Simon Starling

by Edoardo Bonaspetti


English artist born in 1967, winner of the 2005 Turner Prize, after spending the most part of his career divided between Berlin and Glasgow, Simon Starling currently lives in Copenhagen. His practice reveals a deep interest in design, that the artists uses to analyze the histories and consequences of globalized systems of production, consumption and transport of objects. At the moment, he has a solo show at The Power Plant in Toronto (Cuttings, through May 11) and several group exhibitions throughout Europe. But what we especially care about is his solo show now on display at the Franco Noero gallery in Turin (Three Birds, Seven Stories, Interpolations and Bifurcations, until June 28), which inaugurates the new gallery space located in the legendary building called Fetta di Polenta, designed in 1840 by the Italian architect Alessandro Antonelli, the same as the Mole Antonelliana.


EDOARDO BONASPETTI: To begin, I would like you to talk to me about the origin of your works. Does it exist a starting point? How do they begin?

SIMON STARLING: The projects begin in many different ways. New projects often evolve from old ones, from scraps or snippets of information picked-up along the way, which suddenly make absolute sense in relation to a particular context or site. Quite often things get interesting when two such snippets collide. The story of Sergio Leone filming in the cut priced “Wild West” in Spain and a half clear idea about creating a heating system with a disembowelled car engine suddenly became Kakteenhaus in 2002. My most recent project Three Birds, Seven Stories, Interpolations and Bifurcations evolved from a previous project, Bird in Space (2004), and from a conversation I had with Pierpaolo Falone from Galleria Franco Noero during our drive around Turin for 24hr Tangenziale (2004) about a palace in Indore, India built by a young German modernist architect in the early 1930’s. There’s always a lot of serendipity involved, more that than hard-graft anyway—the hard-graft comes later.

EB: I remember that once you compared your works to constellations of elements that melt into one structure. The ultimate result, the interface with the public, becomes just one of many components of the project.

SS: That’s something that I’ve suggested in the past, yes. The idea is that the work is somehow illusive, uncontainable. The final manifestation of the work is indexical to some extent. In fact a few recent projects have surprised me by their sense of completeness. They are rather resolved and hermetic as objects—even though they still refer very clearly to very particular and in some sense “performative” production processes.

EB: Your work also has a recognizable literary spirit. Particularly in your most recent project where the narrative structure adopts more fragmented and non-linear characters.

SS: I’ve used many kinds of narrative structures as the backbone of my projects, but as its title suggests, the new project Three Birds, Seven Stories, Interpolations and Bifurcations (2008) is perhaps the most complex and layered example of this use of narrative structures to date, and on certain levels, it is an attempt to allow the “literary” complexities of the project, which might ordinarily only be present in a catalogue, to live with the work when exhibited. Perhaps it is, in some sense, an exhibition as a catalogue and what’s more, realised in an exhibition space in Turin, shaped like a partially open book. Its structure perhaps kicks against the very neat, often circular, structures I’ve deployed in the past. Its title was in part inspired by Jacques Roubaud’s novel The Great Fire of London, A Story with Interpolations and Bifuractions (1989) which can be read and re-read in a seemingly infinite number of ways. It’s an extremely interesting idea and one that I can only touch upon in my exhibition but never the less represents a new approach for me. It’s an approach that allows for the multiple versions of a single story both real and fictional to co-exist. The project still has a very reduced, sculptural core, the “Three Birds” of the title, a series of marble blocks cut by a computer guided milling machine, but from this central core a web of associated material starts to unfold in the form of photographs and texts. It is a network where as in the past the narrative structures have been more linear, even if that journey ends up back where it started.

EB: In fact, despite the infinite possibilities of variations, the starting point of your “journeys” often correspond with the arrival point.

SS: I guess perhaps that sense of a resolved, clear, condensed structure is akin to a kind of poetry. While that might sound pretentious, I think its what holds everything together in the end. It’s crucial.

EB: But now, you are becoming more interested in a new approach that allows multiple versions of a story to co-exist. Can we delve deeper into this subject?

