Simon Starling, in collaboration with (costume) Kumi Sakurai and Atelier Hinode and (stand) Simon Hopkins/Scott Associates Sculpture and Design, Glasgow: At Twilight: The Guardian of the Well (After Edmund Dulac), 2014-16, hand-painted cotton muslin, polyurethane, and painted steel; at the Japan Society.

The heart of Simon Starling’s enchanting show “At Twilight (After W.B. Yeats’ Noh Reincarnation)” was a play by Starling that was not presented. The exhibition consisted mainly of the research materials that informed the play and the costumes, masks, and props that were used in its only performance to date, which took place last summer in Glasgow. A video about that performance played in the final gallery, but it was a documentary rather than a straight recording. Initially, the decision not to stage the play in New York seemed like a misstep, but the absence ultimately united the show and gave it the clever depth one has come to expect from this Turner Prize–winning artist.   

The conceptual origin point for Starling’s project was W.B. Yeats’s At the Hawk’s Well, one of four dance-plays that Yeats wrote during World War I, while he was living with Ezra Pound (his secretary at the time) near Ashdown Forest. Yeats composed the play in the tradition of Japanese Noh theater but drew on Irish mythology for its plot, which centers on an old man and a young man hoping to drink the waters from a magical well guarded by a hawklike creature. 

At the Hawk’s Well was first performed at the residence of a wealthy patron in London in 1916, and figures associated with that event appear among the characters in Starling’s version. Through his Mind Map (2014–16)—a large work on paper combining collaged imagery and handwritten notations—and other research materials, viewers learned how the various characters relate to Yeats’s play. In addition to Yeats and Pound, Starling includes British activist and socialite Nancy Cunard, who was the original event’s hostess, and dancer and choreographer Michio Ito, who played the guardian of the well. He also incorporates two more improbable characters: Eeyore from Winnie-the-Pooh and a personification of Jacob Epstein’s menacing Vorticist sculpture Rock Drill (1913–15). Like Yeats and Pound, Winnie-the-Pooh author Alan Alexander Milne lived in Ashdown Forest during WWI, but he focused his writing efforts on propaganda for the British military intelligence department; when the war was over, he used Ashdown Forest as the basis for the Hundred Acre Wood, one of the settings in Winnie-the-Pooh. Rock Drill links to Pound through the poet’s involvement in the Vorticist movement.

There is a unique mask for each of Starling’s characters, and in the exhibition’s first gallery, which was rendered as a sort of black-box space, these masks were displayed on short, charred trees that suggested the ravaged imagery of Goya’s “Disasters of War” series. Starling’s “forest” was dimly lit—one of numerous references to twilight, which here represents, as Starling explains in the documentary, a mythical passage between day and night when the realm of spirits overlaps with mundane reality—and was backed by a looping video projection of a dancer performing a newly choreographed interpretation of the “hawk’s dance” from Yeats’s play. In a narrow gallery between the first space and Starling’s research room, the costumes were presented on simple steel-rod mannequins facing a mirrored wall. The reflection set up a conceptual doubling that corresponded with the relationship of mask to performer as well as with the pairings that presumably drive Starling’s play: Yeats and Pound, old man and young man, peaceful donkey and violent machine. 

To appreciate the absence of the play itself, it helped to keep in mind that Yeats had minimal exposure to Japanese theater when he wrote At the Hawk’s Well, just as Starling had only limited archival sources to go on when reconceiving the production. Both the poet and the artist had to use leaps of imagination in their creative processes. By withholding the play, Starling set up a parallel situation for the viewer, creating a sense of circularity within the many layers of his project.