March 23, 2017

Simon Starling on the process of making work, collaborating with craftsmen and his relationship to modernism. Interviewed on the occasion of ‘Simon Starling: Collected Works’ exhibited at Rennie Museum, November 18, 2016 – March 25, 2017.

Simon Starling at Rennie Museum from Rennie Collection on Vimeo.

VIDEO & EDIT: Milena Salazar

March 8, 2017

Recycled Design

by Gregory Woollgar


Simon Starling
detail of Three White Desks, 2007/08

Simon Starling
Three White Desks, 2007/08

Simon Starling refers to his art as storytelling*. He is invested in ideas loaded with specificity and particulars. Viewers can usually only unpack his works by encountering a back story and sifting through the facts. To bridge this distance between the final work and their dense inspirations, Starling writes heavily about his pieces. They are the essential crutch for the museum-goer. The facts and Starling’s writings on his pieces are akin to data, but more specifically they function like recipes. These recipes tell stories; usually the sidebar histories of the famous innovators and projects of Modernism. Most times as a docent, I rely heavily on these texts. In my tours, I discuss the facts of the stories Starling tries to tell, but lack time to discuss their aesthetic intentions. This is very true for his work Three White Desks, (2007/08).

The story of the work orbits a writing desk and the workings of two young creatives in 1930s London. The two creatives are Francis Bacon (1909-1992), the famous British painter, and Patrick White (1912-1990), the Australian writer and recipient of the 1973 Nobel prize for literature. Prior to amassing any artistic success, the two men in their mid-twenties were friends in London, where Francis Bacon worked as a furniture designer for a number of years. Bacon gifted his friend with a writing desk, which remained in White’s possession until he moved to Sydney in 1947 and could not bring the desk due to shipping costs. Once in Sydney, Patrick White wanted to recreate this desk, leading him to commission a cabinetmaker to make a replica based off of a single photograph, without consulting any dimensions or diagrams. The resultant desk was a very imprecise facsimile and possibly could have been offensive to the original designer had he seen it. This small history of a desk tells us this story of a slightly obsessive act of repetition. With a bit of hyperbole, Simon Starling revisits this story of replicating. He recycles this history by contracting three different desk-makers from around the world to create reproductions via a feedback loop. This network begins in Berlin with a copy made from the original photograph of the 1932 desk, which is then photographed via mobile device and sent to Sydney, Australia. A copy of the copy is produced and a new photograph is sent to London, England, where another furniture maker creates a copy of a copy of a copy for the final iteration. Three White Desks displays these three desks together on top of the shipping crates in which they circulate the world. The accompanying photo print helps visualize some, but not all, of the stories invested in the original desk designed by Francis Bacon. This work foregrounds a discussion of copying and the significance of information networks to modern life: the desks begin as material matter turned to immaterial data and then manifest again as tangible objects. It is significant that the original desk is no longer present and the repetitions are created off of this absence. They are simulations of something invisible – there is no original desk anymore. As these desks mutate form from wood to pixels and from code back to material, I think of the transmission of some ideal form. Each desk borrows certain elements from, and the essence of, the lost original, though none are precise copies.


Simon Starling
detail of Three White Desks, 2007/08

Simon Starling’s art also operates aesthetically, a visual reading can direct the viewer to new or deeper interpretations. For as much as the guiding stories enliven his works, attention needs to be paid to the formal aspects of the pieces – they divulge much about Starling’s artistic intentions and gestures. Francis Bacon’s original 1932 desk was modelled after the precedent desks by high modernist designers such as the Bauhaus school and Eileen Grey. The white writing desk is almost purely functional, devoid of anything non-essential. The smoothness of the white-varnished wood reads as streamlined. Bacon’s desk is built of flat planes, each a horizontal rectangle. The geometry of the desk is well-weighted. The open space for sitting is offset to the left, but the cupboards are measured as to create a balanced composition. The longer cupboards to the left appear to be roughly the width of the chair gap plus the narrower cupboards on the right. The only adornment is seen in the highly-polished chrome handles which echo the horizontality of the geometry. The desk is not entirely austere though – the writing surface is smooth white leather, exemplifying Francis Bacon’s eye for simplicity and sleekness.

