Simon Starling

Kunstmuseum Basel, Museum für Gegenwartskunst

The Museum für Gegenwartskunst in Basel is sited directly on the Rhine. Upriver, Simon Starling took apart a wooden shed used by boatmen and reassembled all its pieces again as a Weidling, a kind of skiff traditional to the locality. After its maiden voyage downriver, it was again reduced to boards, taken into the museum, and rebuilt as the original wooden shed, carefully edged and placed diagonal to the museum’s architecture. Whether Shedboatshed (Mobile Architecture No. 2), 2005, would once more take to the river as a barge after the exhibition, continuing the ecological cycle, was a question left to the imagination.

With this performative sculptural act, Starling set an otherwise static architectural environment into motion and played with the very idea of the exhibition object, even while preserving its mass and materials. The research and artisanship needed to effect this transformation bear a perverse relationship to the economy’s daily increasing demand for greater productivity. Starling conducts his interventions as a kind of slicing into chemical-physical, economic, ecological, and artistic processes. “Cuttings,” the title of this first comprehensive exhibition of his work, describes both his conceptual process and his concrete interventions (Rotary Cuttings [Horizontal Model], and Rotary Cuttings [Vertical Model], both 2005) in the newly restored exhibition rooms of the museum: From two walls, on each floor of the exhibition, two circles of equal diameter were cut out and, through a simple rotation in space, exchanged for each other. Here, again, the circles designate a cycle, or at least a reversible process.

What passes along global lines of circulation as pure information is made into a material certainty by Starling: In the former Dutch colony of Surinam, permanently damaged by the overmining of bauxite (aluminum ore), he collected solar energy in a battery that he then used to power an aluminum boat through the canals of Amsterdam until its stored energy was spent. In the resulting sculpture, Quicksilver, Dryfit, Museumbrug, 1999, the battery, part of the boat, and its remaining metal “melted down and cast into the form of a lump of bauxite ore found in a Surinamese mine” are put into relation with one another. The transfer of matter and energy parallels the transfer of knowledge, the moment of enlightenment sparked by this constellation of the traces of a performative act.

A beer bottle smashes into a street lamp in a park across from the Moderna Galerija in Ljubljana. This nightly act of aggression in a public space has been remitted, at least partially, in that the artist painstakingly reassembled the remaining shards of the bottle and the lamp to make Pleçnik, Union, 2000. Cause and effect, action and reaction enter into a fragile sculptural equilibrium. Among the individual works Starling has exhibited here there exists a complex web of discourses, a tapestry composed of numerous small stories. One narrative thread leads to the concepts, the documentary strategies, while another important strand leads to the crossovers between craftsmanship and industrial production. Without any economic calculus in its outlay, artistic energy becomes in its own right a concretely physical phenomenon. And a political one, too.

Hans Rudolf Reust

Translated from German by Sara Ogger.