Ten Questions: Simon Starling

Tonight, Kunsthal Charlottenborg opens an exhibition by Simon Starling. Kunstkritikk spoke with him about puppet theatre, storytelling and the making of books.

Simon Starling Puppet, The Expedition, 2011 (Puppet by Paul Arne Kring).

Imagine polar explorer Knud Rasmussen embarking on one of his journeys to Greenland equipped with a map structured along the lines of Italo Calvino’s labyrinthine literary principles. Imagine also that the expedition was charged with a level of poetic investment equivalent to that of Bas Jan Ader when he set out on his seminal boat trip across the Atlantic Ocean and you might begin to have an idea of how the British artist Simon Starling works. His works display connections between places and objects, between cultures and historical events. The story is rarely told as a straightforward tale but rather as a riddle that runs between points, takes detours, and, in the right light, discloses a network of connections.

The displacement of objects or materials (from cactuses to solar energy) is often at the centre of Starling’s storytelling and it is crucial to his practice that these actions are carried out by himself. For example, Starling took a Rhododendron all the way from Scotland to Spain in his red Volvo (Rescue Rhododendron, 2000) to return the plant to the south of Spain from where it was originally imported in the 18th century. As he reverses history, he also calls attention to issues of history writing, originality and origins.

At Starling’s first solo presentation in Copenhagen, where he has lived since 2006, the new work – the puppet theatre play The Expedition – adds an extra layer to questions of history writing and investigations into advanced story telling. Taking its point of departure in four of Starling’s previous expeditions, all conducted by boat, The Expedition is in itself a metanarrative – a kind of mini-retrospective in which the artist himself appears in the guise of a marionette puppet.

Starling was born in 1967 in Epsom, Great Britain. He is a professor at the Staatliche Hochscule für Bildende Künste, Städelschule in Frankfurt.

How are the preparations going?

At this stage it’s hard to say! The show consists of only two works but they’re both quite complex and involve a lot of different elements coming together. I’m working with the theatre world for the first time and that’s exciting but very different. It will be alright on the night, as they say!

What is the exhibition about. What are we going to see?

The exhibition as a whole is concerned with restaging sculpture and with the way artworks are mediated and historicised. The first work in the exhibition, Project for a Masquerade (Hiroshima) was made for the Hiroshima City Museum of Contemporary Art and takes the form of a set of nine masks and a film. The work, which is ultimately a proposition for a piece of theatre, collapses the story of a 16th century Japanese Noh play, Eboshi-ori, onto the story surrounding the creation of «Nuclear Energy», a monument to the beginnings of the atom bomb project, the so called Manhatten project, by the British sculptor Henry Moore. Each of the masks is a kind of hybrid object that fuses traditional Japanese forms with Western portraiture and caricature – each mask representing a historical or fictional character connected to the Cold War saga surrounding Moore’s sculpture. The film was shot in the mask maker’s studio in Osaka and charts the evolution of the masks from blocks of wood to fully formed characters and combines this visual narrative with the narratives of the Noh play and the sculpture.

The second project, The Expedition, which is being produced specifically for the Charlottenborg exhibition, takes four earlier boat-related works and re-presents them in the form of a single 25 minute piece of puppet theatre. It serves in some sense as a mini-retrospective within the larger exhibition. We’ve built replica of a local outdoor puppet theatre inside Charlottenborg to stage this rather calamitous adventure.

You are collaborating with the Marionet Teatret, the traditional Copenhagen puppet theatre from Kongens Have. How does it feel to embark on a new field such as the theatre, puppet theatre even?

I came to the idea in part by taking my children to see the regular summer performances at the Marionet Teatret and for a while I’ve harboured the desire to collaborate with some of the people involved there. For example I’m working with Paul-Arne Kring the extraordinary designer and puppet maker from Kongens Have. It’s a very new world to me and I’m learning a lot. While what you see on stage is often extremely simple, what happens behind the scenes in the very cramped confines of the theatre is a carefully choreographed, complex, ballet of bodies, props and puppets. At the same time, like the space of Noh theatre, the space of the puppet theatre allows for great freedom – for great imaginative leaps, time travel, teleportation and the like.

This is your first solo exhibition in Denmark, although you have lived in Copenhagen for several years. How do you perceive the artistic environment here?

I’ve found it a very productive situation in many ways, although in some sense The Expedition is the first major work I’ve produced in Denmark and it’s been an eye opener. Denmark is an extremely expensive place to work – sometimes I’m amazed that the economy can function in the wider world. This must have an impact, particularly on the development of younger artist’s work. So on the one hand it’s really tough to make ambitious large scale work here but on the other hand there’s a small, supportive community and that suits me very well.

How would you describe your working method?


The making of books, from conceptualization to the manufacturing, seems to be a vital element in your artistic production. Why? What role do these books take up?

Books have always been important in my work and are often an essential component or even a primary product of a work. I have even used exhibitions as ways of editing or formulating books. In certain instances books have even become sculptural elements in their own right. The importance of books has a lot to do with the often rather expansive frame of reference that constitutes the parameters of a work – books often serve as kind of maps to these web-like frameworks. Perhaps in recent years the films that I’ve made have had an equivalent role – the film that is part of Project for a Masquerade (Hiroshima) at Charlottenborg is doing many of the things that the books have done in the past.

When and why did you become an artist?

Perhaps it could be traced back to my first experiments in a home-built photographic darkroom at the tender age of 10 or 11. The experience of watching a photographic image appear in the developing tray was electric.

How do you see your role as an artist today?

It’s a role that’s become more and more multi-faceted. Under the umbrella of an artist I’m writing, teaching, curating, collaborating, filmmaking, lecturing – its all part and parcel of the job now it seems.

Can you mention other current art projects or practices that inspire you?

I’m inspired a lot by my students. I have been teaching in Frankfurt for eight years now and have had a lot of extremely interesting young artist’s through my class – many of whom, like myself, are concerned with contemporary forms of storytelling. I’ve also recently been very inspired by working with Superflex on a number of collaborative projects – having good colleagues becomes more and more important I find.

What would you change in the world of art?

The crazy amount of travelling that goes on.