The alchemy of transformation.

No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.


Simon Starling is an artist adept in weaving an intricate web of concurrence that is as rewarding as it is provocative.  His work operates within a fluctuation of time and space and deals with a multiplicity of meanings.  Starling appreciates the way workmanship adds to understanding of the story of an object, and displays mental dexterity pulling together ideas to sit alongside one another.

Starling’s success as an artist lies in his acute ability to identify connections and turn them into a narrative that defies linearity and plays deftly with our understanding of time and location. In a sense the work also offers an understanding of both movement and stasis: “His artworks tend to operate as both narrative (velocity) and objects (position)” (Rappolt, 2013, p. 75), due to the shifting territory within which his concepts reside.

What typifies the experience of Starling’s work is a sense of wonder in the encounter as the audience relives the physical or mental journey of the artist, and delights in the seemingly propitious relationship between his ideas. In an interview with Christiane Rekade for the Journal Art History Starling explains his process and how he makes discoveries:

Sometimes you just go looking, you take a journey, keep your head down and your eyes and ears open and look for that connection, that overlap of an idea and an object to occur.  Sometimes if feels like the objects find you – you just have to be aware of it when they do.  And on very rare occasions you have the feeling that the object is only there to be found because you wanted it to be – your imagination somehow forced it into the world.

(Starling as cited in Rekade, 2013, p. 642)

These connections require that the story, or documentary writing to be very much a part of the work, both in the text that accompanies the work (which explains the complexities) as well as the titling which serves to represent the idea as simply as possible.  For example Shedboatshed (2005), cleverly distills the artwork (and its journey) even without the backstory.


Despite the ambitious scale of some of Starling’s projects craftsmanship is an important element in the work.  The evidence of the process of making is contained within the work as part of the story and its traces of the past.  So that the scarring of the wood in Shedboatshed is a document of its life as shed and a boat before it became a shed once again.

I’m really interested in what it means to make something in a culture in which our connections with making and manufacture are increasingly distant – we have become estranged from the things we use every day.

(Starling as cited in Rekade, 2013, p. 648).

The history of the artwork inherent in the making of the work becomes another layer to its temporal expedition: it references backward and forwards simultaneously. In addition the concepts usually employ a circular logic which creates a story that loops easily back to the beginning.  As a result the work avoids being tied to a particular timeframe, and so occupies a shifting territory between past, present and future: “Time constantly folds back on itself, is conflated or confused – so the future is always set in the present and is always misremembered” (Starling as cited in Rekade, 2013, p. 650).

This understanding of time as a fluid and non-linear entity was the premise behind the show Starling curated for the Camden Arts Centre in London, Never the Same River (Possible Futures, Probable Pasts) (2010). Starling chose a number of artworks previously shown at the centre from various exhibitions and displayed them in the same spot they originally occupied, according to a combination of research into documentation, as well as relying on memory, rumour and speculation (Starling, 2010, p. 33).

Never the same river 2

The result of this process was a series of artworks connected over time and space and the strange juxtapositions they create through their mutual haunting of the gallery.  Starling’s strength in identifying relationships is showcased in the selection of the works displayed.

Never the same river 1

Thus the show operates to highlight strange commonalities of forms and ideas, but breathes unexpected new life into the work by altering the context with which they are read.

Context is everything, and the history and provenance of an object is as important to Starling as the object itself, perhaps sometimes more important as seen in the paired works A Charles Eames ‘Alumunium Group’ chair remade using the metal from a ‘Marin Sausalito’ bicycle/ A ‘Marin Sausalito’ bicycle remade using the metal from a Charles Eames ‘Aluminuim Group’ chair (1997).

Simon Starling chair bike

Here Starling plays with the relationship between two objects which at first seem very different.  However the title illuminates the fact that each started out as the other and have undergone a transformation so that over the course of their making they switch places.  Each object is convincing, and yet, they both bear the invisible history through the title, and subsequently become more fascinating.  The transformative nature of their existence, though past, compels the viewer to consider the similarities of the objects.  Both are designed to hold stationary and moving bodies (Rappolt, 2013, p. 73).

Starling’s work is as embedded with histories as it is with transformation and temporal shiftiness. The traces of past lives haunt within their new contemporary contexts. Starling is not only a storyteller, but an alchemist.


  1. Hi Justine,
    Just finished reading the canvas magazine from the saturday herald and found a quote that I belief fits your work and also this entry:
    “Adaptation is a form of translation, and all acts of translation have to deal with untranslatable spots” Quoted by David Mitchell (in the wall street journal) in defence of one of his books made into a movie. (The movie was a flop, but the book sales soared afterwards. The book was Cloud Atlas)

      1. HI Justine I love that Heraclitus quote Ha! I was planning on referencing him in my oral presentation hmmmmm – my usage was going to center around his account of this as a theory. Namely that a river is a metaphor for time and man cannot step in the same river twice- this of course refers to not being able to step back in time or relive a moment. And yet this is what film and photography now promise us to do – is this an interesting point of overlap? coincidence?

      2. Hi Riley, by all means use the quote in your oral presentation, there won’t be a double up, as it’s not going to be in mine 🙂 I used it because it’s the origin of the title of Starling’s curated exhibition. It’s a very thought provoking metaphor isn’t it? Sounds like it would be a relevant way to talk about your work… It sort of questions whether timelessness is an illusion. A photograph might stop time for a second, but you can never revisit the same photograph in the same way, the passage of time means that you will always carry a different understanding, even when presented with the same image.

  2. yeah its interesting alright – oh that’s good its not in your oral presentation. I went to that starling exhibition too but somehow I missed that quote I bought the catalogue/book a steal at $10.00 – In the Solnit book I read “river of shadows” she talks about the dawn of what we know now as photography around the 1880’s as a time when we could finally walk in the same river twice – without over stating it she was alluding to Heraclitus – but rather than agreeing with him she was saying that now whether or not the experience is the same we can time travel thanks to photography and film where as before it was just located in memory – however you could argue either way really.

    1. Different exhibition: The one that the quote is related to is the exhibition Starling did in England “Never the same river: Possible futures, probable pasts” that I wrote about above… not “In Speculum” that was at City Gallery (the catalogue for that is pretty awesome, I bought that too!)

      I get what you (or you paraphrasing Solnit) are saying, but in a way I disagree, it’s a different river looking at a photograph (because it is a representation, like anything else) we just trick ourselves into believing in it. We can never truly be the same person, because retrospection comes with all the knowledge gained in the interim (since the making of the photo, since the last time we looked at the photo). A photograph only gives the illusion of time travel, because we’re always sitting outside of it (literally, and figuratively). Photography tempts us to think it’s the same river (we want it to be)… but it can’t be really.

      I think I’ll have to read River of Shadows. I love Solnit’s writing.

      1. Yeah you’ll love that book. However I have it but it will be making its way back to WC very soon. I guess rather than think about the psychological impact of memory and perception –

        She is talking more about the technological advances of the time period (we are talking the 1880’s here) – of being able to look at an actual photograph for the first time. More over when photography turned into the territory of film it was not just one shadow caught on a negative it became in her words a “river of shadows.” I guess prompting her to extend her analogy out further to re-encompass the age old debate around time being like a river. And “real” time becomes “reel” time.

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