PRINT February 2004


Simon Starling presents deceptively common objects: airplanes, lamps, chairs, plants, and cars. Altered or taken out of context, they lose their muteness, and elaborate yarns spin from them: stories linking the heroic or eccentric endeavors of individuals to larger, more complex and abstract economic and social processes of transformation. Often his works concern geographical displacements and historical repetitions. And they always look good. I mention this immediately in order to avoid giving any sense that the projects I am about to describe are merely dreary institutional critique or appropriation art arriving more than two decades late.

Starling, born in Epsom, England, and now based in Glasgow and Berlin, is a traveler and an alert observer of forms, both natural and man-made. He brings material as well as ideas with him on his long journeys, and the most varied of these connect in curious chains. The final outcome is usually an object, like H.C./H.G.W., 1999, the wooden chair presented at Leipzig’s Galerie für Zeitgenössische Kunst that same year. Like the majority of his works, this one has a long subtitle, which condenses the wide-ranging physical, historical, and cultural conditions behind its making into one entity: “A replica of a ‘Swan Chair’ designed in England in 1885 by Charles Francis Ainsley Voysey, built using the wood from an oak tree from the grounds of the Villa at 11 Karl-Tauchintz-Straße, Leipzig, designed in 1892 by Bruno Eelbo and Karl Wichardt for the geologist Herman Credner.” “They aren’t strictly titles; they are just one more element in the work,” Starling explained in a 1999 discussion with curators Stefanie Sembill and Jan Winkelmann, and added, “not the name of the dish, but the recipe, if you like.”

Before analyzing the narrative ingredients of the piece, let’s take a look at the chair itself: It’s a beautiful object, rather wide and offering enough space for two not-too-large people, a grown-up and a child perhaps. Its wooden legs and curved back make it quite clear why it’s called a swan. The long, elegant neck on each side terminates at the top in a small bird’s head, bowing. There is nothing missing; the chair seems to be complete. But some of the devices used during assembly—clamps and straps, for instance—are still attached, emphasizing that the chair is not simply a given but is rather inhabiting a phase in a process not yet concluded. Displaying the mechanics of construction, as Starling often does, seems to suggest that the chair serves some technical purpose in addition to being a piece of furniture. What could that be? Reproduced from the past and pointing to an as yet unknown future use, it’s certainly a kind of time machine.

The designer of the chair, C.F.A. Voysey, whose handiwork here is so typical of the Arts and Crafts movement’s ambition to integrate organic forms into cultural artifacts, was also designing a house for H.G. Wells, author of the novel The Time Machine (1895). Through its title, H.C./H.G.W., Starling’s work links the venue where it’s shown, the Leipzig villa originally built for Credner and later turned into a gallery for contemporary art, to that other house, built for the science-fiction pioneer with money generated from sales of The Time Machine. The chair is an alien—a guest from another era and from a different place. But the material out of which it is built is site-specific in the strictest sense: The wood was taken from an oak tree that once grew in the villa’s garden. In fact, that very tree is responsible for the strange position of Credner’s villa; he didn’t want to remove the tree, so the house had to be built at a curious angle to the street. Eventually, when the villa was refurbished into an art gallery in the ’90s, the tree had to be cut down, since its roots were threatening to damage the foundation of the building. Its trunk is still kept in the garden, where Starling found it and where this labyrinthine story started to unfold for him. He created the chair from a piece that he removed from the trunk. The sitting, however, takes place not in the chair but in the negative space the removed piece has left, turning the trunk into a bench. Practicing his own craftsmanship in homage to past craftsmen, constructing narratives that stretch across countries and continents, drawing attention to the economic elements of manufacture (sometimes by destruction), Starling layers meaning in his sculptures in a way that grants the medium both power and playfulness.

