Simon Starling’s exhibition “Cuttings (Supplement),” at The Power Plant, is part of an ongoing dialogue between artist and gallery that draws on several years of mutual support. (The Power Plant helped realize his 2005 show “Cuttings” at the Museum für Gegenwartskunst in Basel.) The collaboration emulates Henry Moore’s long engagement with Toronto and the Art Gallery of Ontario, which began in the 1960s, a time when cultural nationalists in Canada were resisting the invasion of British culture.
Twenty-one months prior to the start of his exhibition, Starling deposited a steel replica of Moore’s sculpture Warrior with Shield in Lake Ontario. For the show, it re-emerges, festooned with zebra mussels. These mollusks are an invading species that environmentalists presume came from passing East European vessels. The title is Infestation Piece (Musselled Moore).
Telling stories is part of Starling’s strategy, and the finished object is only part of the saga. His narrative style is tragicomic. He is a hero engaged in absurd quests that often result in (almost) death-defying acts. This is in contrast to artists like Chris Burden, who really did challenge death. Burden’s Death Valley Run, for which he crossed the California desert in seven hours on a racing bicycle equipped with a miniature motor, is recast by Starling as Tabernas Desert Run; Starling crossed the Spanish desert on a fuel cell– powered bike, a journey of 41 miles, then made a painting of a cactus with water that was the by-product of his cycle’s combustion of hydrogen and oxygen.
Starling has a passionate need to investigate processes and histories, then produce an object. His practice is reminiscent of systems theory, which considers economic, environmental, cultural and political factors to be parts of a single experience, each affecting the others. Thus Starling travels by mountain bike to a bauxite mine in France, where he mines ore and masters aluminum smelting, then moulds the metal to produce a copy of a portion of the bicycle he rode to the site on. The title, Work Made-ready, Les Baux en Provence (Mountain Bike), refers to the ready-made practices of artists like Marcel Duchamp and Jeff Koons.
Art history is implicated in the political and environmental processes that define our lives, so Starling is an activist hero challenging hegemonies, albeit through comic means. Richard Serra’s massive slabs of steel are referenced in Starling’s piece Bird in Space, a 4,900-pound steel sheet that sits on rubber jackets inflated with helium. A sculpture of the same name by Brancusi—an elongated expression of flight devoid of representational detail—was in 1927 the subject of a legal struggle with U.S. Customs; the agency insisted it was not art and should be taxed. Recently, the U.S. government was forced to repeal protectionist legislation taxing steel imports, thus enabling the free movement of Starling’s slab, which originated in Romania, Brancusi’s homeland.
Environmental totalitarianism—decreeing what is indigenous and what is alien—informs Starling’s Island for Weeds (Prototype). The work is a floating platform of rhododendrons; it is noted that the shrub is considered an invading species in Scotland. Starling has envisioned an island where the plants could be incarcerated, complete with special ballast tanks that regulate the buoyancy of the island after rainfall. It’s a hilarious concept—and somewhat ironic that the gallery staff become prison wardens, charged with watering and preserving the plants.
Environmental and consumerist issues have become de rigueur of late, in art and everywhere else, and Starling incorporates them into his practice with panache. He takes conceptualism to a new and more engaging level.