“A-A’, B-B’, which will take place both in Glasgow and Turin, feels very much like a project for the age of Brexit – a divided painting, a divided car, two venues bridging an imminent divide.”
Our interview with the 2005 Turner Prize winner Simon Starling. Interview by: Natalia Gonzalez Martin
Your work often scapes the unidirectional gallery setting, your upcoming exhibition will take place in several locations simultaneously and you will be exhibiting one piece across those locations. The object, although divided into parts, remains one, your work then, becomes a whole form by different components? How do you tackle the physical and conceptual journey that a piece undertakes?
One of the things about working in Glasgow at that moment was this heightened sense of your own geography and its relationship to the art world as it then was. Because of Glasgow’s peripheral position there was a sense of needing to be proactive in establishing your own networks, etc. and that became very present in my work. The work began to map its own making in very clear ways. I’ve spent many happy years criss-crossing Europe and beyond in different forms of transport, trying to connect places, materials, histories, in new ways. While this is not the first time I have connected exhibitions in this way, A-A’, B-B’, which will take place both in Glasgow and Turin, feels very much like a project for the age of Brexit – a divided painting, a divided car, two venues bridging an imminent divide. It has a certain drama to it because of that political reality. I fear that by the time the two exhibitions close, Europe will be a rather different place. Sadly, more divided.
Could you tell us a bit about yourself and your background? Where did you study?
I studied photography in Nottingham in the late ‘80s and then moved to Glasgow in 1990 for an MFA. It was the best move I ever made! I found an amazing community of young artists in Glasgow, artists who’d decided to try to build a vital scene in the city. After leaving art school I started working at the artist-run space Transmission Gallery. That was also hugely important to my development as an artist. I learnt so much about exhibition-making and how to work with institutions. We were somehow fearless, or naïve, and would call up really well known artists and invite them to come and make exhibitions. They usually said yes. That was very empowering. From there I slowly began to build my own career. Later in the ‘90s The Modern Institute began – initially as a project space and finally as a full-blown commercial gallery and that opened up a lot of possibilities for me too.
Some of your pieces gravitate around the subject of transportation (cars, boats) alluding perhaps to human's nomadic nature, however, these are interwoven with a strong aspect of identity through location and settlement, like when you turned a house into a boat and then again into a house or your upcoming exhibition referencing the Fiat company and its Italian nature. Could you talk about this constant shift between movement and stillness?
I think what I have tried to do is to confuse travels in time with travels in space. To revisit a particular moment in the past has often involved travel. For example, the first exhibition I made with Galleria Franco Noero in Turin in 2002, Flaga (1972 – 2000), looked back to the beginnings of globalisation and outsourced manufacture in relation to the Turin car industry. In the 1970s Fiat started to produce cars in Poland as it could be done more cheaply under communism. For Flaga a Fiat 126 produced in Turin in 1974 was customised using parts manufactured and fitted in Poland, following a journey of 1290km from Turin to Cieszyn. On its return to Turin the customised, hybrid, red-and-white Fiat sporting its new Polish doors, bonnet and boot was hung on the wall like a painting or, more appropriately, a flag. The car became a time machine of sorts. The simple act of hanging the car on the wall somehow seemed to heighten that sense of confusion between time and space, process and product.
That work is certainly one of the starting points for the new work for Glasgow and Turin but in that case the frame of reference is more intricate, more convoluted. Two seemingly unconnected objects from different historical moments collide, two stories about negotiating and exercising power are overlaid, one on top of the other. The logic, or perhaps madness, of cutting a painting into two pieces, as happened to Tiepolo’s The Finding of Moses in the 19th century has been applied to a blue Fiat 125S of the type owned by the former Fiat boss Gianni Agnelli, who became the owner of the small part of the painting. The car becomes the painting, the painting the car. Dividing the work between the two galleries in Italy and Scotland, just as the Tiepolo painting is now divided between Italy and Scotland means that what’s not there becomes as significant as what is there.
Tell us a bit about how you spend your day / studio routine? What is your studio like?
The studio occupies the ground floor of a back house in Copenhagen’s NØrrebro neighbourhood. The building used to be part of an old foundry where they cast monumental bronze sculpture – the Little Mermaid was poured just next door. It’s a constantly changing space depending on what’s being worked on at any one time. We recently dismantled a plastic tent which was used for polishing silver plates for making daguerreotypes – a very dusty job. For a while we had a beautiful 1960s Heidelberg Press in there, while we worked on cutting it into two pieces. Every few months it’s a new situation. So much of the work I make is made in very particular contexts, with particular craftspeople or what have you, so the studio-proper is mostly a headquarters, an organisational hub, for planning and logistics. I have an “old-school” black and white darkroom to escape into from time to time.
