June 16, 2017

Contextual Narratives of Simon Starling

by Jacky Lo


Simon Starling
detail of One Ton II, 2005

Looking at art, we naturally consider the form, content, and context of the work and often times we tend to dismiss the monetary factors in its creation. Exposing the financial aspects of art can sometimes create a controversial presence in an artwork or an artist’s practice, as it contradicts the general assumption that visual art is simply an artistic expression. Indeed, this assumption can lead artists to steer the focus away from the economics of art. Considering that money can at times define or limit a work, it is refreshing to see artists take on the challenge to unfold the fiscal backside. Artists like Simon Starling have willingly generated a discourse on the topic by revealing the role economics play in their body of work. Starling addresses the economic roles through both the use of material transformations and historical narratives that deeply inform his practice.   

Starling’s photographic work at the Rennie Museum is finely tuned, framed and displayed in sharp monochromatic tones, with an underlying sense of purpose and structure. Displayed across the brick backdrop of the original back half of the Wing Sang building, One Ton II (2005), consists of 5 repeat photographs of a South African ore mine, which Starling utilizes to highlight the commercial efforts in art making. Although visually flat, the photos are composed of hundreds of thousands of three-dimensional platinum particles at an atomic level, particles that he considers as related to sculpture. Starling has framed the prints within acrylic boxes rather than traditional frames, akin to sculptural pieces in display cases. The process he employs to obtain these particles informs the way the work is perceived conceptually.


Simon Starling
Pictures for an Exhibition, 2013

The narrative structure of the work’s material process is essentially an investigation into the origin of raw materials. In order to create the photographs, Starling oversees a chain of industrial and environmental processes. The depicted ore mine is also the supplier for the platinum used in the photographs. The result is as many prints equivalent to the amount of platinum subtracted from one ton of ore. Platinum is an expensive element that currently retails at about $45 CAD per gram, making the artwork costly to produce. Furthermore, platinum mining requires specialized industrial and environmental processes. It requires time, research, specialists, and considerable funds to complete the connection between mining operations, photographic production, and the resulting commodity that resides within a museum. This material choice and means of transformation is a demonstration of the high cost of creation, and thereby directs us towards the relationship between the creative process and the need for economic backing. This backstory of labour, as well as the embedded economic and environmental networks, reveal a facet of the fiscal and artistic process that Starling has wittingly invoked.

Pictures for an Exhibition (2013) exposes an intricate structure of historical accounts and economics of the art world through the documentation of how art is circulated. The work addresses two installation photographs of a 1927 exhibition featuring 19 pieces of famed sculptor Constantin Brancusi at the Arts Club of Chicago. These sculptures would later be sold and spread across the world in a flurry of museums and collections. Starling focused his research on discovering and photographing the trails of collectors and institutions, all of which had the means or intention to buy, sell, and gift these sculptures. He found each Brancusi work in its current location and captured them in the exact same angle as they appear in the original 1927 installation photographs. Through photo manipulation, Starling overlaid the 19 Brancusi sculptures back together to recreate a facsimile of the original installation photographs. This process directs the viewers to a historical network of financial trails regarding these sculptures and their collectors. The use of a historical lens personifies the sculptures: it represents the trajectory of their past ‘lives’ and the journeys that these sculptures have taken from the original exhibition to spaces revealed through Starling’s research. In one case, Starling found that Brancusi’s Torso of a Young Woman (1918) was the only piece from the exhibition to enter a collection outside the United States. In 1980, it was acquired by the Kunstmuseum Basel and was previously thought to be owned by collectors Agnes Drey and by Otto Werthheimer. Here, we see the route of the sculpture: passing from artist to collector, and then to institution through the use of “public and private funds”.* Like Torso of a Young Woman (1918), many of the Brancusis in the original exhibition were similarly passed from hand to hand, time and time again. Starling’s main objective in recreating the original installation photographs is to unravel the historical narrative of each sculpture. As a result, the work only exists through the sculptures’ expeditions and the documentation of their paths. Without these networks of circulation and trade, Starling would have not needed to re-photograph and reconfigure the past exhibition. Unwinding these histories simultaneously exposes the economic demeanor of the art. This reveal presents a complex system underlining that an artwork’s trajectory and economics work hand in hand together.


Installation View

Art is first experienced with our senses and is filtered through cognitive processes. These experiences can affect how we view and feel about the artwork, taking on considerations of its form, materiality, content, and context. It therefore exhibits multiplex aspects, which Starling evokes through his research and process-based practice. One Ton II (2005) translates a full network of manufacturing processes through the use of material transformation, evidencing the fact that financial means play a physically and conceptually important role in an artwork. Pictures for an Exhibition (2013) highlights a system of exchanges and distribution, addressing ownership, power, loss, and transaction in the art world. In One Ton II (2005) and Pictures for an Exhibition (2013), Starling decodes the monetary facet of art by exposing the exchanges of industrial processes and the dense network of circulation. Thanks to Starling, the viewer gains a new perspective when analyzing an artwork, and learns to consider factors beyond the form, content, and context of the work. Recognizing that financial means are often an unexposed but an important aspect of art moves that art beyond a simple artistic expression.

* Starling, Simon. “Simon Starling: Collected Works.” Rennie Collection, 2016. Page 16. Print

May 9, 2017

Celebrating Canada

In celebration of Canada’s 150th birthday, we are donating 197 paintings, sculptures and mixed-media pieces made by some of the most well-known and established Canadian and international artists working today to the National Gallery of Canada!

This is the largest gift of contemporary art ever received by the National Gallery, with major pieces created by internationally renowned artists, such as Colombian Doris Salcedo, as well as important Vancouver based artists Brian Jungen, Damian Moppett, Rodney Graham, Ian Wallace, and Geoffrey Farmer, who is Canada’s selection for the 57th International Art Exhibition, La Biennale di Venezia.

May 2, 2017

[Newsletter] New Rennie Museum Exhibition: Ian Wallace: Collected Works

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