Simon Starling: In Speculum

Over Easter I managed to visit the Simon Starling exhibition In Speculum at City Gallery in Wellington… I left it a little bit in love.

Starling’s practice is research driven, his artwork is not only the artefact/s on display, but is also inextricably linked to the story of how the artefact came to be. Without the contextualising artist statement, the audience is only seeing part of the work.

In his catalogue essay on Starling, Justin Clemens notes the links between modern science and modern art and provides the following list to sum up the similarities in how these two disciplines operate, both Modern Science and Modern Art:

  1. make the invisible visible;
  2. make the visible invisible;
  3. make the visible visible;
  4. make the invisible invisible;
  5. make the visible an abyss of visibility;
  6. make all beliefs about the visible and invisible unbelievable;
  7. make all knowledge about the visible and invisible partial and temporary.

(Clemens, 2013, p. 18)

This dizzying logic compliments that of Starling himself, the backstory, the narrative is a cluster of stars that make up a constellation.

One of the works, Three White Desks (2008 – 09), incorporates three desks sitting on top of packing crates, two of the desks are white, and one is in natural wood tones. Although there are similarities, such as the number and location of drawers, they are three fairly different desks.

starling three white desks

This work was inspired by an obscure story about how Australian writer Patrick White who was living in London commissioned a young Francis Bacon (prior to his painting career) to make him a writing desk. He was very pleased with the result. White later sold the desk in preparation for returning to Australia, but he regretted doing so and tried to have a copy made from a photograph only to find it a disappointing mimicry of the original (Clemens, Leonard & Gillespie, 2013, p. 65).

Starling took this story and commissioned his own replica of the desk by a cabinetmaker in Berlin. The Berlin cabinetmaker was then instructed to send a photograph of his finished desk to a Cabinetmaker in Sydney, who in turn sent a photograph of his own version to a Cabinetmaker in London. The locations were chosen for their relevance to the story (Berlin being where Bacon encountered modernist designers, London where the desk was bought and made, and Sydney where White commissioned the replica).

Starling’s desks, likened to a game of Chinese Whispers, show a progression of variations. Each desk references the one before it, but with unique characteristics, and all reference of course the absent desk built by Bacon, which only exists in a photograph.

Another work in the exhibition, Wilhelm Noack oHG 2006, is a film (and projector) that explores a metal workshop in Berlin. The Wilhelm Noack oHG has a long history in Berlin that connects it not only to the Bauhaus but also the Third Reich.

Starling 2

The film shows a combination of still archival imagery alongside moments of action in which the workshop is revealed. Starling employs a sort of self-referential logic; the shots inside the workshop were created by placing the camera on the moving machinery, so it is, in fact, the machinery that films itself.

In addition to this a spectacular projector is displayed, and it vies for attention with the film.

The machine is so extravagant and absurd that our attention is split between watching the film and watching the projector, between looking at the representation of machinery and the machinery of representation.

Leonard, 2013, p. 37.

The projector somewhat resembles a spiral staircase and the film is looped up and down along protruding arms, so that as the images play out on the wall, the film itself is seen moving up and down this specially made apparatus… an apparatus produced in the very same Berlin workshop.

Starling 1

This exhibition highlights Starling’s deft conceptual concerns and his intricately connected logic. It operates to open up a wonderland of information that connects anecdotal science to storytelling, but more than that, it lingers.  Starling seems to have a knack for opening up just enough information, whilst a vast continent of knowledge is left for our own discovery.


  1. Anthony warned all of us that this could happen. I stumbled across some of his work before the seminar and found a couple of his works blew me away. His shedboatshed project and kakteenhaus are both worthy of investigating more. The art work itself could leave you wondering what he is doing, but the ‘behind the scenes’ concept are mind blowing.

    1. I love shedboatshed, but I’m not familiar with kakteenhaus… will look it up.
      I agree, the ‘behind the scenes’ is mind blowing, you know an artwork is powerful when it has the ability to create residual influence in people because they can’t stop thinking about it.

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