Starling’s uncharacteristically direct accompanying text tells us that a platform was built to float the one-ton, locally-sourced stone 12 miles upriver from Avonmouth to the heart of Bristol, riding one of the world’s larger tides on an especially powerful day. The stone was then unloaded, scanned and reproduced by a computer-guided milling machine, and the cloned block placed on a platform visually identical to, but structurally different from, the original. The platform’s proven ability to float, the rock’s weightiness, the vast space the work commandeered and the absurd duplication form a strange and buoyant ensemble.
D1–Z1 [22,686,575:1] (2009) features a modified, mid-20th-century Dresden D1 35-mm film projector set atop a looping apparatus. Positioned close to one of the freestanding walls and running continuously, it threw a small black-and-white image; the film’s down-up, down-up course was fully visible beneath the projector. The 30-second-long loop shows a complex bit of machinery in action. In the center of the image is a jerkily advancing piece of film, 35 millimeters wide as shown: life size. The shallow depth of field—the image is blurry at the top—suggests a tight close-up of a physical object, though the machinery appears weirdly immaterial. Near the work one heard an even mix of the projector’s hum and the soundtrack’s clickety-clack, the sound balance changing as one moved.
Watching machines work is hypnotic, but there is also a formalist kind of wit in a projected film of a piece of film moving through a machine; this sort of reflexivity is a hallmark of Starling’s work. The Z1 of the title was a room-sized machine—arguably the first computer—built by Konrad Zuse in his parents’ Berlin apartment between 1936 and 1938. Allied bombings destroyed the apartment building and the machine with it, but Zuse and assistants reconstructed the Z1 in the late ’80s. To enter data, Zuse punched holes in 35-mm film stock, which he fed through the computer to be read. Starling used complex software to make a black-and-white animation that was transferred to color film, which accounts for the movie’s peculiar tint. Starling’s D1—Z1 celebrates Zuse’s wily, against-the-odds inventiveness; it also has a rich, subtle period-piece humor, playing with nostalgia for a time when machines had material substance against today’s etherized and miniaturized technology.
Sometimes, Starling’s ideas are more satisfying than the work they generate. At MAC/VAL, his current interest in Henry Moore (also manifest in work recently on view at Casey Kaplan in New York) was seen in Silver Particle/Bronze (After Henry Moore), 2008. A smallish, black-and-white photo taken by Moore of his roughly 2-foot-long Reclining Figure No. 4—an image that makes the sculpture seem larger—hung on the wall, a circle cut out of its center. Nearby, a modestly scaled, biomorphic cast-bronze object finished with Moore’s familiar yellow-brown translucent patina rested on a white wooden base. As in a photo-based project at Mass MoCA last year, a silver particle from the cutout circle was, Starling writes, “repeatedly scanned in an electron microscope to generate a 3D model which was then out-put at a hugely modified scale and cast in the same material as Moore’s original reclining figure.” Although he neatly parodies Moore’s method of making small maquettes that assistants enlarged into imposing sculptures, Starling’s own bronze casting suggests he doesn’t have the older sculptor’s subtle feeling for form, and we see and learn little of interest on this big-to-minuscule-to-medium-size journey.
Pougues-les-Eaux, where “THEREHERETHENTHERE” continued, was once a thriving spa town, and its Parc Saint Léger art center occupies a small, churchlike building that has a high central space flanked by two aisles. Decades ago, the structure housed a bottling works for water from a nearby spring. Starling developed a new piece for Pougues, titling it La Source (demi-teinte) [The Spring (half tone)], 2009, as well as showing three other works in the small second-floor spaces at either end of the building.
Starling led viewers into La Source by placing a roughly 6-by-8-foot enlargement of a small halftone reproduction of an early 20th-century photograph on the exterior wall to the left of the entrance doors. The picture shows the building’s floor covered by neat rows of bottles, with workers in the background; a white circle, 2 feet in diameter, blanks out part of the image. Inside the building, Starling constructed a low boardwalk that ran the length of one of the narrow aisles. Viewers were instructed to remain on this walkway, which placed them within and slightly above the work. Ramps connected the boardwalk with staircases leading to two upper rooms.
Laid out on the gray concrete floor, La Source comprised 1,036 black hand-blown glass spheres of six distinct sizes (3, 6, 9, 12, 15 and 18 centimeters in diameter, or from roughly 1¼ to 7¼ inches). Each was set on a small rubber washer. Starling positioned the spheres at the vertices of a virtual orthogonal grid oriented diagonally to the boardwalk; the great majority were concentrated at one end of the space. In the rest of the room, the floor was mostly open, undermining one’s perception of the grid; the balls in this area were like little points of darkness. A distorted image of the building was reflected on each sphere’s surface, as though all were seeing eyes, an effect both beautiful and unsettling.
The abstract quality of this baroque installation made it hard to see what it represented: Starling had isolated a tiny detail from the disk he cut out of the water-bottling photo, enlarged it to the scale of the gallery and rendered each halftone ink dot with a corresponding-size sphere. Seen from the second-floor space at the gallery’s far end, the arrangement produced an image that remained frustratingly unfixable, elegantly in tune with the site’s long, rich and mostly lost history.
Poised on the brink of legibility, La Source was a chancy project, and as such indicative of Starling’s approach at its best. Artists tend to forget about loving risk when recognition comes knocking. The connections Starling weaves in his works may seem arcane or forced, and some works are visually unconvincing. But it is courting failure that gives Starling’s works vitality and, like his humor, takes us to unexpected places.
“THEREHERETHENTHERE” was at Musée d’art contemporain du Val de Marne, Paris, and Parc Saint Léger, Pougues-les-Eaux, Sept. 18-Dec. 27, 2009. Autoxylopyrocycloboros was at the Kadist Foundation, Paris, Sept. 12-Nov. 8, 2009. A public sculpture by Simon Starling has been commissioned by the city of Lyon for 2010; a solo exhibition of his work will open at the Hiroshima City Museum of Contemporary Art in 2011.
Wade Saunders and Anne Rochette are sculptors who write about sculpture.