One of the most striking elements of Francis Bacon’s desk is how acutely Bacon, the young untrained designer, was able to align himself to the fundamentals of modernist design. His desk sits definitely in the tradition of Le Corbusier, Robert Mallet-Stevens, and Marcel Breuer. Their design innovations are numerous and storied in the history of design. Functionality and banality reign in the design of Modernism. The tenants of this philosophy are the simplicity of form, industrialism for mass production and a blankness of expression. Adornment is forgone; each element of an object is essential to its purpose. Nothing is extraneous in the design language of Modernism. Most objects are rendered flat with unexpressive colours and yield a certain utilitarianism. Some of these virtues include notions of universality and internationalism. For example, a desk in England should look the same as a desk in Brazil as both are part of a global design language. This method of material production is efficient to a remarkable degree.

For all of the accomplishments arising from this design philosophy, a miasma lingers. There is a certain tinge of whitewashing and blandness in this style. The negation of artistic self-expression and the insistence on uniformity signals a mild authoritarianism. Modernist design was not envisioned to be a space of exuberance, experimentation, and uniqueness. It is stark. It is curious that Francis Bacon so readily mimics this bland style, when his eventual artistic career is marked by decrying rigidity. His paintings are so expressive and work against the grain of the universalizing and apolitical avant-garde of the designers he copied in his youth. The aesthetic of his furniture – and ultimately Simon Starling’s recycling of the same – is perplexing then considering the richness of Bacon’s signature artistic expression. When Starling returns to Bacon’s desk, Three White Desks is equally dry and formulaic. The work is a simple instruction and administration – a copy turned into an image and back to a copy and so on. Starling does not give space for lively or colourful artistic expression. Rather, each of the desks is the fulfillment of a rigid task or contract.

At the aesthetic core of Simon Starling’s work, we see the reiterations of a fundamentally Modernist work of design. I wonder what Starling hopes to relay in the work. How do we look at this work visually? Are these three repetitions a celebration of the Modernist design innovations, which Francis Bacon so beautifully recreated? Or are we to see this as a senseless exercise of echoes critiquing the bland design language of Modernist design? I chose the latter.

*Albrethsen, Pernille. “Ten Questions: Simon Starling.” Kunstkritikk. Web.

January 13, 2017

Consider the Bomb

by Gregory Woollgar

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Simon Starling
Self Portrait (as Henry Moore), 2011

The atomic bomb is the figure of death looming over modernity. The promise of apocalypse has never been so close to humanity as it was during the Second World War and the Cold War. The irony is that this phenomenon was entirely self-propelled—it occurred through the guise of technological advancement. This pinnacle of science and technology, the atomic bomb, resulted from the splitting of the atom. Dividing the atom promised a resolution to all of humanity’s energy problems. Nuclear science proposed limitless energy potential to fuel our impulse for industrial progress. All was in our grasp. The flip side of this nuclear project was a destructive inclination. The splitting of the atom could also provide limitless military potential. The ability to obliterate any rival was a tantalizing prospect for military use. The pure energy capacity extracted from microscopic atoms could wipe out vast cities. Thus the United States set out to militarize the sole atom. This is the paradox of the bomb and the Atomic Age: nuclear science was heralded to bring about an improved quality of life for humanity, but in fact threatened entire annihilation of society. The bomb is the product of a hyperactive obsession with technological advancement and militarization leading to the horrors at Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. The nuclear project is the apex of modernism and as such features prominently in Simon Starling’s work.

Simon Starling is eternally interested in the legacies of modernism as a launching point for his art practice. No site or idea from modernity could be riper for questioning than the legacy of the bomb. Simon Starling revisits this angel of death as a spectre haunting the histories of the 20th century and interrogates the complicity of art and design in this nuclear era. The connections between the bomb, art and popular culture have always been close. For example, Uranium’s radiation was discovered in 1896 by Henri Becquerel, who proved the principle of radioactivity through the observation of photographic film. The bikini swimsuit was unveiled to the public in 1946 in Paris, only days after the atomic bomb testing in Bikini Atoll. The ‘Peace Sign’ was designed in 1958 for the British nuclear disarmament movement by Gerald Holtom. Project for a Masquerade (Hiroshima) (2013 -2014) considers Henry Moore’s divisive sculpture, Nuclear Energy (1967) as a prime example of the connection between the bomb, art, and of the paradox of nuclear science.

