The Turner Prize-winning conceptual artist discusses his practice ahead of a major survey of his work—one of the highlights of the New Zealand Festival.
In 2005, British artist Simon Starling dismantled a shed, built a boat out of parts of it, then sailed this boat, carrying the remaining pieces, down the river Rhine, and reassembled the shed in the Kunstmuseum in Basel. The work, Shedboatshed, is a salient entry point to Starling’s art. It introduces the pleasing circularity, droll humour, and persistent enquiry into the history and meaning of objects, which can be traced through Starling’s practice.
City Gallery Wellington is currently exhibiting a survey of Starling’s work, In Speculum. I had a chat with Starling ahead of the opening of the show.
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THOMASIN SLEIGH: Contexts and back-stories are so important to your work. What are your thoughts about repeating these explanations, when asked to talk about your art?
SIMON STARLING: I’m actually going to do a talk on Friday, and it’s a talk about the role of talks in my practice. That’s one occasion that you get to flesh out the works in a quite expansive way, and show a lot of the process that went into researching things and related images. The work is never just objects or images; it’s an expanded constellation of things that you’re recompositing in different ways and different circumstances.
So, I tend to write the wall texts that go with my works. I’m very interested in making books that often accompany the works; it’s very important to the way that I work.
TS: Do you find yourself reframing your work for different contexts?
SS: Sure, that’s one of the very nice things about being able to make these larger survey shows. Many of the works that are here were made for very specific contexts—for Melbourne, for Oxford—and then you take them away from those contexts, and of course, something gets lost. But then, those things can be thought about again in a slightly different way.
For example, for In Speculum, I’ve foregrounded the idea of the process, workshops, studios, editing suites—so the works start to resonate in relation to one another on that level.
TS: This connects to another question I had about whether you saw each work operating in its own discrete way, or whether the survey prompts connections that weren’t evident before?
SS: At City Gallery, every work has its own space. They are quite contained and singular. I have made shows where I’ve shown about 10 or 15 works in one entire space, kind of like an expo. Then, you have these very direct conversations going on. But here it is a bit more discrete and contained.
TS: I wondered, when you were talking about being commissioned to make works for a particular site, how do you begin? How do you start a work after you are invited by an institution?
SS: I don’t have a very clear or specific methodology for approaching these things. The projects come about in different ways. Sometimes, I just have a half-baked idea that suddenly finds a home. For example, Shedboatshed, that was always just an idea that I had: taking a structure and turning it into a boat, like a Viking idea of turning your longship upside down in the winter. And then it just seemed like this museum in Basel, right on the edge of the river Rhine—an amazing river that has really shaped the way the city is—it just seemed like this was the moment to realise that idea.
With the Black Drop film, that is a project that just found me, in a way. I’m not really someone who has been thinking about astronomy that much. The two people who commissioned the work thought that it was something that I might respond to, based on what I had done before. So I did some superficial research to find out about scientific observations of what that event had been, and immediately discovered this guy Janssen, this French astronomer who had made the chronophotographic device, and in turn, its connection to early cinema. And that project came quite fast after that, after the initial parameters were set.
On a practical level, I knew that I wanted to film the transit of Venus on celluloid film, because it’s probably going to be the last transit that this is possible to do. So I asked around and found that Hawaii is a good place to do that, because there’s a big volcano you can stand on, and all the clouds are below you…
So yeah, in a way the best projects are those that make themselves.
TS: Is it quite useful to work with institutions because they provide a set of parameters: how the work will be presented, what the timeframe will be, etc?
SS: It does give some structure. Oxford University thought that I was going to do something on the day of the transit, when they invited me. But of course, it made no sense, because I was in Hawaii.
And sometimes, there was a work I did where I grew zebra mussles on a sculpture on Lake Ontario. That took way longer that we thought it was going to take, so we had to delay the show a couple of times. So, sometimes the institutional framing is a problem. But in general, yeah, it just gives a little bit of structure.
TS: Your work is so expansive, I wondered how you approach editing? I guess this question relates to the approach taken by many contemporary artists, where the archive is such a rich and fruitful place to start.
SS: I don’t know if I really do edit that much. There aren’t many things that I’ve left behind. Once there’s an initial spark and an initial idea, I follow it through. There aren’t oceans of unfinished things behind me. I always keep moving forward with the practice, and finding new ways to work, and new people to work with.
I’m somebody who has strange little pockets of knowledge about certain things. And of course, when you meet experts, you realise how extremely small your little pocket of knowledge actually is.
TS: Do you find also then, that your works are a conclusion of a particular project, or do they lead on to the next? For example, In Speculum leading on from Black Drop, with its interest in astronomy?
SS: One thing does lead to the other. There is a sort of knock-on effect. You pick up little half ideas while you work on one project, and then you carry them around with you, and then they click and make sense.
TS: And maybe the survey show is making that a bit more evident?
SS: For example, when I made the Black Drop film it was an extremely long process, it took months. And after that I knew that the next film work that I made should be extremely simple. So it was a response to that process, and wanting to undermine the logic of your own work constantly, pulling the work from under your feet.
TS: I had a question around the various media you use for your work. I wondered whether you seek out particular people to collaborate with in relation to those media?
SS: I really like working with different, new people all the time, because it just brings so much to the practice. I’ve always kept my studio very small, and I don’t have lots of people that I work with on a regular basis. I’d rather find the right people to work with on a particular project.
TS: I’m interested in your interest in obsolescence and old technologies. Does this stem from your study of photography at art school?
SS: My early epiphany as a creative person was to make my first black and white print in a dark room. When I was about 10 years old, I thought it was quite exciting. I suppose I’ve carried that excitement with me through… too many years to mention. It’s still something that drives the work.
