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May we suggest

Reviews / March 27, 2008

Simon Starling in Review: 21st-century Colonialism

Simon Starling Infestation Piece (Musselled Moore) 2007/08 Installation view / photo Rafael Goldchain

The centerpiece of Simon Starling’s new exhibition at The Power Plant, Infestation Piece (Musselled Moore), demands some explanation to be fully understood. The story of the project starts in the late 1940s at the Art Gallery of Toronto (now the Art Gallery of Ontario) with negotiations to purchase a major work by the seminal British sculptor Henry Moore. In 1954, the gallery acquired Moore’s Warrior with Shield under a controversy that raised serious questions about the institutional art world’s disconnection from the work of practicing Canadian artists. Nonetheless, this initial acquisition established a relationship with the sculptor that would lead to substantial further purchases and eventually the artist’s 1974 donation of more than 900 works to the gallery’s collection. (An historical note: Moore’s donation came after the Tate’s refusal to take on the same collection.)

Fast forward to the mid-1980s and the accidental introduction of zebra mussels into the Great Lakes via the bilge water of trading ships from the Black Sea. Zebra mussels proved to be a highly adaptable and prolific foreign species that quickly colonized in the Great Lakes system with dramatic impact that has affected not only the natural balance of indigenous lake species but also, for instance, blocking the water intake pipes for industrial and municipal power plants. A solution to this ongoing environmental invasion remains uncertain.

Enter Infestation Piece (Musselled Moore). In 2006, Starling created a full-scale steel replica of Moore’s Warrior with Shield that was subsequently submerged in Lake Ontario with the intention of attracting and supporting the growth of zebra mussels. Despite some early resistance by the otherwise tenacious mollusk, the work was pulled from the lake early in 2008, time-worn and mussel-encrusted.

Writing in The Guardian after Starling was awarded the 2005 Turner Prize, art critic Adrian Searle noted, “Back-story is everything in Simon Starling’s work.” Infestation Piece (Musselled Moore) testifies to that observation. In considering the contentious legacy of Henry Moore’s relationship to Toronto as well as the problematic environmental issue of zebra mussels, Starling has developed a complex narrative that embeds the work with critical views on the role of institutional art collections, the limits of art world politics and provincialism and the pressing dangers of environmental disaster. All of this is neatly packaged in the figure of his mussel-colonized sculpture.

Bryne McLaughlin

Bryne McLaughlin is Deputy Editor at Canadian Art.