• Review

  • August 27th, 2014 08.27.2014

    Simon Starling: MCA Chicago


    Simon Starling contends with the very idea of transportation as his subject. Undertaking poetic expeditions that highlight specific global exchanges, the British-born neo-conceptual artist works across multiple disciplines—drawing from extensive research to construct meaning. In Flaga, a red and white Fiat 126 hangs on the wall like a painting. The car—a symbol of postwar reconstruction in Italy—was driven to Poland, where it is now currently produced. The car has been reassembled to reference the Polish flag—its symbolic meaning is transformed, tracing the discourse between East and West over the last four decades. The vehicle was first introduced in 1972 in Turin; a Fiat factory was also introduced in Poland in the early ‘70s, where labor and operations remained economically effective under the rule of communist leadership. While the model of Fiat no longer continued being produced for a Western audience past the early ‘80s, the car continued to be manufactured in Poland—becoming a symbol, indeed a sign, of daily life in the Communist Bloc. A vehicle of the East, once imagined for the West. Its journey, undertaken here by proxy via Starling, is experienced in the real, adding an additional narrative that allows viewers various points of engagement with the work.

    Concurrent exhibitions of Starling’s work, currently on view at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) Chicago and the Arts Club of Chicago, present us with similar byproducts of pilgrimages made by both the artist and his artworks. Inspired by the many intertwining paths of economy, politics, and art in an increasingly global world, Starling physically retraces certain routes in order to locate his practice within a larger context.

    Starling’s exhibition at the MCA, entitled Metamorphology (where Flaga can be found) serves as a kind of mini retrospective, including mostly large-scale installations made within the last decade. The works posses a withheld energy, the dynamics of which are unlocked through substantial wall texts, written by the artist himself, simultaneously contextualizing and altering the work. The 2005 recipient of the prestigious Turner Prize, Starling is very different from the ego-driven, highly individualist young British artists that have preceded him—namely Damien Hirst and Tracy Emin. Despite the work’s dangerously large size and weight, they demonstrate humility. In Long Ton, two massive blocks of marble—one Chinese marble and another slightly smaller block of Carrara marble (digitally carved to recreate the shape of the former)—are suspended from the ceiling with the help of a pulley system. While it would be impossible to deduce the process undergone by the Carrara slab without the aid of text, the description becomes a part of the material once its history is known. The written material provided by Starling, often containing historical and factual information, demonstrates his reverence towards objects/subjects of inspiration. Starling’s alteration of meaning always takes into account his subject’s provenance.

    A term Starling likes to use in relation to his work is collapse. This word is befitting for him, firstly due to the fact that one would literally be flattened under certain works if they were ever to fall (the marble blocks being one example), but also because the artist himself bears a certain pressure of accountability; the vertigo of global production and the weight of art history. Starling reacts to these powers of authority by materially working through his uneasiness in a way that addresses fundamentals. An important element of this is done through exploring the origin of raw materials—such as in One Ton II, a series of identically replicated photographs of a Platinum mine in South Africa. While the expanse of the mine is vast, calling attention to the massive excavation, recreated in the platinum used to make the photographic print, a kind of doubling recurs through the material and its representation, both here and throughout Starling’s method.

    Another work, entitled Birds in Space, is comprised of a massive raw steel plate resting on inflated jackets. Named after a series of bronze sculptures by modernist Constantin Brancusi, the steel plate references a significant moment in art history. 1926 witnessed an extraordinary legal case when custom officials refused to exempt Brancusi’s sculptures from duties as works of art. Starling’s Birds in Space—having travelled the same historical route—is in homage to Brancusi’s victory, as well as an attempt to layer upon art history.

    Starling’s interest in Brancusi’s legacy acts as a bridge between his exhibition at the MCA and Pictures for an Exhibition at The Arts Club of Chicago, while retaining many of the artist’s similar contextual and material concerns. The exhibition presents us with photographs. Uniformly sized and black and white, they are classically displayed next to one another. Several of photographs on view are of other artworks, mostly Brancusi’s, strangely framed through doorways or even behind an old 8 × 10 camera. An odd photograph of an autographed Football or a Ferrari is included, always vertically displayed, notwithstanding its natural orientation, making a clear reference to archival strategies. Certain times the photographs are imposed over one another—in one instance, Brancusi’s work forefronts the Wrigley Building.

    Despite the deviations within the selected images on view, the entire exhibition is inspired by a pair of vintage photographs of Brancusi’s 1926 exhibition at The Arts Club. Starling’s work is the result of an adopted, methodical approach he uses to track down the present-day locations that house the eighteen sculptures visible in the original documentation—intertwining American history with the relocations over the last 87 years. In doing so, Starling illuminates a complex network of connections between art, economics, society, and history that are a part of the new narratives of the sculptures—the Chicago World’s fair, the expansion of diamond trade, and even certain moments of political change, to name a few.

    Photographing the original works with the original 8 × 10 Deardoff used to document the Arts Club exhibition, Starling generates a new context out of old materials—ontologically challenging linear narratives of history to generate less familiar ideas about documents and the archive. By including the camera in many of the pictures, Starling also discloses his process and the bodily journey made. He illustrates how these photographs are our access to the concrete, in a world where corporeal connections to materials are becoming increasingly complicated. The irony of this exhibition lies in the fact that The Arts Club refuses to let visitors photograph Starling’s work—the audience is unable to integrate themselves within the practice on view. However, this is also where Starling’s individuality can be detected. This is a personal curation of history, locating the artist’s specific acts of creation in relation to an already created world. The transformations that Starling’s works undergo in both exhibitions rely on the frame he creates to understand global systems, forever placed in relation to their complex pasts.

    Simon Starling:  Metamorphology at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago runs through November 2, 2014