SS: I’ve always been interested in the role of contextual information in the making of my projects. In general that kind of information has existed in catalogues but recently I’ve been thinking about how to integrate that information into the work. To some degree it began with 24 hr Tangenziale in Turin but became most elaborated in the project Wilhelm Noack oHG (2006). Like many of my projects this work had, on one level at least, a simple rhetorical structure, a kind of’ box with the sound of its own making’ idea. What I decided to do was to incorporate the production of the final work very directly in the end result. I created a film that documents both the history of a company of metal fabricators in Berlin and their involvement in the production of a loop-machine to display that film. The film included many photographs and plans from the company archives, as well as sequences shot in the workshops during the building of the loop-machine. It creates a very hermetic final work, which was something quite new for me. The new project, Three Birds… for Turin is an extension of that thinking in many ways but is dealing with a much more fractured and layered history, one that slides from truth to fiction in a very fluid way.

EB: In the light of such multiple readings and different levels of communications, what kind of authority or control do you claim for yourself on the meaning of the work?

SS: In one sense I am happy for the work to be read in a number of ways, even co-opted at times to suit people’s whims. That can be interesting. I’ve never been interested in making didactic statements. On the other hand, I have been very involved in the mediation of my own work. I often right texts about my projects. I’m very involved in working on the publications that accompany particular projects. I’m a bit of a control freak when it comes to the way the works are photographed and the process documented. For me it’s all part and parcel of the work. What is always funny is how certain facts get confused or displaced from one project to another. People inevitably start to imagine their own version of the works—it’s like Chinese whispers. But that’s a universal problem. Perhaps that’s why I agree to make interviews?

EB: Once, you declared: “My work is about material on a very fundamental level–about stuff, about atoms.” What can you tell me about that?

SS: I have been very preoccupied with the “stuff” of sculpture and indeed photography, in trying to strip things back to their very fundamentals, to go to source or to interrogate materials, on a microscopic level as well. As we all grow more and more distant from the means of production, I’ve felt the need to get closer and closer. It’s a concern that evolved out of an acute awareness of geography I developed while I was living in Glasgow. It’s about questioning the specificity of the places you stay or the materials you use. In general, it’s about not taking anything for granted.

EB: In this issue, we have published a focus on Glasgow by Martin Boyce. If I am not wrong, you moved there in ‘90, maybe to get away from the Young-British-Artist wave that was hitting London then as well. What’s your idea of the city? In which way has it influenced your work?

SS: Glasgow was a fantastic place for me for a long time—I learnt so much there. I miss it now I’m there so rarely. Or perhaps it’s really the people I miss more than the city—the art scene was always about the people—there wasn’t so much else in the early 90’s when I moved there. For me the sense of thinking about an art practice outside the conventional centers of art production was very important to the development of my ideas. The notion of being very pro-active about ones own geography really shaped so much of what I do now.

EB: In fact, you almost exclusively work on site-specific projects; each work is deeply linked to the space or, to the place from which it is conceived. Why? In what way does the specificity of each place influence your works?

SS: I think I would in part describe the process more as finding homes for projects. I tend to carry around a bunch of half-baked ideas for things that for some reason or other suddenly find their place or are triggered by a particular set of circumstances. It’s a question of joining the dots. I always approach sites with very particular baggage but I guess you develop a noise for the global in the local or something like that. What I try to resist though is a formula, the process should be responsive and not systematic. It also can’t always be like that—its just not physically possible or even desirable to incessantly be chasing the local angle. That becomes trite and unproductive.

EB: I would ask you how important it is that you personally expose yourself in your works and what relationship do you establish with the audience. It seems to me that your projects are never concentrated on it.

