Peripatetic and prolific, Simon Starling (b. 1967) has traveled to and across five continents since the early 1990s to research, fabricate, photograph, film, perform, and install his work. Extravagant labor and a disarming absurdity—the operative questions seem to have been “what if?” and “why not?”—were wedded to the punctiliousness of a historian in early projects such as Rescued Rhododendrons, 1999, for which Starling drove seven of the unwanted bushes from Scotland (where they have proliferated as weeds) “back” to Spain, whence the plant had been imported in the 18th century. The straightforward action of the syllabically baroque Autoxylopyrocycloboros (2006) consists of powering a boat across Loch Long by feeding its steam engine the very wood of which the boat was made. The predictable swamping of the cannibalized craft is a strange hybrid of success and failure. You would be forgiven for reading the project now as an allegory of mismanaged resources and rising waters, particularly in light of Starling’s recurring investigations into the systems and outcomes of the global transport of materials.
A large portion of Starling’s practice has unfolded as a sort of art procedural, in which unearthed facts and evidence of forgotten encounters are interwoven in a series of crosscutting stories, a number of them featuring the works of Brancusi and Henry Moore, others centering on the reconstruction of early exhibitions of Modernist art. Archival digging, recursive photographic procedures, and an attention to technologies—bygone and cutting-edge—are fundamental to Starling’s work. To that list he more recently added a deep engagement with performance and collaboration, both prominent in his latest shows in New York. From October 14, 2016 to January 15, Japan Society presented At Twilight, a multipart reconstruction of a Noh play written by Yeats and originally staged at the London home of Lady Emerald Cunard and her daughter, Nancy, on a spring evening in 1916. Starling’s sixth solo exhibition at Casey Kaplan, which opened in February and is currently on view, is the outcome of a rather lyrical “what if?”: The Liminal Trio plays the Golden Door takes the form of a hypothetical musical encounter among three immigrants detained on Ellis Island. Starling and Marcia E. Vetrocq met before the opening of both shows for an extended conversation.
Marcia E. Vetrocq (Rail): The “Golden Door” of your title evokes the Statue of Liberty, and immigration policy has become a raw, divisive issue in this country since the 2016 campaign. But the migrant crisis has been mounting on both sides of the Atlantic for years. When did you first consider doing a project on immigration for your show in New York?
Simon Starling: The project has many precedents within my practice in general. For me The Liminal Trio plays the Golden Door is very closely related to the work that I made at Mass MoCA in 2008, The Nanjing Particles, which was triggered by the story of Chinese migrant workers coming to North Adams to break a strike in a shoe factory. I came across the story at a moment when America was obsessing about the effect of the booming Chinese economy on the American economy, a conversation which is still running, I suppose. On a political level and also on a formal level, the idea of the “archaeology” of a photographic image—trying to get below the surface—is key to both projects.
I feel that there’s also a connection to other shows that I’ve made here at the gallery. The Bird in Space project in 2004 was about a Brancusi sculpture brought by Marcel Duchamp to the United States that was not allowed free entry as an art work but was taxed as a piece of metal. That project was prompted by the then-current situation with a steel tax, which George Bush had imposed to curry favor with the Rust Belt vote. He was subsequently forced to rescind it because the World Trade Organization deemed it to be an illegal tariff. So, again, the trigger for investigating the art-historical story was very much a contemporary situation, and I tried to conflate those two stories into one work by importing a lump of Romanian steel as an art work to avoid the tax. There are also the birdhouses I made earlier for Inverted Retrograde Theme, USA (House for a Songbird), which was an investigation into the arrival of European Modernism in Puerto Rico during the 1960s. Somehow most of the works that I’ve shown here at the gallery have had some kind of relationship to the movement of people and things in and out of America. Thinking about my context and the moment in which the shows are being made is very much embedded in the way I conceive of works.
Rail: How did you arrive at the Augustus F. Sherman photographs as your way into the subject of immigration?
Starling: There were a number of different reasons for thinking about the Sherman photographs in the Ellis Island archive. One was seeing the rhetoric play out around the Brexit vote in Britain, which was at times absurd and hard to watch. You saw first- and second-generation immigrants railing against immigration. Also, over the summer I read this wonderful biography of Willem de Kooning, who came to New York around the time of the arrival of these immigrants who are at the center of my exhibition. De Kooning came from a very impoverished and tough life in Rotterdam, and it was interesting to read about his transition into American life, the urgency to forget the past and assume an American way of being. So, all these things came together to connect me to the Sherman photographs. I’d seen some of them years ago—I can’t remember exactly where, though I think one of the professors in my photography training had shown some of them in a lecture.