Rennie Collection - Simon Starling
Simon Starling
Project for a Masquerade (Hiroshima), 2010

The main figure in Simon Starling’s Project for a Masquerade (Hiroshima) is Henry Moore’s sculpture, Nuclear Energy. This work went through a vigorous and dubious process of disguise and reinvention during Henry Moore’s life. The mushroom cloud-shaped sculpture was envisioned and made into a plaster model in 1964, and then commissioned by the University of Chicago in 1966 to be cast as a large bronze monument. The commission commemorated the site of the first self-sustained nuclear chain reaction overseen by Enrico Fermi. Later in 1970, Henry Moore invited photographer Errol Jackson to record him working on the already finished maquette in front of a formally similar elephant skull, which came into his possession well after completing the sculpture.* Years later, during the 1980s, Henry Moore was dissatisfied with the various connotations of his sculpture and possible complicity with the entire nuclear project. So he insisted a working model for Nuclear Energy be sold and displayed at the Hiroshima City Museum of Contemporary Art, under a new name Atom Piece.**

The question at hand surrounds the essence of this sculpture – is this the depiction of the productive potential of nuclear science or a critique of its destructive tendency or something entirely apolitical such as an elephant skull? Does Henry Moore celebrate modernism and the development of nuclear fission? Or does he see this practice as inherently flawed? More than likely, Moore was not fully aware of his complicity until decades into the Cold War when the immanence of nuclear proliferation had truly created a mark on public consciousness. Starling does not answer this question for us, but he does signal the multiplicity of interpretations in his project.

Simon Starling’s work can be viewed as a complex web of information that unfolds and leaps across time and space. He exposes expansive networks with numerous nodes marking the fascinating minutiae of sidebar histories. These stories transcend the confines of how we usually create history – trapped behind linear causalities. In Project for a Masquerade (Hiroshima), Starling bounds across seemingly unassociated histories and draws a map of relationships – he connects 16th century Japanese Noh play Eboshi-Ori, Henry Moore, the Manhattan Project, and James Bond. Though the project is complex, it does not come across as contrived, but rather each node is essential to the entire project. There is a certain poetic vision to Starling’s practice and how he addresses such divergent details with serendipity. Each aspect of the work acts like an atom orbiting a central nucleus, the base idea. His projects are always structured around a core. What is the center of Project for a Masquerade (Hiroshima), when so much of the play addresses instabilities?

Rennie Collection - Simon Starling
Simon Starling
Project for a Masquerade (Hiroshima), 2010

The core of Starling’s practice is to affect transformations – to alter objects. He tinkers. The goal of these alterations is to change our relationship to objects and histories. He pursues an impact on public awareness of specific objects. One way to think of these transformations is through the title of one of Starling’s largest exhibits, Metamorphology at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago. Morphology is the science of the conversion of organisms—to turn one thing into another. The ideas of transformation and morphology are overtly present in Project for a Masquerade (Hiroshima) as Simon Starling manipulates Eboshi-ori to discuss the adaptations of a single sculpture through a Cold War history. At the heart of the project is this conversation about mutation.

So then, why the bomb? At the most basic level, the atomic bomb is the product of a transformation. The physical and chemical mutation is the splitting of the atom. Nuclear fission alters and separates a nucleus into isotopes. This instability creates potential for near limitless energy transfer. The product of this minuscule reaction can take on different, contradictory identities – energy for the world or a bomb to end the world. The sole chemical transformation of nuclear fission created vast destruction. The power of a single act of conversion has sent reverbs through history. In total, Simon Starling’s project reminds us of the potency of the act of transformation.

* Correia, Alice. “‘Atom Piece (Working Model for Nuclear Energy) 1964–5, cast 1965 by Henry Moore OM, CH’ in Henry Moore: Sculptural Process and Public Identity”. Tate Research Publication. Web.
** Starling, Simon. “A nuclear masquerade.” Tate. Web.

