PRINT May 2003



Born in Epsom, England, in 1967 and trained at the Glasgow School of Art, Simon Starling mingles the grand tradition of the British boffin, forever tinkering in the basement, with heady neo-Victorian science, re-creating lost histories and divining the invisible global traffic of everyday life. He plunges head-on into those nebulous topographies social scientists like to call the “space of flows,” casting abstracted labor into relief and putting commodity fetishism before the fun-house mirror: Starling has obtained balsa wood from Ecuador to make a model of a French Farman Mosquito airplane, which was then flown in Australia; built a scale replica of the Wagenfeld Museum—a former prison that also served as production site for egg coddlers, among other things—to be used as a henhouse; melted down and recast (as each other) an Eames Aluminum Group Chair and a Marin Sausalito mountain bike; and driven a red 1974 Italian Fiat from Turin, where it is no longer made, to the Fiat plant in Warsaw, where he added new white Polish parts before returning the car to Turin. For one of his latest works, Kakteenhaus, 2002, Starling transported a nonindigenous cactus from the Tabernas Desert of southern Spain to the Portikus gallery in Frankfurt, where he kept it alive using the surplus heat generated from his Volvo. As Starling explains, “The show is now over, and the cactus is safely stored in a warm space for the winter. After that, who knows where it will go?”

Tom Vanderbilt


Strangely enough, the idea for a project involving the Tabernas Desert came from my work with rhododendrons. In 1999 I was making a piece that reversed the historical trajectory of Rhododendron ponticum—namely, the plant’s introduction into Britain (discovered by Claes Alstoemer around 1750, R. ponticum was introduced to England in 1763) from its natural habitat in the hills between Cádiz and Gibraltar. I simply returned some unwanted “weeds” from Scotland to a place where they could live, once again, side by side with their Spanish ancestors. While I was doing research for this project, a friend told me about the film director Alex Cox, who had been working at a film studio in Andalusia, shooting footage of a “Mexican village” in the Tabernas Desert that was originally constructed for Sergio Leone in the late ’60s. Cox mentioned the cacti that were planted on the sets as props, so I traveled there and found a wonderfully complex mix: a desert growing rapidly year by year, a huge solar energy research center, and sixty-four thousand hectares of plasticulture—fruit and vegetables sustained by water from artesian wells. And, finally, there were these bizarre film studios, where someone was shooting a French western when I arrived. Somehow, Kakteenhaus tries to force all this stuff into a little white cube in Frankfurt.

The cacti I found at “Texas Hollywood,” as the film set is now called for the benefit of tourists, were a strange grouping of agaves and other succulents, many prickly pear cacti, plus a number of cereus cacti, which are native to much of Central and South America. I chose a cactus that I felt would have a visual “weight” similar to that of the engine from my old Volvo 240 Estate, which I would use to transport the plant to Germany—and which would eventually become the cactus’s life-support system. Some money changed hands, and I started digging. The journey of 1,333 miles from Spain to Germany took two and a half days. I avoided passing through Switzerland so I would not have to cross any controlled borders.

The installation in Portikus set up a kind of theatrical dialogue between objects—one a fantastically efficient living thing, and the other a fantastically inefficient piece of engineering. The cactus has developed complex strategies for surviving in the harshest of environments, while the internal combustion engine—largely unchanged since Gottlieb Daimler and Wilhelm Maybach patented it in 1885—is at best 30 percent efficient at turning fuel into locomotion. The project created this strange sense of mutual dependence between these two “organisms,” on both a local and global level. The Volvo engine, separated from the car by eighty-five feet of exhaust, water, and fuel pipes and placed in the gallery, heated the space to desert temperatures. There was a lot of speculation on everyone’s part about how to make this elongated system function, and we really didn’t know until two days before the exhibition’s opening whether an exhaust pipe that long would still draw, or whether the water returning to the engine from the radiator in the car outside would have cooled things too much. In the end, it all functioned just as I had hoped, if not better: The engine generated so much heat that it was often necessary to open the windows to cool the space.

I guess that globalization is becoming more and more of a preoccupation in my work. Projects like Flaga (1972–2000), 2002, for which I drove a Fiat from Turin to Warsaw, come directly from thinking about such things. My interest is primarily in an “everything, everywhere, all the time” kind of global culture—the kind of culture that makes farming the desert pay, in the short term. I try to get under the surface of this situation a little bit, unpack the processes, flows of energy, the ways and means of it all. Most important, I always choose to look at things on a very personal or human level—taking the vantage of the individual, the artist, the amateur, whomever, against the world. Perhaps my decision has something to do with the Marxist notion of estranged production, the abstraction of human labor. I try to take responsibility, whether that means harnessing solar energy on the Suriname River to power a small aluminum boat on the canals of Amsterdam or documenting the production of a catalogue in Romania for an exhibition in France. Still, the important thing is that the work remains somewhat contradictory or problematic in relation to all these questions. It is never “correct.” It should make you smile or gasp before the notion of “global culture” enters your head.

For me, the Andalusian desert brings up so many ideas: It is a kind of microcosm, with a probably unsustainable agriculture manned by migrant workers; it’s alternative-energy research; and, of course, it’s the entertainment industry! The odd thing is that the reasons for making Fiats in Poland and for making spaghetti westerns in Spain are not really very different at the end of the day.