Inverted Retrograde Theme, USA (House for a Song Bird), 2002. Mixed media, installation view

Actualizing Potential: A Conversation with Simon Starling

Simon Starling’s complex interdisciplinary practice draws from a vast network of successively interconnected parts. Between craftsmanship, industry, process, site, technology, and art history, it’s immediately possible to get hooked on surface or superficial value alone—Starling’s work is easy to digest, humorous, quick-witted, and materially lush. However, viewers who choose to dive more deeply are swiftly impressed by his ability to create an exquisite and intricate visual language. 

Starling’s projects make use of storied materials, expansive photographic and cinematic experiences, and artistic journeys to create spec­tacular re-imaginings of time and space. His work is both familiar and strangely unfamiliar at the same time. Borrowing images and titles from fascinating historical contexts, he masterfully morphs them into his own story. His visually arresting sculptures, however, require dedica-­ tion to understand their iconography and origins. It is in those strange places that the beauty of Starling’s creations can be found.

“Metamorphology,” Starling’s first major American survey, is on view at two locations—the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago (through Nov­ember 2) and The Arts Club of Chi­­cago (through September 26).

Joshua Reiman: Your show is called “Metamorphology.” Goethe defined morphology as the science of the formation and transformation of organisms—to put it simply, to turn one thing into another. Can you describe metamorphology from a sculptural perspective? Is it art about art, or does it move beyond transformation toward something more spiritual or “meta” as a higher level of abstraction? 

Simon Starling: Art about art for sure, but not only. In some respects, I would say that it’s been an ongoing part of my practice, to use existing forms and existing images in order to rethink them—to reprocess or redeploy them, dragging them backwards and forwards through time, rethinking them in relation to contemporary issues, ideas, and concerns. It’s an ongoing concern that is very much present in this show in Chicago. One of the things that connects the works is a sense of recycling existing forms and reworking them. Consider the work that thinks about Bird in Space and the court case that followed Marcel Duchamp’s attempt to bring it into the United States. My work looks at that art historical tale in relation to contemporary issues regarding steel production. Project for a Masquerade, on the other hand, thinks about the development of a double identity for Henry Moore’s Nuclear Energy, which sits at the University of Chicago on the site of the first sustained nuclear reaction, but also exists, with a different name, in a museum in Hiroshima, Japan. These are two very different contexts for understanding a sculpture, which, in Chicago, is a memorial to the beginning of the atom bomb project. 

I suppose there is also the idea of making, which for me relates to the notion of metamorphology—the act of making as being a transformative act aesthetically, but also politically. For me, the transformation of matter into sculpture or image can be a potentially powerful process. 

Infestation Piece (Musselled Moore), 2006/08. Steel, zebra mussels, and plinth, 162.6 x 76.2 x 76.2 cm.

JR: Would you describe your projects using works by Henry Moore or Brancusi as reincarnations or stand-ins for their function within an art historical context? Take, for instance, your Infestation Piece (Musselled Moore) or Bird in Space

SS: In a way, it’s certainly a repositioning or reinterpretation of those things. It’s very important that those works are not really about Bird in Space or Warrior with Shield, but that they’re using those things to talk to my own moment, to engage with the world now. They are things that emerged from a direct engagement with a particular context. When I went to Toronto to make an exhibition at the Power Plant, I knew that Moore had had a huge impact on that city and was memorialized there in a purpose-built gallery at the Art Gallery of Ontario, so that became a way to orient myself as a fellow English sculptor. 

JR: You’ve done work with the Henry Moore Institute. Was that research for this work? 

SS: My contact with them came from working on Infes­tation Piece (Musselled Moore), as well as Project for a Masquerade, when I spent a week there going through the archives. The Moore work is in some ways iconoclastic—it takes a sacred figure of British Modernism and puts him through the ringer. But it’s not about defacing Moore; it’s about taking his legacy and reworking and reusing it in a way that potentially reinvigorates it. 

JR: Within metamorphosis, there are unexpected or otherwise spontaneous factors, both internal and external. What have been some of the more unexpected or spontaneous occurrences in your life that are not exactly seen in your work? 

