Simon Starling: In Speculum

Over Easter I managed to visit the Simon Starling exhibition In Speculum at City Gallery in Wellington… I left it a little bit in love.

Starling’s practice is research driven, his artwork is not only the artefact/s on display, but is also inextricably linked to the story of how the artefact came to be. Without the contextualising artist statement, the audience is only seeing part of the work.

In his catalogue essay on Starling, Justin Clemens notes the links between modern science and modern art and provides the following list to sum up the similarities in how these two disciplines operate, both Modern Science and Modern Art:

  1. make the invisible visible;
  2. make the visible invisible;
  3. make the visible visible;
  4. make the invisible invisible;
  5. make the visible an abyss of visibility;
  6. make all beliefs about the visible and invisible unbelievable;
  7. make all knowledge about the visible and invisible partial and temporary.

(Clemens, 2013, p. 18)

This dizzying logic compliments that of Starling himself, the backstory, the narrative is a cluster of stars that make up a constellation.

One of the works, Three White Desks (2008 – 09), incorporates three desks sitting on top of packing crates, two of the desks are white, and one is in natural wood tones. Although there are similarities, such as the number and location of drawers, they are three fairly different desks.

starling three white desks

This work was inspired by an obscure story about how Australian writer Patrick White who was living in London commissioned a young Francis Bacon (prior to his painting career) to make him a writing desk. He was very pleased with the result. White later sold the desk in preparation for returning to Australia, but he regretted doing so and tried to have a copy made from a photograph only to find it a disappointing mimicry of the original (Clemens, Leonard & Gillespie, 2013, p. 65).

Starling took this story and commissioned his own replica of the desk by a cabinetmaker in Berlin. The Berlin cabinetmaker was then instructed to send a photograph of his finished desk to a Cabinetmaker in Sydney, who in turn sent a photograph of his own version to a Cabinetmaker in London. The locations were chosen for their relevance to the story (Berlin being where Bacon encountered modernist designers, London where the desk was bought and made, and Sydney where White commissioned the replica).

Starling’s desks, likened to a game of Chinese Whispers, show a progression of variations. Each desk references the one before it, but with unique characteristics, and all reference of course the absent desk built by Bacon, which only exists in a photograph.

Another work in the exhibition, Wilhelm Noack oHG 2006, is a film (and projector) that explores a metal workshop in Berlin. The Wilhelm Noack oHG has a long history in Berlin that connects it not only to the Bauhaus but also the Third Reich.

Starling 2

The film shows a combination of still archival imagery alongside moments of action in which the workshop is revealed. Starling employs a sort of self-referential logic; the shots inside the workshop were created by placing the camera on the moving machinery, so it is, in fact, the machinery that films itself.

In addition to this a spectacular projector is displayed, and it vies for attention with the film.

The machine is so extravagant and absurd that our attention is split between watching the film and watching the projector, between looking at the representation of machinery and the machinery of representation.

Leonard, 2013, p. 37.

The projector somewhat resembles a spiral staircase and the film is looped up and down along protruding arms, so that as the images play out on the wall, the film itself is seen moving up and down this specially made apparatus… an apparatus produced in the very same Berlin workshop.

Starling 1

This exhibition highlights Starling’s deft conceptual concerns and his intricately connected logic. It operates to open up a wonderland of information that connects anecdotal science to storytelling, but more than that, it lingers.  Starling seems to have a knack for opening up just enough information, whilst a vast continent of knowledge is left for our own discovery.

Why drawing?

Last year I had a particularly difficult critique session characterised by a lingering deathly silence. It panicked me, because all I could think of was that the work was so alienating that no one could get any reading from it at all, and as a result I was jumpy and defensive, and terrified that I’d been found out as a fraud. It was during this frustrated and uncomfortable silence that the question “why drawing?” was levelled at me in what I took at the time to be a confrontational manner. The question knocked all the wind out of me (what wind was left!) and I cannot for the life of me recall what my answer was except that it was stuttered out in with all the gawkish awkwardness I had, I thought, hidden away carefully.