January 4, 2017

Did you miss our our most recent Rennie Speaker Series with Simon Starling? Here’s your chance to watch the talk! Hear Simon Starling talk about the works exhibited at Rennie Museum between November 18, 2016 and March 25, 2017.

Rennie Speaker Series: Simon Starling from Rennie Collection on Vimeo.

December 16, 2016

[Newsletter] Happy Holidays from Rennie Collection

November 14, 2016

[Newsletter] Rennie Speaker Series Presents: Simon Starling

October 20, 2016

[Newsletter] New Rennie Museum Exhibition: Simon Starling

October 12, 2016

Testing the Boundaries of Knowledge and Perception

by Mariah Brusatore

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Douglas Huebler
Variable Piece #43 (Brussels), 1974/97

Conceptual art of the late 1960s and 1970s often included photography as artists began to investigate the medium as a way to critique, symbolize or explore reality. The movement asserts that “the idea itself, even if it is not made visual, is as much of art as any finished product,” as discussed by artist Sol LeWitt in his essay “Paragraphs on Conceptual Art” (1967)*. As a result, photography became a unique resource; it allowed for the exploration of the connection between conceptual ideologies and their resulting art objects in a reproducible, portable and accessible manner. By examining unusual subject matter and testing the boundaries of the art-making process, viewers were also encouraged to reconsider the conception of their own interpretations.

Douglas Huebler made use of conceptual photography as a method to investigate reality by testing the boundaries of knowledge and perception. He left behind a legacy of work which explored the relationship between ideas and the variables of chance, calling into question the status of the traditional art object and art-making process. He is quoted as saying, “The world is full of objects, more or less interesting; I do not wish to add any more. I prefer, simply, to state the existence of things in terms of time and place.”** Huebler’s work often contained two separate elements: a photograph and a descriptive text that explained the underlying concept of the image. He made use of the camera as a tool to document, however, by integrating linguistic communication with pictorial representation Huebler also placed emphasis on the idea over the visual iteration. His oeuvre shows viewers innumerable of ways to represent the visible, demonstrating how an idea or directive phrase can be endlessly realized.

huebdo-02_variable43_lores

Douglas Huebler
detail of Variable Piece #43 (Brussels), 1974/97

Huebler’s photographs are chance operations. They consume the spontaneous nature of reality through the inclusion of randomness and variability, containing the presence of the spur-of-the-moment. These investigations were mainly explored in two series that Huebler worked on throughout his career. Although approaching differing subject matter, both series embodied Huebler’s aesthetic and spoke to his philosophical exploration of visual representation. With the Duration Piece series, the artist explored a specific idea for each work pertaining to a certain location during a set timeframe, as exemplified in Duration Piece #5 (1969). To create the piece, the artist sought to document the locations of distinct bird calls in Central Park over the duration of ten minutes. Every time Huebler heard a different bird call, he would point his camera in the corresponding direction, photograph it and proceed to walk forward on that course until the next song was heard. At that point, he would orient himself and the camera and photograph the direction of the new noise. The final form of the work includes ten photographs of ambiguous aspects of the park and a written statement that describes the happening. In this work and akin to the rest of the series, the photographs serve as a clarification of an event within a specific time, place and location captured in situ. Huebler’s work opens up the creative process through the removal of a portion of artistic control by embracing chance and variability. The visual component of the work consequently becomes the precursor to the explored concept, a relationship which is also found in Huebler’s other series, Variable Piece.

While both series similarly incorporate text with photography, Variable Piece seeks to document the existence of every living human being rather than enacting a specific ideology. Huebler works collaboratively with the individuals in the photographs and uses the textual accompaniment to explain the specificities of the encounter, as seen in Variable Piece #43 (Brussels) (1974/97). Showing in Rennie Museum’s Summer 2016: Collected Works exhibition, the work contains four photographs of a group of smiling, gleeful, young boys. The images feature close-up shots of the neatly dressed, bright-eyed children; happiness gleams from their expressive appearances as their playful laughter is captured by the camera. They are familiarly and affectionately embracing one another, an act that mimics the intimately close shots of their faces.

