“Free from stain and polish”
A discussion between Simon Starling, Stefanie Sembill and Jan Winkelmann

Jan: In your show there are three works which are linked by an energy source in the form of cables that feed the lights. Obviously the illumination is an important aspect for this presentation. The point of departure was to illuminate this large transparency. Could you elaborate on the idea of having all works illuminated by these lamps.

Simon: They are portable lights designed for use on building sites, they can be placed in any situation. The idea is that all the work in some sense can be re-presented in different situations and the lights are, I suppose, emblematic of this. The interesting thing is that they take the work back to this one starting point which is the old house, the last remaining room from the old villa. That was a starting point for thinking about making the show. As is often the case the venue for a show dictates how I think about putting it together. So the black cables serve to highlight the way that relationships occur in the work, at the end there is this big jumble of cables on the floor, the cables crossing in different configurations and that is the conceptual frame of the work if you like. The cables also mimic the ornate neo-rococo ceiling.

Jan: And in this respect the cables are kind of metaphorical in the sense of intersections of the different geographic and historical references.

Simon: They came out of the idea of re-presenting the work ‘Le Jardin Suspendu’ that was made for the other side of the world, here in Leipzig and of finding a way that made sense formally in relation to what was already there in the work, presenting a particular spatial relationship that existed in Melbourne, between the work and the architecture.

Jan: And is it also important that the portable lights come from Britain? With the ‘Swan-Chair’ you also refer back to Britain.

Simon: A lot of the projects that I have made refer back to where I work, the notional centre for me. Home! You know, as in ‘Blue Boat Black,’ making the boat out of a museum display case from Scotland to use in Marseille, or building a replica of the Showroom Gallery in Glasgow in order to produce a video documenting a production process that looks as if it was realised in the real Showroom in London. There is always a link back to the starting-point, to where I live.

Stefanie: What I find very interesting are the titles, which also frame the objects in a particular way.

Simon: They aren’t strictly titles, they are just one more element in the work. Not the name of the dish, but the recipe, if you like.

Stefanie: They give the clues. Are you afraid of being didactic sometimes?

Simon: Like the other fragments that make up the work they are partial. They stand in for something. There is a mental space created between initially coming into the gallery and reading the texts, these strange narratives, and then one by one coming across the objects to which the texts refer. The texts, like the cables for the lights, serve to create relationships between the three works: you see these relationships forming between different places and different historical time frames.

Jan: It opens something up, a narrative, it does not say this is the way I want it to be read, it remains open.

Stefanie: I am curious to know whether it is important for you to be provincial and cosmopolitan at the same time.

Simon: Well I think the way of working that I have employed over the last say eight or nine years has definitely been developed in relation to the question of what it means to operate out of a provincial city like Glasgow and how you can negotiate that fact, it becomes active in the work.

Jan: This geographical displacement is also part of your biography, you are living in Scotland but you come from the south of England. Has that something to do with it?

Simon: I have chosen to live in Glasgow. I suppose my natural place to be would be London as far as my roots or whatever go, but for me it just seems to make more sense to be in Glasgow, I don’t know, maybe psychologically, and that has become influential on the way I think and on my work.

Stefanie: Is this where the notion of geographical displacement springs from? I was thinking about the project you are making with the rhododendrons. It seems that wherever you go you approach the situation with understanding but also a desire to subvert it in some way.

Simon: Yes. That project is a simple inversion of a particular historical trajectory. It involves rescuing some ‘Rhododendron ponticum’ plants from a Scottish heath, where they are considered weeds, and returning them to southern Spain from where they were first brought to Britain in 1753.

Jan: To me it is very interesting that your work focuses on issues or values that do not seem to have so much relevance in contemporary art, like form and material; they are key-aspects of your work. The material is obviously always the starting point that undergoes different states of transformations.

Simon: I don’t think the attitude of working with the materials comes from an understanding of art-history. It is not a traditional sculptural understanding of what materials are and what they mean, but something else. It has more to do with production, manufacture and craft.

Jan: But these are values that are kind of ‘unfashionable,’ in the sense that they are not very common in contemporary strategies. I think it is interesting that your work focuses on strategies that do not seem to be so important in the so called ‘contemporary discourse.’

Simon: Yes, but I think it is all about trying to confuse those things, to play them off one another. I kind of contort that whole ideological system, if you like.

Jan: Do you see the neo-rococo room in the exhibition as a kind of ready-made? I think it was obvious in ‘Work, Made-ready, Kunsthalle Bern”, the piece for Kunsthalle Bern that there is this idea of the ready-made object which is broken up in different ways. It seems to me that you always come back to that idea. You use historical references as ready-mades.