Rail: Can you take us through the components of the exhibition that arose from the photographs you chose?
Starling: The exhibition presents three characters—musicians—three times. There are enlargements of the rather small Sherman photographs, two of the three cropped, all blown up to be physical presences in the show—but images still. There are re-creations of their clothes and instruments, which are like theatrical costumes for some kind of reenactment. And then there is a twenty-six-minute audio recording. The first experience in the gallery is the music, which is played from three speakers, two on stands—almost figurative in a way—with the clog dancer’s speaker sitting on the floor, which seems appropriate. Then there are the costumes and instruments, which have been re-created in grayscale, and then the re-photographs of the originals, also in a kind of grayscale. So the three figures are each represented in three different forms. It’s the notion of the in-between or liminal state that these immigrants would have found themselves in on Ellis Island. It’s a trio that becomes nine figures in the exhibition. They’re “fractured.” I guess the idea is that the characters themselves occupy the space between all those representations.
Rail: Sherman’s subjects genuinely were in a kind of limbo.
Starling: Yes, the people that Sherman photographed had all been detained for various reasons, probably in what Trump would call “extreme vetting.” Some of them were sent back, and others eventually were let in. There were multiple reasons to do with documentation. And also I think at that moment there was a concern about certain groups coming, as there is now. So they were a kind of captive subject for Sherman.
Rail: How was the music created?
Starling: As well as making costumes we’ve also made grayscale instruments, which was quite a project. The instruments were used at the recording session by three contemporary musicians—Livia Vanaver, a clog dancer; Winne Clement, a kaval player; and Sean Folsom, a zampogna player. The recording session in Brooklyn had a very appropriate kind of energy, because the three of them had never met before. It was a sort of negotiation among people from different places and different traditions. It was awkward, and I think you can feel that in the recording in a very interesting way. The project is about the idea that three musicians who didn’t share a language could have come together and just started to make music in an informal fashion. In the recording, too, there’s a sense of three musicians exploring their relationship, finding out what works, what doesn’t. There’s a lot of ambient, empty space, with just squeaks and odd shuffles. It goes from being very sparse and nonmusical to being vast. When the three of them all get going, it’s quite something.
Rail: I don’t recall the human figure generally having a significant role in your work. There are exceptions, of course, like the Chinese laborers in the stereograph used in The Nanjing Particles. When you re-imagined the Noh performance in At Twilight or enlarged the Sherman photographs, did you feel that you were working with the human figure?
Starling: For me it’s more about ghosts—human figures but in dematerialized forms. I suppose it goes back to At Twilight and the Japanese Noh idea of ghosts possessing actors in the mirror room, which is where they put on their masks. The physical manifestation of the immigrants in The Liminal Trio is a sort of invocation, an attempt to summon the ghosts, perhaps, to occupy this liminal space that I’ve tried to establish. If three musicians found themselves in this kind of in-between state, sharing no common language, what might they have done? It’s a sort of speculative proposition.
Rail: When we first spoke about At Twilight and your effort to reconstruct Yeats’s At the Hawk’s Well, you used the expression “creative misunderstanding” to describe the idea that not having the information for a complete re-creation allowed—
Starling: —Yes, something new to be born. In the video based on the performance we did at The Common Guild in Glasgow, Javier de Frutos talks very beautifully about how this was what attracted him to the idea of choreographing the “Hawk’s Dance.” The entire At Twilight project is based on so little information. Only these tiny fragments have survived—the odd drawings by Edmund Dulac, the little fragment of music, these few photographs by Alvin Langdon Coburn, and, of course, Yeats’s script of the play itself. There’s the feeling that you’re dealing with a sort of amnesia, a gray area of knowledge. It was this very rarefied event in high society, a performance in London in 1916 which was witnessed by a handful of people, never reported by the press because the press was effectively banished. All that exists is hearsay and gossip and odd fragments. In both projects there is this beautiful space for a reimagining of things. The grayscale costumes for the Hawk and for the three musicians all speak to that sense of amnesia, or partial amnesia. You don’t know this beautiful Romanian kaval player pictured by Sherman or what the color of the decoration on his jacket was. With the reconstruction of At the Hawk’s Well, there was a powerful sense of not knowing. It became an evocative thing to dive into. And the not knowing was as important as the facts, the concrete things. I think it’s very much the same with The Liminal Trio.