Upon initial impressions of the photographs, the viewer may perceive the production of the images to be more deliberate than their spur-of-the-moment origins. Their composition and delightful subject matter look comparable to a movie still, potentially taken from an inspirational moment. The boys look comfortable in front of the camera as if to suggest the photographer is familiar with them. However, reading Huebler’s textual accompaniment reveals the underlying spontaneity and genuine gaiety of the piece. The text describes an unexpected encounter with the group of children as the artist was passing by. Even though they spoke a different language, the artist expresses how he understood the children wished to have their photographs taken. He thus responds to the “playful spirit of the boys” and pulls out his camera “simulating the ‘quick draw’ manner of the gunmen seen in Western movies…”. Complimenting the light-hearted nature of the photographs through his excitable explanation, Huebler encourages the viewer to imagine the warm, chance meeting; he inspires his audience to compare their initial perceptions of the photographs with the optimistically written narrative. As a result, it becomes clear to the viewer that there are multitudes of ways to not only create imagery but to comprehend it.

Rennie Collection - Collected Works Summer 2016
Installation View

Photography has always existed as a means to record; however, by pairing photographs with a written statement, Huebler impacts viewer’s perceptions of his documentations. The linguistic assertion is unexpectedly different from the aesthetics of the photographs, resulting in the alteration of the interpretation of the images. The artist shows that perception is malleable and the specificities of location, time or place affect personal experience much like how they affect the outcome of Huebler’s photographs. Therefore, rather than make finite conclusions, the written statement and its resulting photographs pose infinite potentials. Enacting out the concept is boundless. The artist’s practice thus confronts his audience, encouraging them to consider the images through Huebler’s lens and evaluation of the familiar within the everyday.

*LeWitt, ‘Paragraphs on Conceptual Art’. Artforum Vol.5: no.10, Summer 1967. pg. 79-83.
**Smith, ‘Douglas Huebler, 72, Conceptual Artist’. New York Times: U.S. online edition, July 17,1997.

August 31, 2016

To Reconsider the Possibilities of Image-making

by Mariah Brusatore

Rennie Collection - Collected Works Summer 2016
Rodney Graham
Fantasia Four Hands, 2002

Imagery is the main reality through which we come to know the world. Rooted historically as a mechanical recording device, the camera emerged as a tool to document; to capture the surrounding world, a fleeting moment in time, within a portable and intimate reproduction. Photography’s birth into the world and subsequent infancy can be understood as candour records or reflections. Perhaps the token origin of the medium is why we often consider the photograph to be genuine, albeit the artistic interventions that may be present.

If a photograph is staged, but appears to be natural, what does this suggest about the artistic intention? If a print has been manipulated either perceptibly with another medium, or subtly in postproduction, how does this change the way we see the work? How do multiple images within a series of photographs contribute to the overall message and aesthetic? These significant questions relate to many of the artworks within Rennie Museum’s Summer 2016: Collected Works, a group exhibition on photography.

Photography, unlike other artistic mediums, has the capacity to present fiction as fact, to suggest contrived and deliberate moments as natural ones. Artists’ imaginations or even irrationalities can be given the appearance of an objective reality, despite their staged or manipulated origins. Due to these subtle dualities, interpreting the work may be challenging, and thus encourage us to question content and context. What is presented to us within the image may, in fact, be a symbol, suggestion or reference; it may reveal to us artists’ own unique perceptions of themselves or the worlds in which they live.

Using photography to examine the self, Rodney Graham’s Fantasia Four Hands (2002) exemplifies this sentiment. Initially appearing as an inverted photograph, his diptych suggests a candid performance of two gentlemen playing a piano together. Despite these valid preliminary observations, the photographs actually contain multiple artistic interventions that bring humour and introspection into the work.

Graham, in the foreground, captures our attention with an intense, staring gaze. His dramatic hands prance upon the keys, matching the theatrical raise in his eyebrows. Donning a lighter coloured suit and glasses, the character beside Graham has similar features, but is looking intently at the instrument upon which his hands are affecting. Although only the profile of his face is shown, after a moment’s consideration, it is noticeable that both characters are in fact the artist— the photographs have been altered to include Graham playing the piano with himself. Graham, through staged manipulation, invites us to consider the interplay of these deliberate elements. Two opposing presentations of the self suggest that we could be looking at contrasting sides of the artist’s persona. Through direct eye contact, the persona in the front captures our attention and invites us into his performance. The artist appears in the spotlight of the public as a grandiose and exaggerated performer. Graham’s background persona deflects our gaze through differing body language, thus suggesting that we are encroaching on a secluded act. He is privileging us to witness the humble moment of the private self.

