Simon Starling

Galleria Franco Noero

Nicknamed the Fetta di Polenta (“slice of polenta”), the eccentric yellow palazzo housing Franco Noero’s new space, Casa Scaccabarozzi, is meant to serve as an experimental architectural laboratory and point of departure for the gallery’s artists. The inaugural exhibition, Simon Starling’s “Three Birds, Seven Stories, Interpolations and Bifurcations,” engaged the building as a character in an epic architectural drama that collapses time and place by merging different spaces and contexts, fact and fiction.

Seven stories high, with only one room per floor, the wedge-shaped nineteenth-century palazzo was designed by Alessandro Antonelli to fit the seemingly impossible site on a bet. Within this eccentric space, Starling evoked the spirit of a very different one by displaying photographs of Manik Bagh Palace, a modernist masterpiece in the unlikely setting of India, furnished with design classics by the likes of Eileen Gray, Marcel Breuer, and Le Corbusier; commissioned by the Maharajah of Indore, it was built in 1929 by German architect Eckart Muthesius.

Just inside the door the artist placed a piece of Belgian black marble, a stone of about three by three feet of the type used by Brancusi for his sleek Bird in Space sculptures, of which the maharajah owned three. Now very rare, the stone was commonly used in luxurious staircases, floors, and fireplaces in Europe as well as for decorative inlay in the Taj Mahal. Together this stone block and two others on higher floors—one of Indian black and gold marble and one of pristine white Italian Carrara Caldia marble—functioned as cornerstones, equivalent in form and material, yet from different geographic locations. This work, Three Birds, Seven Stories, Interpolations and Bifurcations, 2008, served to anchor the ghostly and disembodied images of Manik Bagh.

Farther on were a negative photographic print of the marble block—Rough-Cut Block of Belgian Black Marble, Catella Marmi, Moncalieri, Italy (Negative), 2008—rendering it white, and two images of details from Manik Bagh: a swirling metal Usha umbrella stand, which adorned the entryway and echoed the spiral staircase in the Italian palazzo, and the main staircase, with a geometric balustrade punctuated by a shiny cylindrical column with a ball on top. Sunlight coming through the windowpanes projected grid patterns that mimicked the geometry of the Indian palace’s staircase.

Moving to the back of the room, where the interior narrows to less than two feet wide, the walls closed in and beckoned toward claustrophobic ascent. The building’s constricted verticality and its dizzying staircase, combined with the pace of the twenty-one framed images, each adding a new layer, produced a certain momentum. On the next floor, two photographs of the Indian palace—depicting its ballroom and its exterior—and one of the Italian palazzo’s interior (actually a studio replica) further intertwined the representation of the two structures. Another photo showed a tower of film canisters. These contain the three films based on Thea von Harbou’s story The Indian Tomb: One was directed in 1921 by Joe May from a script by von Harbou and Fritz Lang; the other two are Lang’s own version in two parts (1958 and 1959). The story concerns a strangely familiar handsome German functionalist architect who attempts to modernize an Indian city.

Alternating between present and past, real and imagined, the references accumulated along the climb to the remaining four upper floors (including a photo of Jag Mandir Island, one of the locations for Lang’s two films), constructing a hallucinatory parallel reality—just as Muthesius’s fictional version of the palace, in a retouched photomontage on the seventh floor, represents the architect’s unrealized ideal. Finally, at the top, a small set of stairs led to a splendid mosaic bath of blue and gold—an incongruous vision more suitable to an Indian palace—bringing full circle the oddly touching relationship that Starling wrought between the two unrelated and equally unlikely architectural wonders.

Cathryn Drake