Paris Humor is little discussed in art criticism, though funny art abounds. Many of Simon Starling’s projects have been comic—slapstick and harebrained, funny ha-ha and funny peculiar—at the same time that they have been unimpeachably erudite. In his thought and work processes, Starling generally follows one thing with another, a third and a fourth. This shaggy-dog-story method places him in danger of establishing connections that come to feel contrived or attenuated—a risk of failure that he willingly assumes.
Born in Epsom, England, in 1967, Starling earned a degree in photography at Nottingham Polytechnic in 1990, and finished his studies in 1992 at the Glasgow School of Art. He had his first solo exhibition in 1995 in London, followed by one in Glasgow in 1997; since then, he has had more than 50 solo shows. In 2003, he was one of three artists in the first Scottish pavilion at the Venice Biennale, and he won the Turner Prize two years later.
Peripatetic (he now lives in Copenhagen) and formidably inventive, Starling ranges widely among installations, elegantly fabricated objects, rough-and-ready assemblages, photographs, short films, books and more. He is comfortable at diverse scales, keeps a big toolbox of conceptual and technical strategies, and is equally adept with the obvious and the obscure. Ecological concerns are pervasive. Possessed of a storyteller’s knack, a researcher’s zeal and a traveler’s nose for lucky finds, he nimbly links present and past in backstory narratives that are typically posted on gallery walls and/or printed in handouts. Among the artists with whose work Starling’s practice intersects, Ronald Jones is notable for having based his mixed-medium projects as early as the 1980s on complicated fact-based scenarios accessible only in their titles, which can run a page or more. But neither Jones nor Starling is a historian, and both shape their narratives to suit esthetic ends.
“THEREHERETHENTHERE,” a large exhibition of Starling’s work, opened in France in September 2009. It was split between two venues: the Musée d’art contemporain du Val de Marne, known as MAC/VAL, in Paris’s southern suburb of Vitry-sur-Seine; and the Parc Saint Léger, a contemporary art center in Pougues-les-Eaux, 120 miles farther south. He also had a piece in a group exhibition at the Kadist Foundation, which collects and shows art, and sponsors residencies for artists and critics in Paris and San Francisco. The easily misread exhibition title was written in large capital letters on a wall at MAC/VAL. (For the past 30 years, the Los Angeles-based sculptor Peter Shelton has used similar run-on titles; SWEATHOUSEandlittleprincipals, 1977-82, is an early example.) Running words together and playing with capitalization is one of the ways Starling forces close attention to language, which is of particular interest to him.
So is site specificity. Starling often develops his projects in relation to the venues where they will be first displayed, and as a result some pieces lose impact when shown elsewhere. The books published in connection with exhibitions are well suited to his discursive method, and help us relate works to their initial contexts, as do other accompanying texts, putting Starling’s work in a long tradition of art whose full appreciation relies on a corpus of knowledge outside the frame. Many a Starling critic has been sucked into a vortex of exegesis (an effort that tends to take a toll on one’s sensitivity to the artist’s humor).
Starling’s enterprises have repeatedly involved his getting from one place to another, with the means of conveyance and the journey being as important as the destination. In this respect, the 2005 Shedboatshed (not shown in France) is paradigmatic. Having spotted a wooden shed near the Rhine, Starling labeled the planks, disassembled the shed, then built a skiff with the dismantled wood, loaded it with the remaining material and, assisted by a boatman, navigated downstream to Basel, where he reconstructed the now-scarred shed for an exhibition at the Museum für Gegenwartskunst. The lively work shown at the Kadist Foundation, Autoxylopyrocycloboros (2006), is also boat-based. A 7-minute-long projection of 38 images documents a three-hour-plus voyage taken by Starling and a boiler man in a 22-foot-long steamboat on the photogenic waters of Scotland’s Loch Long, which joins the Firth of Clyde. Starling generally steers while his mate saws up the craft and feeds the wood into the firebox; both men wear life preservers. As the sides of the hull get consumed, the boiler becomes increasingly visible; when the sawing reaches the waterline, the vessel swamps and vanishes. The last slides show floating remnants. Like a similar project undertaken by Michael Sailstorfer with Jürgen Heinert in 2002, in which the wooden clapboard of a rural cabin in Germany was fed into its own fireplace, Autoxylopyrocycloboros is the stuff of Tom and Jerry cartoons, Friz Freleng’s narratives for the Pink Panther and myriad sawing-the-limb-on-which-one-sits tales. We laugh at the catastrophe wrought by the two men’s industry. The images are sweet and fully satisfying.
And there are submerged narratives. The rhythmic portmanteau title says it all: the staccato cycle of wood-fired generation and destruction is a quixotic enactment of the Ouroboros, the snake swallowing its own tail. James Watt was born by the Firth of Clyde and worked in Glasgow, and his improvements to steam engines ushered in the industrial revolution; further developed, such engines powered the locomotives and ships whose building underwrote Glasgow’s economy. England’s nuclear-missile-armed Trident submarines, propelled by steam turbines linked to nuclear reactors, navigate Loch Long. Starling is attentive to such details and lets us know, in an accompanying text, that the old vessel he purchased had been converted from steam to diesel power, had sunk, and then been re-floated and rechristened Dignity by a local craftsman. The artist reinstalled a steam engine akin to the boat’s original. This construction-destruction story mirrors the carbon-neutral cycle of the project’s journey, which sends the vehicle up in smoke.
For “THEREHERETHENTHERE,” Starling configured MAC/VAL’s cavernous, 13,000-square-foot rectangular gallery as a subtle grid within which he showed nine works, most of them recent. Four equally spaced rows of single-tube fluorescent fixtures, wired end to end, were hung halfway down from the high ceiling, parallel to the room’s long sides. In the front part of the gallery, three freestanding walls stood perpendicular to the lights and demarcated four equal and open areas; the rest of the room was left unobstructed. The wall-to-wall lines of lights tied the five spaces together. Seven pieces were installed in the front section, and as the viewer wound around them, the rest of the gallery opened out like a vista. There Starling placed the two pieces that conjure physical travel.
Both monumental and childlike, Rockraft (2008) consists of two white plywood platforms, each 10 feet square and 20 inches high. One is weathered and has non-skid paint on its top; strapped to its center is a sizable quarried limestone block, a visibly used nylon sling pinned under it. A skinny 12-foot wooden pole stands close to the rock; topped with a radar reflector and a yellow-and-blue striped signal flag indicating “failed engine” or “out of control,” it ironically affirms the craft’s former seaworthiness, though it’s hard to imagine raft and rock bobbing merrily along. The second, pristine platform, placed about 75 feet away, carries a single, centered block. Fairly quickly, one realizes that this block is a near-perfect double of the first one, down to the drill holes from the quarry and assorted scrapes. The eye travels back and forth between the original raft, with its allure of boyish single-mindedness and efficiency, and the minimalist doppelgänger.