Simon: I have very clearly objectified that space as being one other element in the show, by putting a simple sheet of glass in the door it transforms it in a very particular way into something else. Its impact in relation to the rest of the architecture is heightened. Of course, the ready-made idea is about altering the relationship between an object and ‘real life’ in some way, via ‘the museum.’ I think what I am trying to do is to make it function in two directions. Pushing things backwards and forwards. Maybe they are more ‘objet trouvés’ than ready-mades: they have a different life.

Jan: Have you ever thought about your work in relation to the so-called ‘institutional critique?’ The temporary vitrine created from the Salon Herfurth could be understood as a critic of museum strategies.

Simon: The practice of ‘institutional critique’ by artists has certainly influenced what I do. I suppose one of the starting-points for thinking about work is a certain understanding of the way museums function in relation to culture in a wider sense. How they represent history varies depending on where they are and what their political agenda is and for me it is very important to take that kind of structure and then twist it, play with it and confuse it. That links also to things like the idea of taking something precious and making it into something of ambiguous value. Taking a ‘precious’ aluminium chair and making some beer-cans out of it. It is also a way of confusing people’s understanding of the relationship between life and art.

Jan: Is there a direct reference to particular 60’s strategies in your practice?

Simon: Well it is not self-conscious, it is not what the work is about but at the same time, of course, that kind of practice has totally shaped the way I think about making work, the relationship to the art object, the relationship to institutions etc. Artists like Lawrence Weiner, Robert Smithson and Michael Asher are all hugely important figures for me, particularly in relation to the space of the work and the place of the object. Those ideas are fundamental. But they remain somewhere in the back of my mind: they are not a direct concern of the work. It is simply a received language.

Stefanie: To me the importance of taking detours is crucial for your work.

Simon: Yes! Everything could be done more directly. It is somehow always complicated. Rather than going to my local model shop in Glasgow to buy some beautifully manicured planks of balsa, the material is sourced through a protracted process, a journey to Ecuador to cut a tree to build a model aeroplane to fly in Australia, bringing certain relationships to the fore. There seem to be two levels at which the works exist. There is the gesture, like burning the boat to cook the fish or flying the aeroplane or whatever and there is the material level, the hard won process that makes the gesture possible. Those two things are perhaps contradictory, but I think that is where the energy for the work comes from. You make all this effort and take all this time for something that happens once in Australia. It is a bizarre or perhaps poetic act and yet it takes six months to make it possible. The detours make life more interesting, and that has to be a central motivation, to live a little!

Jan: But in the work you made for Leipzig this gesture is a missing element. The chair sits on the floor, but the object can’t be used. There is no performative aspect like flying the plane or going fishing.

Simon: There is still a relationship to the other pieces, it is to do with a psychological space and a physical space, it is about what your mind does and the chair-building creates a space for that and in that way it is also a hard won gesture.

Stefanie: What I like about your work is that it allows you to move in all these different spheres. In referring to these spheres, you establish a situation in between.

Simon: The important thing for me is that in each case it is a learning process within an expanded field of activity. I suppose in some sense I operate as a ‘professional amateur.’ Toying with things, with ways of doing things, but never getting really good at them.

Jan: The artists creativity does not go directly into the object, but more into the process itself. You always adapt an existing form like the ‘Farman Mosquito’ or the ‘Swan Chair.’

Simon: Yes, I feel much more comfortable with that way of operating, where, in a way, the creativity is about the space in between the fragments that you bring together, rather than actually creating something new. You are creating new relationships, not new objects: that is how it works. But, taking a step back, I think the making is in some way very important, because the kind of narratives and the links in the work are very fragile. It is very important that there is commitment from me as to the realisation of those things. The production values allow people to immerse themselves in these fragile stories. You have to go the whole way.

Jan: In your project for the Moderna Museet Project Space in Stockholm you showed the process itself for the first time, the building of an aeroplane by an old man.

Simon: Yes, that was a new departure for me and one that I think has opened up quite a lot of new possibilities. Making such projects is incredibly demanding and you can only make so many. The work in Stockholm relates to a particular Swedish frame of reference. The aeroplane will be used to make an aerial video of Asplund’s Woodland Crematorium. It was really intersting to find this man, who was born in the 1930’s into that world. It gave the work a different life. Kurt Melander, the model-maker, became an essential part of the project.

Jan: I like the idea that you talk about the chair as being a time machine. I would see it more as a hyperlink, in order to be more...

Simon: [laughing] ...contemporary. That relationship between the work and the World Wide Web, if you like, has occurred to me before! It’s interesting! Any notion related to the collapse of geographical space has now to be understood in relation to that phenomenon.

Jan: A hyperlink that leads to different places, times, histories, cultures, and so on. Was it a precise choice to place the chair on the floor? The other two pieces are on tables, they are raised.