“Coming late to the field of modernist critique, the work of Simon Starling occupies a fascinating position,” writes curator and critic Charles Esche in the Leipzig catalogue. “Perhaps sitting on the cusp of a redefinition of value systems, it looks back with sympathy and knowledge at the work of the early twentieth century, while allowing the audience sight of its failure.” What kinds of failure? For one, the wide gulf between the modernists’ original will to improve life for the masses and their productions’ ultimate incarnation as collector’s items for a socially disinterested financial elite—a predicament that many Scandinavian design classics share, including, for instance, lamps by Poul Henningsen. The Danish designer once famously declared, “It doesn’t cost money to light a room correctly, but it does require culture.” These days, however, a real Henningsen is beyond reach for all but the very well off, providing the occasion for Starling’s ongoing project “Home-made Henningsen,” whereby the artist retroactively fulfills the designer’s democratic vision by composing versions of his lamps from found materials. Attractive in themselves, the objects—Starling has made fifteen since beginning the series in 2001—proclaim that in principle we can all construct our own designer lighting out of flea-market finds, such as wok lids and old lampshades. Another project circling around a modern design classic that initially represented a progressive vision but later degenerated into a luxury item for wealthy “neo-moderns” is Home-made Eames (Formers, Jigs and Moulds), 2001. This series of photographs shows the tools and gadgets the artist used to create a number of replicas of Charles and Ray Eames’s classic 1948 DSS, the first industrially produced plastic chair, an item for the masses which became a symbol of fashionable metropolitan life. Starling has turned to the Eameses in several projects, among them Work, Made-Ready, Kunsthalle Bern, 1997, a clever meditation on the Duchampian readymade and on the concepts of uniqueness and the mass-produced. Separated by a glass wall, two objects are displayed: on one side a bicycle leaning against a white painted pedestal, and on the other a white swivel chair set on a lower support. Each side holds an explanatory text. About the bicycle, one is informed, “A ‘Sausalito’ bicycle remade using the metal from a Charles Eames ‘Aluminium Group’ chair.” And regarding the chair, one reads, “A Charles Eames ‘Aluminium Group’ chair remade using the metal from a Marin ‘Sausalito’ bicycle.” A similar transformation takes place in the recent Work, Made-Ready, in Light of Nature, 2003, a project connecting the cities of Rome and Berlin through an intricate narrative involving photographer Karl Blossfeldt’s bronze models of plants, a Roman foundry, a brown aluminum bike frame, and a deconstructed green-upholstered aluminum chair. The result of this alchemical experiment is presented in four elegant glass vitrines.

Starling shares an interest in modern design with a large number of artists of his generation (born in the mid-’60s), such as Jorge Pardo, Andrea Zittel, and Tobias Rehberger. But it is important to point out that his work is never about stealing the look or borrowing the glamour of high-modernist style. Although his objects invariably do have eye-catching qualities, the sculptural aspect is always only one facet, and the pieces are always part of a larger economy that reaches far beyond what meets the eye. Sometimes his work specifically addresses the destabilization of fixed high-low hierarchies, as in the Henningsen series or, even more explicitly, in a 1995 piece that used the metal from a Jorge Pensi aluminum chair to produce nine solid replicas of a beer can of the German brand Eichbaum found on April 6, 1995, on the site of the Bauhaus in Dessau. The location of such found objects and their movement from one place to another crucially inform his practice.

Indeed, in order to follow their movements and map them onto his work, Starling often composes itineraries for himself that take him far away from the world of art and design—so far, in fact, that one often wonders how the artist manages to return us, as well as himself, to the starting point and to somehow pack all the experience gathered during the journey into a physical object on display. He digs into history like an archivist to find neglected connections, but he doesn’t stop with documentation; he works not just intellectually but with the hands. A case in point: a functioning model aircraft shown on a glass table at the Heide Museum of Modern Art in Melbourne. Not just any aircraft, it’s a Farman Mosquito—the very epitome of aerodynamic efficiency celebrated by Le Corbusier in Towards a New Architecture, where he famously asserts that buildings should be “machines for living” just as airplanes are “machines for flying.” The full narrative that makes sense—is sense the right word?—of this project, titled Le Jardin suspendu, 1998, involves not only Starling’s ongoing investigations into modern design and the worldwide spread of International Style architecture but also a number of time-demanding practical tasks, such as a trip to Ecuador, home of the balsa tree, and the transportation of a large quantity of wood across the globe. Similarly, in Blue, Red, Green, Yellow, Djungel, 2002, Starling brought back to London a large cedar tree from the jungle of Trinidad and cut woodblocks from it, using them to print re-creations of the famous exotic “jungle” pattern of Viennese designer Josef Frank, who derived his knowledge of the wild from illustrations in children’s books. Starling is always more than willing to explore the most distant of regions; his travels are as much a part of the work as his finished objects. To fantasize about exotic places, make imaginary connections, and press everything into a fascinating title is one thing. To actually undertake the journey, collect the materials, and build, for instance, a flying machine is something quite different.