Why drawing? Later it made me angry. Why not drawing? No one asks a photographer ‘Why photography?’ I told myself. Drawing is my medium, I thought, perhaps slightly possessively, jealously, as though to hold it tight to my chest and sooth myself with its familiarity. But I knew that wasn’t good enough truly. Even through the anger. And later still it came to me late at night, why drawing? Like a haunting.

I didn’t set out to be an artist that draws. A drawer. It’s an ungainly, unflattering word, especially spoken out loud. I never intended to draw specifically; I had always secretly hoped to be a painter really. I tried on other things at first, flirted with other mediums and methods, made things, objects that I was never quite comfortable calling sculpture. At one time I was quite convinced I was a printmaker. But eventually I fell into drawing because I thought it might lead to painting. I figured it was the start of things, the beginning, and maybe it could have been, or should have been, if only I could bring myself to move on.

I got sucked in to drawing thinking that once I’d mastered it I could logically make the next step. But it was a trap! There is no mastery of drawing. No matter what you do it can always be better, sharper, cleaner, more precise, and when you are done with that (and I am not yet!) it can always be more expressive, looser, smudgier, softer, harder, bigger, smaller. It can copy, create, demonstrate, elucidate! The more I studied drawing the less sense painting even made to me, how could I commit to colour, to texture, to brushstroke when there are so many questions still lingering around line and tone? Why complicate the language when there is so much that can be said with adding and erasing?

The more enamoured I grew with drawing; the more it became not only my medium, but also my subject. There hidden away at the bottom of my investigations was that drawing was one of the simplest expressions of trace. Suddenly my fascination with the connections between different people, and between people and objects, and the connections between past and future, left hemisphere and right hemisphere, text and image and text as image; my fascination with reproduction and reconstructions could only be answered in the simplest, sparest, most modest mark making. It seemed unnecessarily complicated, cruel even, to burden these thoughts with all the baggage of the historical pedigree of painting (or printmaking, or sculpture…); or to encumber these ideas in the heavy trappings of traditions, technical craftsmanship, or the controversies of the fashionable. Other mediums seem so laden with baggage from the past. Drawing I find deceptive in its simplicity and universality. Drawing is the wallflower, the quietest voice with the most to say. Drawing is the ancestor of everything, and yet because it has always been there, somewhere, minding its own business, it has escaped the limitations of other art forms with their standard expectations and their rules, rules, rules.

That sounds unfair, like I’m dismissing out of hand all other ways of working, but I’m not, I promise. I suppose I am really trying to figure this out, in a verbose outpouring, which is primarily a stream of consciousness, just why it is that drawing appeals to me, and why I feel so strongly that it is the best way to say what I want to say. The truth is… What is the truth? What do I think drawing can do differently? Why choose drawing as the vehicle of my ideas? Is it honest to think that no other medium could possibly do the job?

Why drawing? I don’t have an answer that will necessarily satisfy that question, and I suspect it will continue to haunt me, because in truth my answer is simply because I haven’t finished yet…

Turquoise Blouse

One day a few years ago my mother took out of her cedar chest the turquoise blouse  she bought for me on that trip to Bolivia, a miniature of the native women’s outfits. When she unfolded the little garment and gave it to me, the living memory of wearing the garment collided shockingly with the fact that it was so tiny, with arms less than a foot long, with a tiny bodice for a small cricket cage of a ribcage that was no longer mine, and the shock was that my vivid memory included what it felt like to be inside that brocade shirt but not the fact that inside it I had been so diminutive, had been something utterly other than my adult self who remembered.  The continuity of memory did not measure the abyss between a toddler’s body and a woman’s.

When I recovered the blouse, I lost the memory, for the two were irreconcilable.  (Solnit, 2006, p. 37)


IMG_7053 IMG_7057

After a few initial set backs (due mostly to my inexperience of working with wood) I finally finished the pantograph I’d been planning since the last seminar.  I’m going to need a bigger drawing board to attach it to, but eureka it works!

The principle is that you draw with the pencil on the left, and the pencil on the right mimics the movements and copies the drawing larger.  The quality of the lines are somewhat dependent on how tightly the joints are screwed (it is more fluid, when they are looser, obviously) but having the wing nuts on means that the joints can all be played around with.