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Simon Starling, Recent History @ Tate St Ives

Review by Colin Herd

To accommodate Recent History, the Tate St Ives has reversed the sequence of galleries, so the show begins in Gallery 5 and finishes up in Gallery 2. It’s an appropriately counter-intuitive way to experience Simon Starling’s work, the process of backcombing through the galleries is an interesting analogue to the journeys, retreaded routes and return-voyages around which his practice so often centres. Presenting work produced in the last five years, Recent History is the largest exhibition of Starling’s work to be shown in Britain since he won the Turner Prize in 2005 for Shedboatshed. A process-led piece for which Starling dismantled a shed, built a boat out of it, sailed the boat with the remains of the shed down the Rhine, then reassembled the shed when he reached the gallery, Shedboatshed established the circular, almost palindromic patterns and thought processes that his work embodies and provokes. It should come as no surprise then that, rather than striking out in any new direction, this major new show feels somehow un-new and familiar. Starling is an artist whose work values the interrogation of repetitions and connections above novelty and surprise, a set of values reflected both in the show’s title and the work exhibited, which in the course of four substantial rooms revisits both boats and sheds.

The Long Ton (2009) is a sculpture made from two large pieces of roughly carved marble, hanging by yellow canvas straps and a pulley-system from the ceiling. Rough and lustrous, the blocks look a little like Modernist marble sculptures in transit, creamily off-white, not far in fact from the colour of Evans and Shalev’s Tate building itself. One block is sourced from China, and the other from Italy, but they are identically cut, the Italian piece having been cut with digital precision to replicate the form of the Chinese piece. Thanks to the weighted pulley system, they appear to hang in equal balance, as if the blocks were of identical weight, but in fact the Italian piece is roughly a quarter of the size of the other, reflecting its significantly greater market-value, in spite of the much shorter distance it has travelled. Obsessively connective and process-driven, Starling is often criticized for the unabashed intellectualism of his work, the prioritization of an appreciation of his projects’ back-stories and connections above the remnant of the process presented in the gallery. The Long Ton strikes a balance between breathtaking visual sculpture and a sensitive approach to the marble itself, alongside the intricacies and nuances of the piece’s ‘history’.

Whereas in The Long Ton, the journey suggested is that of a lump of marble, many of Starling’s pieces involve a physical journey or pilgrimage undertaken by the artist himself. Red Rivers (In Search of the Elusive Okapi) (2008) is a video-work, documenting a trip down the Hudson River Starling made in a hand-built strip canoe made from African Walnut. The piece refers to a similar adventure by the scientist and photographer Herbert Lang, famous for capturing some of the earliest images of the miniature Giraffe-like animal the Okapi on a 1909 Congo expedition in a similar canoe. Part indulgently obsessive flight of fancy in the manner of historical re-enactments and part rigorous research project, Starling’s expedition is documented in a film made of still photographs and short video clips, projected drenched in a wash of darkroom-light-red. In watery clips of the photographs’ development process intermingling with quaintly bizarre images of Starling in his canoe, Red Rivers takes on an elegiac tone for the practice of analogue photography itself.

The exhibition concludes in the centre gallery, overlooking St Ives Beach. Starling has built a large scaffolding pier atop of which he’s set a large wooden two-room shed. The rooms, which are accessed by a scaffold stairway, enter into an exact, full-size reconstruction of two galleries in The Pier Arts Centre in Orkney, well-known for being the home of an excellent collection of Modernist British Art, including work by many artists associated with St Ives. It’s a surreal, ambitious uncanny work. In one of the rooms hangs a painting by Alfred Wallis, and in the other room a video-projection by Starling, Autoxylopyrocycloboros (2006), previously exhibited at Pier Arts Centre. Autoxylopyrocycloboros documents a self-defeating journey Starling made in a wood-burning steam-boat on Loch Long in which he cannibalized the boat piece by piece for fuel. With a characteristically poetic attention to the reverberations and connotations of his practice, the shards of boat are analogous to the scraps of board Wallis used to paint on. There’s also a more political resonance, a comment on nuclear redundancy and pointlessness when you reckon that Loch Long is the home of the Trident missile. ‘Recent History’ is a thoughtful survey of Starling’s recent work, rooted in his feelings and responses to the artistic traditions of St Ives, and it achieves a subtle balance between the intricacy and intellectual commitment of Starling’s practice and a compellingly whimsical and humorous sense of adventure.

Simon Starling: Recent History continued until 2 May 2011 at Tate St Ives. www.tate.org.uk/stives

Image: Courtesy the artist and neugerriemscheider, Berlin
Photo: Jens Ziehe

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