SS: I really have a sense that my best work makes itself. There are so many instances where things have found me. There’s maybe even a sense that these works were there before I arrived. A case in point would be Shedboatshed, which I made in Basel. The project began as a half-baked idea of me using the river in some way, transporting something downriver. I guess there was also an echo of the Vikings using their long boats as buildings in the winter by turning them upside down and cladding the open sides with leather to form a hall. Anyway, I made a speculative trip out of the city, away from the museum where I was to exhibit, which was right on the river. I cycled out through light industrial areas, past all of the pharmaceutical companies and the chemical plants, and at the beginning of the countryside, I rode into a clearing and saw a shed standing there with a paddle nailed to the side. I knew that the paddle was from a weidling, which is a traditional boat, almost like a gondola. Weidlings were once used to transport things on the river and are now used mostly for sport. Within what seemed like a blink of an eye, the project fell into place. 

JR: Your works offer a wonderful entry point for the production of knowledge, but this one requires effort. Do the materials that you choose help with the entry point? You’ve said that these works just find you, but do you ever think about an audience? 

Inverted Retrograde Theme, USA (House for a Song Bird), 2002. Mixed media, installation view

SS: I think so. It’s also important to think about the works as being simple models for making. Those models are generally very overt in the experience of the works, which are very open about their methodology. It’s almost like you’re offering a model to navigate through history. The new project for the Arts Club of Chicago, Pictures for an Exhibition, is clearly that. It’s a very clear and systematic means of generating images. Once that system is in place, the work makes itself in some sense, or at least decision-making is very limited. I decided to remake two installation views of the 1927 Arts Club exhibition “Sculpture and Drawings by Constantin Brancusi,” which was organized and installed by Marcel Duchamp. I transcribed an outline image of two installation views on the ground-glass screens of two old plate cameras. Then, I took those cameras around North America and Europe, found the original sculptures and re-photographed them in exactly the same place they were within the frame in the 1927 photographs, and collaged the images together. I noticed that as soon as those often cautious museums saw the camera with that image on the back of it, everything was fine. It’s so clear. It has an immediacy as a process and model, which I hope has a certain generosity to it in relation to the audience. In a way, it becomes a tool for navigating the work, just as it was a tool for me to make the work. 

JR: This makes me think of you as being like a contemporary explorer of sorts coming to the “art world” with your findings. Like Joseph Campbell’s writings on the “hero’s journey,” your work relies on the transformation of character and the display of findings. What does the journey or expedition mean to you?  

The Nanjing Particles, 2008. 8 silver prints, 46 x 47.5 cm. each.

SS: On one level, without sounding too banal, it’s just about making life interesting, the journey as an alibi for exploring the world. Then there’s the idea of finding out how things are made, tracking certain processes and their geographies. 

JR: Yes, but your work all relates to site and experience. Some artists make their work in a studio, but you go out to find things and respond to sites. Can you discuss this with regard to your understanding of the landscape? In Island for Weeds or Kakteenhaus, for instance, this relation relies heavily on the journey. 

SS: Yes, there’s the geographical journey, and on top of that, the temporal journey. The two things become completely intertwined. The journey back in time becomes completely intermeshed with the geographical journey. I’ve always thought about these two things as being almost interchangeable. You travel geographically in order to make the journey in time hold sway in some way. Does that sound a bit nutty? 

JR: No, I don’t think so. It sounds a bit spiritual. 

SS: But I don’t think that I mean it in a spiritual sense. I just mean there’s a sense that you’re asking people to come on a journey with you when you present a work to them, and somehow the fact of my geographical travels adds a sense of purpose or commitment to the works, which draws people in. 

JR: Was Robert Smithson an inspiration? Do you see your work relating to his site/non-site works? 

SS: His notion of a post-studio practice was very important to me. That rang so many bells with me when I was beginning to form a sense of what my practice was or might be. I’m not so interested in Smithson the Minimalist, but in Smithson the filmmaker, writer, and mediator of his own work and life. For example, I’m far more interested in the film about Spiral Jetty than I am in the actual Spiral Jetty. I love that engagement with making, that sense of stepping back from the sculptural manifestation. That’s what excites me about Smithson. 

