Simon Starling, Bird in Space, 2004, Romanian steel plate, inflatable jacks, helium tank, hose, 6' × 20' 1/8“ × 11 5/8”.

Simon Starling, Bird in Space, 2004, Romanian steel plate, inflatable jacks, helium tank, hose, 6' × 20' 1/8“ × 11 5/8”.

Simon Starling

Museum of Contemporary Art / Arts Club of Chicago

Simon Starling, Bird in Space, 2004, Romanian steel plate, inflatable jacks, helium tank, hose, 6' × 20' 1/8“ × 11 5/8”.

“Metamorphology,” the economical survey of Simon Starling’s work at the Museum of Contemporary Art, comprised just eleven works. But complementing the artist’s first retrospective at an American museum, an affiliated show that ran concurrently at the neighboring Arts Club of Chicago (titled “Pictures for an Exhibition”) additionally presented a major new, site-specific installation. Only a dozen works all told, yet each represents such a dense network of material, geographical, social, and historical narratives that one hardly needed more. The MCA exhibition began, appropriately enough, with Flaga 1972–2000 (A Fiat 126 produced in Turin, Italy, in 1974 and customized using parts manufactured and fitted in Poland, following a journey of 1290 km from Turin to Cieszyn), 2002. Hung high overhead on the wall of the museum’s central atrium, Flaga introduced from the outset some of the hallmarks of Starling’s oeuvre—long journeys, often across international borders; the mutual imbrication of economic, political, and artistic histories; the elegant transformation of one thing (an Italian car) into another (the Polish flag). Likewise, the tragicomic masterpiece Autoxylopyrocycloboros, 2006, a four-minute sequence of thirty-eight color transparencies documenting the artist’s voyage around Scotland’s Loch Long in a small steamboat whose engine was fueled by wood from the ship’s own hull (with predictable results), highlighted the rigorous yet often playful circularity that characterizes much of Starling’s practice. Like the Ouroboros, the mythical serpent that devours its own tail, Starling’s works have a way of looping back on themselves, in the process reviving and redeploying historical narratives and artifacts in ways that, while unexpected, demonstrate a clarity of purpose that can at times lend them the illusion of inevitability.

The centerpiece of “Metamorphology” was the (overdue) Chicago premiere of Project for a Masquerade (Hiroshima), 2010–11, a multimedia installation consisting of a digital transfer of a 16-mm film, a bowler hat, and eight exquisitely carved wooden masks displayed on specially fabricated stands. The work centers on the creation of Henry Moore’s monumental sculpture Nuclear Energy, 1964–66, installed on the site of Enrico Fermi’s first sustained nuclear reaction on the campus of the University of Chicago. (Starling’s piece was originally commissioned by the Hiroshima City Museum of Contemporary Art, which owns a smaller, preliminary version of Moore’s sculpture, titled Atom Piece [Working Model for Nuclear Energy], 1964–65.) Taking up the sixteenth-century Japanese Noh play Eboshi-ori (a tale of disguise and falsification of identity) as a narrative armature, Starling’s installation weaves a mesmerizing tale of art, science, popular culture, and Cold War geopolitics with a cast of characters variously obvious (Moore, Fermi), surprising (uranium-mining magnate/art collector Joseph H. Hirshhorn, art historian/Soviet spy Anthony Blunt), and wholly fictional (James Bond).

Starling’s strongest works tend to be highly responsive to their initial exhibition locales and are—Project for a Masquerade notwithstanding—consequently resistant to subsequent reinstallations elsewhere. One that does travel well is Bird in Space, 2004, a massive, 4,900-pound slab of Romanian steel supported by three helium-filled inflatable cushions. Originally shown in New York, the physically simple yet conceptually complex work collapses the famous 1927–28 trial that determined whether Constantin Brancusi’s 1926 bronze Bird in Space would be taxed as a “kitchen utensil” or exempted as an artwork into the once-controversial (and, ultimately, illegal) 40 percent tax imposed by the US government on imported steel in 2002.

Bird in Space was also among the eighteen works included in the Arts Club of Chicago’s 1927 exhibition “Sculpture and Drawings by Constantin Brancusi.” Installed by none other than Marcel Duchamp, this spatially complex exhibition is today known primarily through a pair of photographs taken by the Chicago architectural photographers Kaufmann & Fabry. In “Pictures for an Exhibition,” Starling traced the history and movements of the eighteen works in Brancusi’s exhibition, traveling the world and photographing them—using two large-format Deardorff cameras, the same type and manufacture with which the 1927 pictures had been made—in such a manner as to locate them in the exact position in which they appear in the original installation shots. Along the way, he chronicled a remarkable history linking Brancusi’s sculptures to such seemingly disparate topics as Prohibition and the diamond trade, the Dallas Cowboys and the collecting of vintage cars.

As Raymond Chandler once put it: There are no dull subjects, only dull minds.

Jacob Proctor