Whatever is almost true is quite false, and among the most dangerous of errors, because being so near truth, it is more likely to lead astray.

– Henry Ward Beecher (1813 – 1887).

The alchemy of transformation.

No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.


Simon Starling is an artist adept in weaving an intricate web of concurrence that is as rewarding as it is provocative.  His work operates within a fluctuation of time and space and deals with a multiplicity of meanings.  Starling appreciates the way workmanship adds to understanding of the story of an object, and displays mental dexterity pulling together ideas to sit alongside one another.

Starling’s success as an artist lies in his acute ability to identify connections and turn them into a narrative that defies linearity and plays deftly with our understanding of time and location. In a sense the work also offers an understanding of both movement and stasis: “His artworks tend to operate as both narrative (velocity) and objects (position)” (Rappolt, 2013, p. 75), due to the shifting territory within which his concepts reside.

What typifies the experience of Starling’s work is a sense of wonder in the encounter as the audience relives the physical or mental journey of the artist, and delights in the seemingly propitious relationship between his ideas. In an interview with Christiane Rekade for the Journal Art History Starling explains his process and how he makes discoveries:

Sometimes you just go looking, you take a journey, keep your head down and your eyes and ears open and look for that connection, that overlap of an idea and an object to occur.  Sometimes if feels like the objects find you – you just have to be aware of it when they do.  And on very rare occasions you have the feeling that the object is only there to be found because you wanted it to be – your imagination somehow forced it into the world.

(Starling as cited in Rekade, 2013, p. 642)

These connections require that the story, or documentary writing to be very much a part of the work, both in the text that accompanies the work (which explains the complexities) as well as the titling which serves to represent the idea as simply as possible.  For example Shedboatshed (2005), cleverly distills the artwork (and its journey) even without the backstory.


Despite the ambitious scale of some of Starling’s projects craftsmanship is an important element in the work.  The evidence of the process of making is contained within the work as part of the story and its traces of the past.  So that the scarring of the wood in Shedboatshed is a document of its life as shed and a boat before it became a shed once again.

I’m really interested in what it means to make something in a culture in which our connections with making and manufacture are increasingly distant – we have become estranged from the things we use every day.

(Starling as cited in Rekade, 2013, p. 648).

The history of the artwork inherent in the making of the work becomes another layer to its temporal expedition: it references backward and forwards simultaneously. In addition the concepts usually employ a circular logic which creates a story that loops easily back to the beginning.  As a result the work avoids being tied to a particular timeframe, and so occupies a shifting territory between past, present and future: “Time constantly folds back on itself, is conflated or confused – so the future is always set in the present and is always misremembered” (Starling as cited in Rekade, 2013, p. 650).

This understanding of time as a fluid and non-linear entity was the premise behind the show Starling curated for the Camden Arts Centre in London, Never the Same River (Possible Futures, Probable Pasts) (2010). Starling chose a number of artworks previously shown at the centre from various exhibitions and displayed them in the same spot they originally occupied, according to a combination of research into documentation, as well as relying on memory, rumour and speculation (Starling, 2010, p. 33).

Never the same river 2

The result of this process was a series of artworks connected over time and space and the strange juxtapositions they create through their mutual haunting of the gallery.  Starling’s strength in identifying relationships is showcased in the selection of the works displayed.

Never the same river 1

Thus the show operates to highlight strange commonalities of forms and ideas, but breathes unexpected new life into the work by altering the context with which they are read.

Context is everything, and the history and provenance of an object is as important to Starling as the object itself, perhaps sometimes more important as seen in the paired works A Charles Eames ‘Alumunium Group’ chair remade using the metal from a ‘Marin Sausalito’ bicycle/ A ‘Marin Sausalito’ bicycle remade using the metal from a Charles Eames ‘Aluminuim Group’ chair (1997).

Simon Starling chair bike

Here Starling plays with the relationship between two objects which at first seem very different.  However the title illuminates the fact that each started out as the other and have undergone a transformation so that over the course of their making they switch places.  Each object is convincing, and yet, they both bear the invisible history through the title, and subsequently become more fascinating.  The transformative nature of their existence, though past, compels the viewer to consider the similarities of the objects.  Both are designed to hold stationary and moving bodies (Rappolt, 2013, p. 73).

Starling’s work is as embedded with histories as it is with transformation and temporal shiftiness. The traces of past lives haunt within their new contemporary contexts. Starling is not only a storyteller, but an alchemist.

The student was saying to Colin, ‘For Christ’s sake, Colin, painting’s over, film is the art of the twentieth century … Painting’s had it, it’s still, it doesn’t move, it’s yesterday.’ And Colin looked at him for a while and he said, ‘Painting’s not over, do you know why?’ The guy said, ‘Why?’ He said, ‘Because it still doesn’t move.’ And I thought that was pretty sharp.  (Barry Lett as cited in Paton, 2005, p. 120).

A few reflections on some random out-of-context stuff from the seminar.

I think I’ve identified the problem I’m grappling with and that is finding a balance between intuition and being purposeful in my art making. A phrase I wrote down twice in my seminar notes was: ‘understanding the consequences of our thoughts’ which is a pretty apt piece of advice for me at this stage of my study.  The problem is, it’s a bit of a conundrum also, because it is all too easy for me to get caught up in the thinking and second guess all of the making to the point of crushing it altogether!  I have to understand the consequences of my thoughts without getting trapped inside them. Understanding the problem isn’t the same as having a solution… but I’m working on it!

On the last day of the seminar there was a really interesting discussion around the division between form, subject and content in artworks.  I’m a bit of a slow burn on this kind of thing so bear with me (and correct me if I’m wrong). As I understand it:

FORM is the materials, what it looks like, how it is made up.

SUBJECT is what it is about, the ideas it explores.

CONTENT is what it does, what the audience reads in the work, what it refers to.

If I’m right, and that is the case then it would seem that in every artwork the artist has control over the form and the subject, but not the content. The artist should understand what the content might be, and perhaps even aim for a particular content to come across, but this is the slippery part because they cannot guarantee a specific content to successfully come across to the viewer. I think maybe it only happens when the form and the subject are very cleverly aligned. Maybe this is what Anthony means when he talks about something humming?  Perhaps also content could be aligned to the artist’s intentions… a work is successful when the content and intention are very close, and less successful where the intentions and content don’t match?

It’s a bit of a brain teaser, but it’s possible probable that I am over thinking it.

David Thomas talked about the benefit in ‘wasting time’ which is not the same as squandering time, rather allowing for time without intention and just being in the world.  I’m resolving to do more of this.  Some of my better ideas have popped into my head, fully formed, out the blue when I’m in the middle of something else, so making time to waste time is probably very valuable for an over-thinker like me.