Another interesting thing is, after I had started looking at the Sherman photographs again, I discovered that there was this project underway to colorize the black-and-white photographs. I guess there’s serendipity involved, but because of the political situation at the moment, these things have a kind of currency. In a weird way, that colorization process is doing something similar to what I’m trying to do, or, rather, what I’ve done is actually the opposite—to accentuate our lack of knowledge of the color through the re-creation of these costumes in grayscale.
Rail: In a 2013 interview you described yourself as being “interested in what it means to make something in a culture in which our connections with making and manufacture are increasingly distant.” You’ve used advanced digital technology in your work for some time. How do you view the connection between digital fabrication and “making”?
Starling: It’s a reality of “making” now. The large black-and-white silver prints were made for The Liminal Trio by Griffin Editions here in New York. They were made from black-and-white negatives that were scanned and then written onto the paper, essentially by a laser. As I experience it, there are these shifts all the time from the material to the immaterial and back again in any kind of making process now. I like that. We talked about this idea of the potentials of misunderstandings or mistranslations, and there’s this potential in the “slippage,” as I call it, that happens from one state to another. It seems to be an ongoing aspect of what I’m doing physically, and also in terms of the way forms and narratives change and evolve through time.
Rail: The creative misunderstandings intrinsic to your re-creation of At the Hawk’s Well in At Twilight build upon the initial creative misunderstandings of Yeats and Pound as they set out to stage an “authentic” Noh drama. In the case of The Liminal Trio, did you supplement the information that can be gleaned from the Sherman photographs in any way?
Starling: To some degree, yes, but for me the most interesting thing was how the musicians would respond, because they’re all very knowledgeable about the history of their instruments. I asked each of them to think before the recordings about what these three individuals might have brought with them in terms of their musical language from Romania, southern Italy, and Holland. Then the recording session was about trying to find a point of connection. It was a tough day, in a way, because they all have their own sense of quality, and I suppose they all projected prior to the recordings what they thought was going to be born out of this. The hope is that you feel that process of negotiation unfolding in the music that’s been generated. It’s a tentative conversation as a piece of music.
Rail: Is it just the impression that one gets from the successive presentation of these two shows in New York, or are you exploring collaboration in your work more deeply via theater, dance, and musical performance?
Starling: It goes back a long way in the work, but I’ve found it so amazingly energizing and enriching to bring other people on board and also to be able to take a step back from the making and allow a certain critical distance. Being able to work with Yasuo Miichi, this extraordinary mask maker in Osaka, and to start to analyze his creative process, working with musicians and choreographers—it’s a real luxury. For The Liminal Trio we put on the gallery wall an extensive credit list of all the people who’ve been involved in making this show. In a way it’s a list of immigrants, and their names become very powerful in relation to the themes of the show. You see a complex geography played out just in the names of the people who’ve been involved—tailoring, hat-making, recording, mixing, framing. It seemed a very fitting statement to make.
Rail: Apropos of the acknowledgments at the gallery, you share credit with Graham Eatough for conceiving, writing, and directing the performance of At Twilight at The Common Guild, and the list of creative and technical contributors to that work is pointedly titled “Collaborators.” Similarly, the heart of the current show is an improvised composition performed by three musicians. Tell me more about this progression from research to collaboration and performance.
Starling: In a way, my approach to the play At Twilight evolved from making these rather more narrative film works, like Project for a Masquerade or Black Drop, in which there was a kind of authoritative narration, and also from the way I’ve used artist’s talks as a central part of the practice. The lecture theater has become an important space for me to “perform” the work. I think At Twilight comes from thinking about the way that ideas are pieced together in that kind of context.
The collaboration evolved from our working relationship, with Graham being a specialist in staging and myself more of a storyteller. And it also lent a nice dynamic to the other relationships—Yeats and Pound, the characters of the old man the young man. And it was actually very seamless. The first time I met with Graham to talk about the collaboration, I had pieced together this “mind map,” just as a sort of tool to start to discuss the areas of interest and how that all connected in my mind. It was extraordinary how fast Graham was able to lock into that and come on board in a very generous and open way. We decided quite early on that we were both nervous about the idea of putting words into the mouths of poets, because that seemed like a foolhardy operation. So we decided that rather than “write” the play, it would be more of a process of collaging. I had a folder of texts, a huge reservoir of letters that Yeats had written to various people at that time, correspondence between Pound and Gaudier-Brzeska, texts by Pound about Noh and by Yeats about Noh, and so on. I’d gone through all that material and cut out texts that I thought could work very well. I have these pin boards in my studio which I wheel around the place, and I started to collage those on. Then Graham arrived for the first time, and we started to pick things out and define certain kinds of scenes. The transition from the research process to the making process was seamless. When I read or watch the play now, it’s impossible for me to decide which bit is Graham and which bit is me. We had an incredibly symbiotic relationship, and it’s not always like that with collaborations. People can get kind of territorial about ideas. But I think it was a very smooth, very natural transition from the beginning stage of research. And I think Graham felt quite excited by the volume and the nature of the material that I had put together, so he dived into the writing process—“compositing” is perhaps the best word for it—very easily and very fast.