SS: I like, whenever possible, to keep myself at arms length from the final work. There is one recent instance where my image is present in a final work (Autoxylopyrocyloboros, 2006) but then it’s really as the anti-hero, a kind of self-defeating fall guy with a equally ridiculous accomplice. It’s kind of Laurel and Hardy go boating. But in general there is only distraction and deviation in foregrounding or mythologizing the artist. It’s an idea that perhaps relates to the way I’ve dealt with the work of other artists and designers too. To me the slippage that occurs by keeping the action or process at arms length from the audience is very productive. Perhaps I find Robert Barry’s low-key inert gas releases more persuasive than Chris Burden’s endurance tests in small shorts, I’m not sure.

EB: Many of your projects make reference to the works by Carlo Mollino. You once defined him as a very good editor of his own story. Can you tell me about your interest in him?

SS: My initial interest in Mollino was of course as a designer and architect, who was until recently rather unknown to most people outside Italy. The more I investigated Mollino the more I began to understand his life and work as a very carefully articulated “gesamkunstwerk”. He was never interested in mass-production–very little remains of his furniture for example–yet he had a restless energy and was constantly on the move, but at the same time he was very preoccupied with his own position in history, with his legacy. This of course led to the rather obsessive decoration of his apartment in Turin (now Museo Casa Mollino), somewhere he never actually lived but rather that he was preparing for the afterlife, a kind of tomb. I started to understand certain parallels between his desire to control the reception of his work and my interest in mediating my own projects – in one sense perhaps I used Mollino as a foil for something rather introspective.

EB: You recently opened Cuttings (Supplement), your big show at the Power Plant in Toronto. Could you talk about it? What’s its relationship with the one you had in Basel in 2005 before you won the Turner Prize?

SS:The show in Toronto was initially planned to be a tour of the Basel show but then I made a proposal for a new work which involved nature, zebra mussels to be exact, and it became clear that time was required and so now its almost three years between the two shows. I was still rather keen to hold on to some of the ideas I had developed in Basel related to the way existing works could be seen again in a new constellation, how threads could be followed through a number of different projects, so we kept the title and even created a supplement to the Basel catalogue with the same designers, Norm from Zurich – an update if you like. The choice of works for Toronto evolved from the new commission Infestation Piece (Musselled Moore) but also from a desire to continue the concerns and logic of that first, for me very important, exhibition in Basel. The same concerns for energy and entropy, for a global frame of reference, for dealing with material in a very direct way, all recur in the new exhibition.

EB: For Infestation Piece (Musselled Moore), you immersed a steel replica of ‘Warrior with Shield’ by Henry Moore from 1955 in Lake Ontario for one and a half years in order for a community of zebra mussels to install on it. Can you discuss it further?

SS:The project picks up on two stories of infestation, the inundation of the Toronto art scene by Henry Moore from the late 50’s onwards and the arrival of Zebra mussels in the Great Lakes in the late 1980’s. Moore was introduced to the city by the art historian and spy, Anthony Blunt, while the mussels came in cargo ships arriving from the Black Sea at the end of the Cold War. Warrior with Shield is one of those sculptures that Moore linked to finding a pebble on a beech in England whose form triggered a particular figure – we replicated the piece in steel, bronze being toxic to mussels, and then tossed it back into the water for 18 months. It now wears the patina of those months in the water – some rust and a covering of zebra mussels.

EB: In this case, is it safe to say that the project had its own original logic from which—as often happens in your works—the form resulted spontaneously?

SS: There was a strange sense that it was a little bit out of my hands, once the choice of sculpture and material was made (for very pragmatic reasons) and the location for the sculpture in the lake selected, then nature, or whatever that is in the Great Lakes these days with their 180 introduced species, just had to take its course. It made itself in some sense, yes. I think that is true of many of the most successful projects—once they gather momentum there seems to be only one way for them to go. Of course I’m over simplifying but the sense of the thing being beyond aesthetic decisions is quite exciting. Someone recently asked me about the constant use of color in my work and I was a little taken aback. The color appears in the work in such a pragmatic fashion—I rarely think about it. The red and white car in Flaga (2002) was exception of course but there aren’t many others.

EB: To finish, can you give me a simple definition of “metamorphosis”?

SS: I would say an abrupt and painful change.


Originally published on Mousse 13 (March 2008)

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