Simon: There is this sheet of plastic which functions in several ways. It functions somewhere between a rug and a dust-sheet and also in its position it references the relationship between the house and the tree as it was when the house was built. It also serves as a kind of notional plinth for the object.

Jan: Obviously the display of the work would change if it was presented in another context.

Simon: Sure, because the specific location is then lost and you would have to re-present that, as I have done with the make-shift light box for ‘Le Jardin Suspendu.’

Stefanie: It works very well because the older pieces that you show in Leipzig still have this kind of spirit. They are not like ordinary exhibits, there is still this feeling about them that you are working on them.

Jan: Is there some buddhist notion in your work? Like the ‘panta rhei’ idea? Everything flows and there is no fixed state of energy it is always transitional. Or is this parallel too contrived?

Simon: I think the idea is there somewhere, but...

Jan: ...it is obviously not a major theme.

Simon: The work has more to do with this sense of a relationship to historical time and not wanting to fix that again. You want to keep that sense that there is still room to manoeuvre.

Jan: When you present the relics and the leftovers of the process, it gets very static. Of course you thought about how to show ‘Blue Boat Black’ but in the end the process is kind of finished and the state of energy is now fixed in a sort of presentation that can be done in different ways but now the energy is kept in this state.

Simon: To some degree it has come full circle, if you like, from being a museum display case to being a boat to being some kind of relic but the experience of the work shifts all the time.

Jan: It cannot be that everything is all the time on the way. In this respect it opposes this, what I called ‘panta rhei’ idea because that would imply taking it further and further and further.

Stefanie: It is also about opposing linearity. Also what I like about your work is a certain playfulness. It’s what people initially respond to. It seems like the cross-references, or perhaps your irreverent attitude towards history, intrigues the audience.

Simon: Yes, absolutely!

Jan: I think this has very much to do with the element of narration in your work. and that is also something ‘unfashionable,’ like the hand-craft. It opens the field to your personal experiences and in this respect it is kind of ‘consumer friendly.’ On the one hand your work is very complex but on the other it is giving the viewer a way in. Charles Esches’ text reflects very much on Modernism. Could you tell us what modernism means to you?

Simon: Modernism is for me as much about social and economic change as it is about aesthetics. The aesthetic changes often came on the back of a desire for fundamental social change, they mimic this desire in some sense. It is about a move towards clarity, stripping away the facade. It is as much the ideology, flawed as it was, that interests me or perhaps the aesthetic manifestation of that ideology.

Jan: Modernism does not seem to play an important role in the new piece made for Leipzig. Why did you chose the ‘Swan Chair’ that belongs to the ‘Arts and Crafts’ movement?

Simon: In one way the ‘Arts and Crafts’ movement was as much part of Modernism as the ‘International Style.’ It was about finding a new language for a particular historical moment and also very much relates to new forms of production and the value of those so the objects were not necessarily elaborately crafted. It was about trying to democratise design to some degree, which became very much part of the modernist thinking in relation to design, so it is a transitional moment from the high Victorian style to something new. It just seemed to make sense in relation to the house here as it was from the same time-frame. There is also this nice reference through the ‘Dekorative Kunst’ magazine published in 1898 in Germany, that that chair had been seen here at that time and perhaps had some influence on what was happening here. I also chose the ‘Swan Chair’ because it has this anthropomorphic quality, it exists somewhere between nature and culture. And also there is this nice link to H.G. Wells which is again very fragile, but at the time that Voysey was designing the ‘Swan Chair’ he was also working on a house for H.G. Wells that was paid for with money generated from ‘The Time Machine,’ a book that was a best-seller.

Stefanie: In another interview you once described the ‘Modern Style’ as being a symbol of failure.

Simon: Yes it is in a way emblematic of an ideological moment, the furniture remains but the original impulse for making the furniture has disappeared. It remains as a kind of a monument, empty, an emblem of something largely lost. The interest in using the remnants of Modernism is to try in a way to reintroduce that ideological impulse into the present day, to have a look at it and see whether it still has any relevance. The impulse still seems to me a very important one.

Stefanie: Is it a way of reflecting the contemporary spirit, currently feeding architecture, design, landscape: urban life as a whole?

Simon: Yes, that idea is found for example in the work in which I made these home-made copies of an Eames fibreglass chair. Those chairs were designed in the 50’s to be mass-produced as ‘furniture for the people’ and have since become design classics, they are now found in museums and smart loft apartments in New York. Their value has been transformed. What I was trying to do by crudely replicating them, was to turn that on its head, to make them aspirational again, like prototypes. As in the new piece made for Leipzig, it is about attempting to reinvigorate the past.

published in: Simon Starling, Cat. Galerie für Zeitgenössische Kunst Leipzig 1999

© 1999 Jan Winkelmann

German version