JR: You use film as a material in a few of your works, when you want us to see what drives an image—for instance, in Wilhelm Noack oHG, with the use of a complex film-looping kinetic sculpture, or in Black Drop, where you show us the physical nature of manipulating this material. How does film or a photograph operate for you as material? 

SS: That’s a complicated question. In many ways, my relationship to the photographic image goes back to the beginning of my creative life. At the age of 11 or so, I was allowed into a black and white darkroom to make a print for the first time. That experience was absolutely transformative for me. I guess when you experience it at 11, you really don’t understand the chemistry, but the sense of wonder and magic, the almost alchemical sense of the process, is something that stayed with me and has informed everything I’ve done. It also led to my interest in interrogating the matter of the image—like diving into the micro-world of silver particles, which I’ve been doing. 

JR: Do you mean One Ton, the work in which you photographed the platinum strip mine? 

Wilhelm Noack oHG, 2006. 35mm film projector, 4-minute, black and white film with sound, and loop machine. 2 stills of camera mechanism.

SS: Yes, exactly. It’s somewhere between the image as a sculpture and the sculpture as an image. That interest developed into thinking about film, the mechanics of film, the particular speed of working with film, and the difference between working with a strip of celluloid or working with a digital stream of data, and how that brings a certain temporal trajectory to what you do. How the image you want is always in the wrong place on the spool and you’ve got to go and find it, and that takes time, but it allows you to think about what you’re doing, about your next edit. There’s an ongoing discussion within the work about how you bring the process to the final presentation, which goes back to what I was saying about the overt model, those systems that allow you to drag the process into the viewer’s experience. Wilhelm Noack oHG was a very important moment for me because it was the first time I ever really felt that the process of making the work was completely integrated. The form and the process that went into making it were hermetically sealed within that one piece. In a way, it was very hard to move on from that; it seemed to be the perfect structure to resolve what I was trying to do as an artist. But you have to try and explode it and find other ways forward. My biggest fear is to have a fixed methodology. That’s really my worst nightmare. You have to find the next step. Project for a Masquerade took the use of film in a different direction, but it all developed out of Wilhelm Noack oHG

JR: I saw a picture of this work in which you had a camera strapped to a tool to make the film. I love how you’re using the motion of the tool to capture an image. 

SS: When I started working on that piece, I didn’t really know how it was going to evolve, and I took a Hi8 video camera into the space and started to think about how to record it. The camera was at odds with the situation. It made no sense in relation to the physicality of the workshop. Immediately, it seemed like it should be a big heavy lump of a 35mm movie camera. That is what in the end gave the film its aesthetic momentum. The camera was physically engaging as an object within that space, being spun on a drill or moved on a trolley. 

JR: That mechanism for the loop was quite incredible. Did you make it yourself? 

SS: No, the film is about the people who made it. The film was made in the workshop of Wilhelm Noack, and I commissioned them to make the loop machine. I made a design that was kind of speculative, to be honest, and I didn’t know if it would work. But I saw an image one day when I was working on a project about the architect Carlo Mollino, who designed an equestrian center in Turin, which has now been demolished. It had a beautiful spiral staircase, and the banisters ran in a zigzag all the way up. I suddenly thought, “That is the way to route a piece of film.” And it works perfectly because the arms of the loop machine create a little bit of tension, so you have a very smooth situation. It ran for six months in Venice without a hitch. 

JR: Any thoughts on why sculpture is so important to your work? 

SS: There is a slightly romantic notion that making sculpture is a way of affecting transformation of the world. It’s a bit idealistic perhaps, but that’s how I feel most able to affect things. I suppose the dynamic in the work is about trying to give rather intangible narratives, histories, and stories a gravitational center, something that holds them in sway for the audience. For me, making objects has that potential. It’s not always me that’s the maker. One of the most interesting things in recent years has been using the activities of skilled craftsmen as surrogates for your own activity. It’s a way to step back and reflect on the meaning of making. It’s been very important. To work with the mask-maker in Osaka on Project for a Masquerade was absolutely astounding. Those objects are so extraordinarily captivating. They do exactly what I dreamed they would do. They are able to carry a story and captivate an audience.

Joshua Reiman is an artist living and working in Pittsburgh, PA where he is a visiting professor of art at Carnegie Mellon University.