Rail: I’d like to return to your earlier comment about the Bird in Space project and the pertinence of President Bush’s steel tariffs. Elsewhere you’ve pointed out additional contemporary connections, such as the fact that the Romanian company which provided the steel for your work had been acquired by an Indian steel magnate who was a big contributor to Tony Blair’s Labour party. In Project for a Masquerade (Hiroshima) you recast a 16th-century Noh play as a Cold War yarn, and included the collector Joseph Hirshhorn, who made a fortune in uranium mining thanks to the Atomic Energy Commission. For the 2013 – 14 show Pictures for An Exhibition, you traced the provenances of the Brancusi sculptures in the 1927 Chicago Arts Club exhibition to their current owners. Your essay on provenance is deeply detailed, yet understated, very unlike a Hans Haacke-style exposé. You seem to approach hot issues in a very cool way. What are your thoughts on the politics of your work?
Starling: The Pictures for an Exhibition work was made for the Arts Club, which is a very particular organization whose members are generally wealthy business people with an interest in the arts, often patron-collectors. It seemed an interesting situation within which “unpack” that culture a bit. The work took two installation views of the 1927 exhibition on a crazy, long detour. In order to reconstruct them, I had to first find out where all those sculptures were now. And in doing that, you start to move back through time to connect the present with the various hands that those things have gone through. Interesting characters suddenly pop up—the president of Microsoft or Phyllis Lambert, the daughter of Samuel Bronfman, the whiskey and oil billionaire. There are, of course, gaps in the history of all of those things still, even though Brancusi is well researched. It became a kind of mapping of the lives of these objects, and the notes that I wrote for the piece are for me a very important part of the work. I think there are a few instances in the way I’ve formulated those notes where I probably betray a bit of my political sense. But I always try to hold back from a didactic political approach. For me, the politics should seep out of the work in a much more surreptitious way. It’s subtext, but it’s all there.
Rail: The title you chose for the Arts Club essay is from a Picabia painting called This Thing Is Made to Perpetuate My Memory. Tell me about that choice.
Starling: The painting is in the collection of the Arts Club, and it was one of the first things I saw when I arrived there to start work on the project. It stuck in my mind. Who is the character whose memory this is? The implication is that it’s almost a machine in the work. It seemed to embody very nicely, but very lightly, the venture that I was on with the making of my work and the writing of that text. It was a very simple system or mechanism to get from one place to another, or in that case to get back to where you start. I guess that Picabia title talks to the camera for me, the act of photographing. One of the thirty-six photographs in the series I made for that exhibition is an image of the part of the painting which contains the written title, and you can see my camera reflected in the glass of the painting.
Rail: Your notes on Brancusi provenance add up to an intricate and vivid account. After reading those and attending your lecture at Japan Society, I’ve come to think of you as very much a storyteller. Archival research and narrative performance—which can remain distinct areas of practice—come together happily in your work.
Starling: In the end that’s what connects it all—the desire to tell a good story. It’s no more complicated than that, in a way. I was thinking about lectures again the other day. I went to see Mark Leckey’s show at PS1. He does these amazing performance/lectures which for me are the most interesting part of his practice—he’s thinking in a very generous way for an audience. You feel that more and more. There’s Hito Steyerl, who was in Copenhagen recently doing a lecture, and she’s fantastic at it. It’s very interesting, this kind of interdisciplinary realm where artists find themselves acting as an entertainer and a maker and an intellectual, all at once, in this very particular zone: the lecture theater.
Rail: Given your lectures, the extensive traveling that you do, and the value you place on being on site to undertake research and personally source materials for projects, would it be fair to detect an almost diaristic quality in your work?
Starling: In a way my body—how I move through the world and work and travel—is always there or thereabouts in the thing, but always pressed into the background. And I suppose that’s how I feel comfortable with it—always stepping back a little bit. I also think this sense of the diary grows as the practice grows. The life lived becomes more and more important, and inevitably seems to haunt the work.