Wednesday, 2 November 2011

Top 10 Contemporary Political Artists: 5 Simon Starling

Simon Starling fashions himself as a kind of alchemist, an artist whose primary interest is in how he can change one substance or object into another.  But clearly he is a political artist.  The transformation of substances has an immediate and obvious link to ecological issues - GM crops for example.  He also serves as an ideal model for an artist who, through his actions, allows us to imagine unusual alternatives.  His work gives us hope, for change or hope that we can overcome current difficulties, but it is also satirical.  Starling's work shows up how absurd humankind's attempts can be - his work often focuses on the amount of labour needed to achieve humble results.

In Quicksilver, Dryfit (1999) Starling went to Suriname (a former Dutch Colony) to get aluminium ore from which he made a boat which was sailed down canals in Amsterdam.  The boat was then cut in half and Starling used the Aluminium to make counterfeit copies of the original lumps of aluminium ore.  This can be seen as a critique of Modernist notions of progress.  It is also a comment on (post)colonialism and the history of sculpture.

Shedboatshed (Mobile Architecture No 2) 2005
Shedboatshed (Mobile Architecture No 2), perhaps Starling's most famous work, is similarly a comment on progress.  Starling found a shed on the Rhine upstream from the Museum für Gegenwartskunst, in Basel, Switzerland.  He then dissembled it and turned it into a boat.  Not just any boat, one should say, but a Weidling - a type of boat indigenous to the local area.  Starling punted the boat down the Rhine to the gallery where it was transformed back into the shed for display in the exhibition.  But it's not the lack of progress that the viewer ends up dwelling on - it's the history.  Starling is clearly interested in history (as demonstrated in the specific type of boat he chose to make) and this history is evident in the final shed.  The end product is not the same as the original shed: it is scarred by the cuts needed to turn it into a boat; it is pitted with holes where bolts used to be.  Starling would love Chatham Historic Dockyard, where the buildings that were once used to make rope, sails, and all components of Royal Navy ships are made out of recycled Royal Navy Ships.  You can literally see the history in the beams and rafters of the buildings.  Notably, the title for Starling's retrospective at Tate St Ives earlier this year was "Recent History".

The Long Ton (2009)
In "Recent History" Starling exhibited The Long Ton (2009) - two massive chunks of stone: one a piece of marble from Carrara and the other a much cheaper, but far heavier marble from China.  After the long journey from China, the Chinese marble has approximately the same market value of the Carrara marble despite the fact that it is four times the size and despite the difference in weight the two hang in perfect harmony.  In the Guardian last February, Jonathan Jones questions whether Starling's works actually achieve his goals: to communicate big questions and issues explored through his research and journeys.  He does recognise Starling as "an artist of big ideas" but he claims the ideas lie outside rather than inside the work.  I disagree.  Starling's strength is that, by presenting artifacts or remnants of a journey or process, he asks us to consider what has actually happened and what has philosophically changed.  I doubt Starling would apologise for his work being challenging, not that I think it is all that challenging.  Take the example of Long Ton, it is actually quite easy to see the metaphor: that although something from China is much heavier, something from Europe punches above its weight.  You are quickly drawn into thinking how this might be: If Carrara marble is from Italy and the other stone from China, should we be thinking of Marco Polo? How does the balancing mechanism work? How do global markets work (today)? Are there dark forces behind this apparent harmony? What tips the scales in favour of the west?  What is the history behind such issues?  Surely that's the point. 
I'm not even sure that Jones is convinced by his argument which he seems to undermine in the same article.   Firstly, Starling's works feed off one another.  It comes as no real surprise that an artist who is investigating recurring themes will revisit facets of these themes in different works.  If the history behind the economic relationship between Europe (Italy in particular) and China was not evident in the Carrara marble and cheap Chinese stone then other works in the exhibition can help draw our attention to historical matters.  Archaeopteryx Lithographica (2008-9) is overtly about history, it is also made from a slab of stone - this time limestone into which Starling has imprinted a feather from the earliest fossilised bird.  Jones tells us that Starling has selected limestone from the same Bavarian quarry where the earliest, most primitive bird fossil was found.  I feel that Starling is giving us a message - all the facts and information are there but it's up to us how much we uncover.  And through uncovering and discovering for ourselves we are more likely to be touched and moved than if Starling were to merely tell us a story.  Also, through our own investigation we can come to our own conclusions and take ownership of the ideas we come to.  It's up to us how much imagination we put into the mix.  It's up to us to imagine where this might lead in future works, or in contemporary issues.  Jones ends his review by saying he has no doubts about the "Coup de grace" of the exhibition which is "discombobulating in every sense". For this piece Starling made a steam powered boat and sailed it on a Scottish Loch with a friend.  Still in the Loch, they began to destroy the boat by sawing it apart until it sank.  This event was recorded and exhibited as a slide show at the Pier Gallery in Orkney.  Starling then remade a full sized replica of the Pier Gallery for the Tate Show, literally at the other end of the British Isles, where he showed the slides again. 
Autoxylopyrocycloboros (2006)

According to Jones:
"...the mad commitment of it all – building your own boat, sinking it, rebuilding a gallery in the Orkneys near to Land's End – is hilarious, lovable and compelling".
Life goes on.  Destroyed artwork lives on, remade and put into new contexts.  Through positive action comes new possibilities.  This brings my attention back to another piece Starling made before winning the Turner Prize in 2005: Tabernas Desert Run (2004). Starling overtly displays environmentalist concerns and credentials in this work by crossing the Tabernas desert in Spain on a homemade electric bicycle whose only waste product was water.  He then used the water to make a watercolour painting of a cactus.  According to the Tate:
Tabernas Desert Run (2004)
Tabernas Desert Run (2004)
"The contrast between the supremely efficient cactus and the contrived efforts of man is both comic and insightful, highlighting the commercial exploitation of natural resources in the region".

Barge Haulers on the Volga (1870-73)
 Starling's work itself is sometimes absurd, comical, and always seems to comment on the inefficiency of labour.  This reminds me of Ilya Repin's 1870-1873 painting Barge Haulers on the Volga.  In the painting eleven suffering men, close to collapse, drag the boat upstream, against the current.  Their pain and suffering is made worse by the realisation that there are alternatives.  Russia had horses, mules, oxen and such but also industrial technology was available by 1870.  This is represented in the painting by a tiny steam powered boat in the distance.  Not that this mattered, capitalism was born and human labour was plentiful and cheap.  Like Repin did at the birth of the Russian industrial revolution and the dawn of early capitalism, Starling points out the absurdity of our era of late capitalism and that there are alternatives available if we just use our imagination.


  1. the spelling is Ilya Repin, not Repkin.

    1. Of course it is, thanks. Amended.

  2. I am using this article for a school essay about Starling's Metamorpholy exhibition in Montreal, who should I credit as author?

    Thank you, and great work, very helpful