During the day I try to mix things up so I don’t find myself working all day at one thing. Multi-tasking is a skill I’m still having to learn – I tend to be a bit too focused on one thing and that in the end is untenable, as there are always a few different projects or exhibitions on the go at once. Importantly I’ve always tried to keep the studio very small, only working with one full-time studio manager and a part-time assistant. That way I’m free to constantly shift the means of production and work in new ways and with new people.
What artwork have you seen recently that has resonated with you?
Everyone has their own experience of this – a moment when you feel that a song, a novel, an exhibition, or what have you, has been created just for you. I recently discovered Sudden Death, a book by Mexican/American writer Álvaro Enrigue about Michelangelo Meresi da Caravaggio and tennis which seemed to have been clearly written just for me – a tennis player with an mild Caravaggio obsession. I felt the same earlier this summer entering Mike Nelson’s exhibition The Asset Strippers in Tate Britain’s Duveen Galleries. This is in some ways Nelson’s most conventional exhibition of sculpture to date. A real sculpture gallery, filled with a series of stand-alone works raised on something approximating plinths – low concrete slabs. These plinths support further makeshift plinths – cabinets, trestles – the auctioned-off detritus of a once-productive nation co-opted into elegant stacks. Brancusi for the early 21st century. An endless column of ‘stillages’, largely empty storage units, reaching towards the light. The means are, in many ways, modest – sculpture is reduced to a very few simple manoeuvres; stacking, propping, juxtaposing, little else. The magic of this exhibition is that Mike seems able to let these machines be themselves while simultaneously charging them, in their newly manipulated forms, with a deep sense of connection to the history of sculpture. The Duveens are always something of a temporal echo chamber and The Asset Strippers taps into their resonances to wonderful effect.
How do you go about naming your work?
The titles of the works are often rather long – closer to recipes than names. They try to map the making – its history and geography. In general, it's a rather pragmatic process. Informational. For a work like Autoxylopyrocycloboros I consulted a classics scholar to collage together a word with Greek roots that described a self-defeating journey made on a steamboat that essentially ate itself as the boiler burnt the wood that kept the boat afloat, piece by piece. A-A’, B-B’ is named after two cuts made in two objects 200 years apart – the formulation being taken from engineering or architecture and describes a plane or cut defined by two points on a diagram, A and A’ etc. All the individual works in the exhibition will have their own long, informational titles. For example, one sculpture in the exhibition, a figure of sorts, is titled: The artist, wearing a mask of the former Fiat supremo Giovanni Agnelli, reads an aside from Dario Fo’s political satire Trumpets and Raspberries (1974) in which a disfigured Angelli has his face reconstructed in the image of a Fiat worker in whose jacket he is found following a near-fatal kidnapping attempt.
Apart from the show with The Modern Institute, is there anything new and exciting in the pipeline you would like to tell us about?
I’m in the process of developing a new film that I hope to produce in Malta next spring. The film will be structured around the re-creation of Caravaggio’s epic painting The Beheading of John the Baptist (1608) in the context of the Malta film industry and will culminate in a recreation of the frozen moment depicted in the painting. As well as telling the story of the events surrounding the realisation of Caravaggio’s Maltese masterpiece, a torrid tale of political intrigue, professional rivalry, and murder –the film will also focus on the machinations of cinema itself. It’s something of a larger production than I’ve attempted before – usually I make films with a handful of people – but using the Maltese film industry as a backdrop for the film means working with a bigger cast and crew. It’s a new challenge.
Starling’s A-A’ B-B’ will be on view at The Modern Institute, Glasgow from 6.9.2019 - 26.10.2019 and Galleria Franco Noero, Torino, From 15.10.2019 - 11.1.2020
All images: Courtesy of the Artist, The Modern Institute/Toby Webster Ltd, Glasgow
Publish date: 21/08/19
Banner image: Pedigree English Greyhound, Valldemossa dell’Attimo Fuggente (Vera) photographed at FourStudio, Mirafiori Car Plant, Turin, 2019 Silver gelatin type LE/Selenium toned print.