Rennie Collection - Collected Works Summer 2016
Installation View

The presentation of Fantasia Four Hands also emphasizes the duality of Graham’s personas. Appearing as a reflection of each other upon first impressions, the images mimic an inversion. Grasping our attention more intensely, we are thus viewing four performances by Graham’s four personas; two of which are making direct, theatrical eye contact with us. His bold expressions and dramatic playing accentuate the display of his public persona. Contributing to the satiric energy of the work, the artist’s four eyes stare attentively at us as we move.

It is as if the artist is also amplifying his shameless performance by appearing to compete against himself. The duality of personas within the photographs looks as if they could be duelling; perhaps Graham is duelling the self four times over. Deliberate and subtle inclusion of differing foot placement gives away the guise, however, revealing that the work is, in fact, two separate photographs. The artist wants us to know the images are not what they initially appear to be, he encourages us to examine the work closely and to question what we observe. Graham, alongside the other artists within the exhibition, urges us to persuade our interpretations past initial perceptions.

Inverting the subject, recontextualizing the work of another artist, or adding text are some of the ways in which the artists in Summer 2016: Collected Works challenge our readings. David Claerbout progresses the dialogue further by redefining the boundaries of photography in Dancing Couples (after: Couples at square dance, McIntosh County, Oklahoma, 1939 or 1940) (2007). In this single channel video installation, the artist’s distinctive work skips between the confines of a still or moving image. Leaving us in a state of pensive contemplation, Claerbout’s marrying of technique and subject matter invigorates us to reconsider the possibilities of image-making.

Much like Graham’s Fantasia Four Hands, Claerbout’s work also encourages a transformation of initial insights. Spending more than just a brief moment with Dancing Couples (after: Couples at square dance, McIntosh County, Oklahoma, 1939 or 1940) reveals a subtle movement. The artist brings the work to life by manipulating the bold lighting. He slowly shifts only the illumination. Through this action, emphasis interchanges between couples as the light gives the appearance that they are moving; they are performing. By isolating and modifying a single detail within a still scene, the once stationary tableau takes on another, three-dimensional form. Can we still consider this a photograph? As Claerbout moves us away from traditional modes of photographic reception and consumption, it becomes clear that questioning our definitions of the work is perhaps one the artist’s intentions. By challenging the boundaries of the medium, the artist is inspiring us to reconsider our own relationships to image-making; he is encouraging the artist within us all to explore the photograph.

Rennie Collection - Collected Works Summer 2016
David Claerbout
Dancing Couples (after: Couples at square dance,
McIntosh County, Oklahoma, 1939 or 1940)
, 2007

Involving us further within his work, Claerbout creates an exclusive experience as our eyes make contact with those of the gentlemen’s. The artist invites us into their impassioned dance as our eyes connect with the gentlemen’s brief expressions of surprise. As such, Claerbout is allowing us to move into the performance ourselves, feeling the emotions and movement of those within the tableau. The artist’s gesture thus challenges the physical boundary between us and the art; we become a part of the performance. Our focus is crucial for completing the work. Graham also utilizes the gesture of the gaze with Fantasia Four Hands but unlike Claerbout’s exploration, his audacious persona reinforces a physical distance between us and the work. Graham’s presence is commanding. His eyes grasp ours from the moment we enter the room, inviting us to physically step back to absorb the zealous energy the diptych is emitting.

Both Graham’s capturing of his artistic performance and Claerbout’s art of portraying a performance dramatically move away from photography’s initiation to the world. Graham and Claerbout, as well as the other artists within the exhibition, lead us on a journey of discovery. Not only are we exploring the realms of possibility within image-making in photography, but we are also able to investigate our own relationships to art and how this affects our perceptions of ourselves and the world around us.

August 19, 2016

[Newsletter] The Art of Philanthropy