TS: When you say ‘it’, you mean…
SS: It’s a kind of wonderment—it sounds terribly corny. But it’s a feeling that process has generated in me. I think you could say that same when watching the mask maker make those masks [in the work Project for a Masquerade (Hiroshima)], they are extraordinary things; they are emotional and have a real impact when you see them. There is an almost magical, alchemical transformation: you take a lump up wood and then suddenly it is a face that you could almost fall in love with, it’s amazingly persuasive.
TS: You don’t have the same wonderment with digital technology?
SS: No, I think I do, increasingly. It’s something to do with speed, I think. A lot of what I’ve been doing in my work over the years has been deliberately slowing things down, which is a very counter-modern idea, it is almost luddite. It is linked to this idea of taking the long way round: going to Ecuador to get your balsa wood instead of the model shop.
For example, the different between editing digitally and editing analogue is a world apart. The analogue version builds a lot of time into the process: you’re looking for those few frames in all this film, and you have to click along to find them. It puts you in a completely different mind set.
TS: And do you create something different because the process is so different?
SS: I think so. And, of course, so much of what I do now is in the hybrid world in between digital and film. Black Drop is shown on a digital projector, it’s a sort of post-film film, if you like.
I also make platinum prints, which is a technology that was out of date 75 years ago. To make the prints, I have to make digital negatives, because you can’t get negative film that big any more. So there’s this constant flick-flack between these two things, the physical and digital, I quite like that.
TS: I’m also interested in your interest in modernism: Francis Bacon, Le Cobusier, Henry Moore all crop up in In Speculum. I wonder if this is something that has now become foregrounded now that the work is brought together?
SS: You have these tools for navigating the world: a set of parameters that you use to approach certain situations. I’ve used that interest in modernism as a way of focusing things, and putting on blinkers, in a way.
I’ve done quite a few works now relating to Henry Moore. He becomes like a travelling companion, because he’s been everywhere before you. There’s a Moore map of the world, and it’s a nice way to locate yourself.
TS: So these figures are used as fulcrums to operate around?
SS: Exactly. In Moore’s case also, because of this incredible career that happened during the Cold War, he is interesting as a political phenomena. I’m not a huge fan of Henry Moore, he was somebody I looked at as a kid and thought: “That’s not really for me.”
SS: Is it more then, a concern with the way art has functioned, in a broader sense, as a politicised activity?
TS: Yeah, I think so. I mean, Moore was very instrumentalised, but he was also very canny, and he knew how to work a situation.
SS: This question is a bit random, but I’m interested in which Old Master paintings you are drawn to? Who do you visit when you go to the National Gallery in London?
TS: One of the most amazing experiences I had recently was going to Malta. In Valletta there is an amazing cathedral. Caravaggio fled to Malta, he killed someone, first he went to Sicily and then he fled to Malta. They gave him sanctuary and in return he did some paintings. One of them is the beheading of John the Baptist. It is a vast canvas, and the blood from John the Baptist’s throat becomes Caravaggio’s signature. And he has never signed anything else. It’s incredible! But I mean it’s just a great story. And it’s almost like a confessional. You’re escaping from this murder rap, and then you make this painting of a murder, and then you sign it with blood.
His works feel so modern, in a way. This engagement you have with the characters and the people.
TS: I think it’s something to do with the lighting and the darkness.
SS: You can almost imagine what they were like as real people, when they weren’t busy being John the Baptist.
There’s another painting. I think I saw it in Washington. And I went back there deliberately to find it. I think it’s a painting of a shipwreck. I think it’s by a South American artist, but I’m not complete sure. It’s a very over-the-top drama. But in it, there’s this one boy, or young man, in the water, and he’s turning and looking at the painter, or looking at you. I’ve never forgotten that image.
TS: Yes, that moment of being looked back at. They often do that in early Renaissance paintings, they’ll have the patron down in a lower corner, looking out at you.
SS: Yes, as if he is observing the painting being created.
TS: I wondered if you ever spent time in galleries and watched people watching your work?
SS: Yeah, I suppose. It’s nice to see what people spend time doing in relation to an exhibition: how long they’ll read something, or watch a film, that’s interesting—the pace at which people consume it. It’s not something I’ve really thought about much.
TS: You said before that you contribute to the writing of the wall texts?
SS: Yes, and I think this is sometimes a bit of a frustration for the curators!
TS: I guess the point is that the work is operating in all of these multiple places…
SS: Yes, and that’s a problem for some people actually: the idea that they have to engage in the work in multiple ways. There’s always been this criticism of the work that it is all about the back-story. There is some element to that, but I work very hard to make the experience of what’s there very particular. There’s a specificity to the objects and the images.
TS: So, you’re saying that selection of the objects from a particular piece of research are carefully chosen…
SS: No, it’s not the source material so much, as the way that the things manifest themselves in the work. And the way that the films are shot and the way the desks are shown on crates, and the way the aeroplane was built. There is a lot that is readable in the experience of the work. There’s a possibility to find your way in to the work in different ways.
There are also other devices that you use to engage. For example, humour is important. If you can make someone laugh you are half way there.
TS: Like the various iterations of the desks in Three White Desks, there’s something very fun in the marked difference between those last two desks.
SS: Yes. The desks are nice, because they got a way from me. There is that slippage that happens when you make a small JPEG of something and send it away across the world, and then someone sees it on their iPhone. But there’s also this slippage that happens when cabinetmaker’s egos get involved.
TS: Humans will be humans, right?
SS: Exactly. So there are two processes going on in the work, and I like it for that. The work is not only about the system that I put in play, it’s also about the individuals that contribute to that.
TS: There’s something nice about our hyper-connected world still being prone to disconnections.