’s conceptualism gets down-and-dirty with actual things—things with multiple properties, things freighted with history, like Patrick White’s writing desk or the speculum mirror of that Great Melbourne Telescope. Lacking the ‘engineering’ methodology of the certified historian, Starling intuitively bricolages stuff, scrambling things and concepts, the real and the ideal.
Where Kosuth and co. famously abandoned the studio, Starling constantly returns to it. Each work in the exhibition brings the idea of the studio or workshop into play in a different way. Le Jardin Suspendu presents the model plane on a glass-top table, floating above miscellaneous detritus from its construction and flight. Three White Desks concerns the re-creation of a writer’s workstation, conflating Patrick White’s desk, Bacon’s furniture workshop, and the workshops of the far-flung cabinetmakers who subsequently reprised it. Wilhelm Noack oHG addresses an engineering workshop. Project for a Masquerade (Hiroshima) was shot in the apartment-workshop of the Noh mask maker. Black Drop includes footage of the Steenbeck editing desk on which the film was made—a mise en abyme. The In Speculum photographs were taken in the back rooms of Museum Victoria, where the giant telescope is being restored, and the accompanying film was shot in Starling’s studio, using images of yet more studios and workshops. Starling describes his studio as it appears in this film as ‘a disorientating and impossibly layered hall of mirrors—a decentered, spectral space’.
Starling’s works are heterodox. They do different things in different ways to different ends. Some of his adventures are circular, ending where they began, but not exactly. Others are one-way streets (technological obsolescence is a perennial theme), others still are epics, Cook’s tours, wild-goose chases, shaggy-dog stories, rivers of no return. Some works are short circuits, others infinite loops. With his absurd devices (recalling William Heath Robinson) and his films’ plummy BBC voiceovers (recalling Peter Greenaway’s early mockumentaries), there is something of the English eccentric and amateur scientist to Starling. Droll humour plays a big role.
Starling is associated with the recent ‘research turn’ in contemporary art. Indeed, he has become one of its prime exemplars. Here, in the antipodes, this turn is linked to university art schools, which are concerned with legitimising art as a form of knowledge production alongside other university disciplines. (In New Zealand, university artists are encouraged to make ‘PBRF art’.10) But, while Starling’s works are underpinned by research, they are not really about generating ‘knowledge’, at least not in the way the university understands it (and rewards it). They are more speculative,, poetic and illogical—even pataphysical. They are parodies of ‘knowledge production’ as much as instances of it. (That said, let’s not forget that undisciplined intuition, speculation, hunches and imaginative leaps are actually the basis of much scientific discovery and invention. Art’s and science’s methodologies may be considered remote, but Starling also implies their kinship. Even science needs its loopy bricoleurs to escape the limitations of its old engineering.)
Cross-referencing and cross-pollinating scenes and means of making, Starling promotes the studio-workshop as analogous to the mind, where concepts (rather than things) are also constructed, manipulated, and modelled. Mixing his metaphors, mismatching his methodologies, and miscegenating the concrete and the conceptual, Starling offers us miscellaneous models of thinking. As much as it is an enquiry into its subject matter, Starling’s work is an enquiry into enquiry itself.
- Flaga was included in Igor Zabel’s show Individual Systems in the curated part of the 2003 Venice Biennale. That year, Starling was also Scotland’s national representative.
- Starling explains: ‘the work may have three or four manifestations … as a performative event … as a sculpture … as a very carefully produced book, and as an anecdote. For me all these things have equal value … In that way, the form of the work remains somehow fluid or elusive.’ Simon Starling, quoted in Francesco Manacorda, ‘Interview: Francesco Manacorda in Conversation with Simon Starling’, Simon Starling (London and New York: Phaidon, 2012), 15.
- Tellingly, in showing the sculptures being produced in a low-tech factory and showing the people who worked on them, The Nanjing Particles exhibition catalogue admits the work’s conditions of production. Susan Cross and Anthony W. Lee, Simon Starling: The Nanjing Particles (North Adams, MA: MASS MoCA, 2009).
- In subsequent presentations, the view through the window is simulated using a large photographic transparency.
- Or, as Pierre Huyghe put it, ‘When people talk about Cezanne’s paintings, they don’t pay too much attention to what kind of apple he is painting, whether it is a Granny Smith or whatever, because that’s not the point.’ (Cited in Amelia Barikin, Parallel Presents: The Art of Pierre Huyghe (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2012), 72.) Of course, if you add a wall text telling us the variety of apple Cezanne used, we will think about it. It’s a curator’s trick. For instance, in Documenta 13 (2012), curator Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev presented Korbinian Aigner’s colour-pencil drawings of apples, made between the 1910s and the 1960s, explaining that the apiarist continued to develop new strains of apple while interned in a Nazi concentration camp. Putting a Starlingesque spin on Aigner’s innocuous still lifes, she deftly transformed them into staunch acts of resistance.
- Being from New Zealand, I am reminded of both Colin McCahon and Julian Dashper. McCahon: ‘It was a dull, uninteresting afternoon. We were looking through copies of the London Illustrated News. The Cubists were being exhibited in London, were news, and so were illustrated. I at once became a Cubist, a staunch supporter and sympathisier, one who could read the Cubists in their own language and not only in the watered down translations provided by architects, designers and advertising agencies. I was amazed when others couldn’t share this bright new vision of reality. I began to investigate Cubism, too enthusiastically joining the band of translators myself.’ (Colin McCahon, ‘Beginnings’, Landfall, no. 80, December 1966: 36.) Dashper: ‘The modernism that came to New Zealand had to come a long way to get here. It is only natural, given the way it was packaged, that it got damaged along the way.’ (Julian Dashper, ‘Artist’s Notes’ (1990), reprinted in, Julian Dashper, This Is Not Writing (Auckland: Clouds and Michael Lett, 2010), 22.)
- This was to be the title for the original Chicago sculpture, but, apparently, the commissioner objected, because ‘piece’ sounded too much like ‘peace’.
- James Burke wrote and presented the ten-episode Connections series for the BBC in 1978. He made a second series in 1994 and a third in 1996.
- Speculum is an alloy of copper and tin.
- PBRF stands for Performance-Based Research Funding.