Two recent projects widen the circles his works invariably describe to more directly involve themes of nationality and political borders. This is most obviously the case in Flaga (1972–2000), 2002, a work that entails, in the words of the artist, “a Fiat 126 produced in Turin, Italy, in 1974 and customised using parts manufactured and fitted in Poland, following a journey of 1290 km from Turin to Cieszyn.” Starling himself drove the red car from Italy to Poland (in 1974, Fiat moved a production plant there from Italy) and proceeded to reveal aspects of the fabrication normally unnoticed by the average customer. In Poland the artist substituted the boot, bonnet, and doors for white parts produced at the Fiat Poland factory. What could be more Italian than a Fiat 126? Well, this car doesn’t look Italian at all—in fact, it’s been turned into a Polish flag. Upon arrival in Turin, the now white and red car—stripped of its engine and mounted on the wall—was displayed as an artifact, “emblematic of the shared industrial and political histories of Italy and Poland,” as the small booklet accompanying the project explains. Perhaps even more urgent if read in relation to recent political developments in Europe is Rescued Rhododendrons, 1999, which also required quite a journey—this time in a Swedish car. In his Volvo, Starling delivered seven rhododendron plants from northern Scotland to southern Spain, reversing the introduction of these plants to England in 1763 by a Swedish botanist. Considered weeds in England, the plants were due to be removed by government agencies from an environmentally “pure” zone of native vegetation and destroyed. The work is slyly political, referencing the xenophobic, neonationalist ideas of ethnic purity found across Europe today. The artist’s intervention not only saved the plants but also, in a way typical of his work, completed a circle.

What looks like a final homecoming, however, soon turns out to be a short pause in an uninterrupted voyage: One loop connects with another, crossing and continuing, as in the symbol for infinity. Soon some of those rhododendrons were off on a new ride, this time to Venice, where Starling installed Island for Weeds (Prototype), 2003; a model plane similar to the Farman Mosquito was circling the city of Stockholm, filming for a project at the Moderna Museet; and that same Volvo was transporting a South American cactus from Spain to Frankfurt. Now and then, there are breaks in this activity, and the things being transported are on display—never permanently and always in a way that makes it clear the expedition will go on. No doubt they can teach us a thing or two about globalism: Starling airs overtly the globalized economy’s various conditions of production and the friction in the manufacturing processes, which are sometimes portrayed in the mass media as taking place in a world where all disturbing and unproductive differences have been once and for all leveled.

For some viewers, Starling’s work seems to reinvigorate the past and impart some utopian energy to the present. Others see the very concept of sculpture getting a second chance. For me, his objects are talismans of time that enable us to contemplate again the conditions of modernity. “I have attempted to investigate an underlying relationship between modernism and nature,” says Starling, invoking the era of the Swan Chair and its kin. “By forcing objects, structures, and phenomena together, by transforming modular concrete houses into birdcages, by creating a hothouse for a cactus with an internal combustion engine, or by making one thing from another and vice versa, I have searched for a language that, like Blossfeldt’s models, conveys the ‘concept’ of things and doesn’t simply illustrate them.” Indeed, Starling’s works don’t just illustrate, they become time and space machines, taking indirect routes to redefine our notions of history, narration, and result—sculpture as productive detour.

Director of the Städelschule art academy in Frankfurt, contributing editor Daniel Birnbaum also heads the institution’s Portikus gallery.