Twice as Nice: Simon Starling at the Museum of Contemporary Art and the Arts Club of Chicago

*Pictured above: Simon Starling. "Film still, Project for a Masquerade (Hiroshima)", 2010-11. Rennie Collection, Vancouver. Mask maker: Yasuo Miichi, Osaka. (On view at the Musuem of Contemporary Art beginning June 2014.)



The artist as alchemist: This is the theme of the Museum of Contemporary Art’s upcoming exhibition, Simon Starling: Metamorphology. Opening on June 7, the show is the first major museum survey of Starling’s work in the United States.  A companion show at the Arts Club of Chicago, Simon Starling: Pictures for an Exhibition, will open almost simultaneously on June 6.

Like the alchemists of ancient legend, Starling is known for his ability to “magically transform” materials, functions, and even meanings in his pieces.

“The strong material inflection of Simon’s work, for me, is quite closely allied with the idea of alchemy,” says Dieter Roelstraete, the curator of the MCA show. “I would stress in his work a materialist grounding and a sympathy, in a way, with alchemy as a creative model.”

Perhaps this idea is best represented in Shedboatshed (Mobile Architecture No 2) (2005) a work that cemented Starling’s international reputation by winning him the 2005 Turner Prize. For this piece, Starling took an existing wood shed, converted it into a boat, navigated the boat across the Rhine, and then reassembled the boat back into a shed, finally displaying the original structure inside a Basel museum. Grounded in Marcel Duchamp’s concept of the “readymade,” Shedboatshed is part sculpture and part performance piece, with the object’s cyclical journey lying at the heart of the work.

“He’s very interested in cycles of production and consumption,” says Roelstraete of Starling, “and in the way that modern materials can travel around the globe, and how the world economy is powered by all these cycles.”

Duchamp transformed ordinary objects into works of art 100 years ago with Bicycle Wheel (1913) and Fountain (1917). But in Starling’s pieces the metamorphosis is more ritualistic and often grander in scale. The MCA exhibition will contain several monumental installations including The Long Ton (2009), featuring blocks of Chinese and Italian marble, Flaga 1972-2000 (2002) featuring a Fiat automobile, and Bird in Space, 2004 (2004), composed of a huge (and heavy) steel plate fabricated in Romania. 

The latter work is a riff on Constantin Brancusi’s series of iconic sculptures that he began in 1923. The original Bird in Space is tied to Chicago’s history as an early venue for modern art and was first exhibited here at the Arts Club of Chicago in the 1920s. 

“That type of work [Starling's version of Bird in Space] is not well represented in the American museum landscape,” says Roelstraete of Starling’s pieces. “It’s work that has an investigative quality, that is quite research driven, and that interrogates history and art history in particular.”

Starling’s interest in art history is further reflected in a site-specific piece that he is creating for the Arts Club of Chicago.

“We engaged Simon to think about the Arts Club, and he came up with the topic himself to dive into our history,” says Executive Director, Janine Mileaf.

Starling’s starting points for the new artwork are two installation photographs of the 1927 Arts Club exhibition, Sculptures and Drawings by Constantin Brancusi, taken by the commercial firm of Kaufmann & Fabry. Starling identified all the objects in the photos, found their current locations, and re-photographed each sculpture using two vintage 8” x 10” Deardorff cameras (the same type used by Kaufmann & Fabry in the 1920s). The resulting installation is less about the final photographs and more about the tracking of the sculptures and the recording of their journeys over the past 87 years.

“The travel, and the journey, and the tracking-down is a part of the work, so [Starling] ends up with a lot of incredible stories,” says Mileaf. “Those stories become part of the exhibition as well.”

The Arts Club exhibition will feature 30 photographs taken by Starling, as well as archival materials, the two Deardorff cameras, and multiple stories relating to the provenance of the Brancusi pieces that, according to the show’s press release, “intersect with the diamond trade, Nazi appropriation of cultural goods, prohibition, and other incidents that point toward interconnections between art, economics, society, and history.” 

A single catalog will cover both Starling exhibitions, which are meant as complimentary shows, not rivals. “As a visitor there, you get a broader view here,” says Roelstraete, “and as a visitor here, you get a deeper view there.”

Simon Starling: Metamorphology at the Museum of Contemporary Art runs from June 7 to November 2, 2014.

Simon Starling: Pictures for an Exhibition at the Arts Club of Chicago runs from June 6 to September 26, 2014.