An Italian/Polish Fiat, wheels to the wall, is anchored over your head. In the next room, two slabs of marble dominate the space—250 kg from Italy, one ton from China—floating above the floor. They support each other by means of a simple pulley. Further into the exhibition, helium-filled jacks hold up and balance a 4,900 lb. plate of Romanian steel. These three works are given top billing in Simon Starling: Metamorphology, the artist’s first major American museum survey.
Starling is overdue for recognition in the United States, where a handful of one-person shows and representation by Casey Kaplan gallery in New York City stand in stark contrast to a stellar European record: prestigious exhibitions dating to the mid 1990s, participation in both the 50th and 53rd Venice Biennale, and the 2005 Turner Prize. As Metamorphology curator Dieter Roelstraete explains, “That type of work [the Romanian steel piece, Bird in Space, 2004] is not well represented in the American museum landscape. It’s work that has an investigative quality, that is quite research driven, and that interrogates history and art history in particular.” This scarcity makes the MCA exhibition, together with Simon Starling: Pictures for an Exhibition, a site-specific companion show at The Arts Club of Chicago, all the more welcome.
Installation view, Simon Starling: Metamorphology, MCA Chicago. June 7 – November 2, 2014; Photo: Nathan Keay, © MCA Chicago.
Eleven works are on display at the museum, ranging from large sculptural installations to photographic triptychs to slide documentation of a performance. Starling’s major themes—an overriding interest in each medium’s formal qualities, art historical stories, and the power of transformation—appear again and again, unifying the exhibition. At play are countless references to interconnected historical, art historical, economic, social, and political points of information. Seeing these coalesce in a single piece is dizzying.
Birds in Space, 2004 is a multilayered reinvention of the famous bronze Bird in Space from early 20th century artist Constantin Brancusi. Starling’s piece references not only the formal considerations of the Brancusi sculpture, but also riffs on its tortuous path through the American legal system. Part of the joy of studying Starling’s work comes from tracing the various threads that bind each piece together, unexpectedly intertwining or looping back on themselves. Part of the danger is getting caught in the framework, not seeing the steel for the story. Viewers are faced with the task of mentally balancing the physical work itself against the stories that contextualize it.
This is not an easy undertaking, because Metamorphology is rich with stories; as noted by the Chicago Reader, “there’s wall text, which is part of each work rather than external to it, and which Starling writes himself.” Stories are arguably more important in Pictures for an Exhibition. Here, Starling searches out each of the artworks shown in two installation photographs of Brancusi’s 1927 exhibition, re-photographing each work from the same angle and distance as they appear in the 1927 images. Using the same type of large-format, now antique Deardorff cameras, Pictures for an Exhibition includes the vintage images, Starling’s cameras, his new silver prints, and stories that alternate fluidly between the provenance of Brancusi’s works over the last eighty-seven years and Starling’s adventures as he tracks each piece down.
Installation view, Simon Starling: Metamorphology, MCA Chicago. June 7 - November 2, 2014. Photo: Nathan Keay, © MCA Chicago.
The works’ tightness of structure can be incredibly satisfying to read and understand, much like a mystery novel or a crossword puzzle. It can also, however, suffer from the same drawbacks of cleverness and implied disposability. While the back-stories are necessary to understanding and fully appreciating the work, they also help to encourage an expository reading, dismissing further considerations. Starling’s own monograph essay is alternately fascinating and frustrating. Made up of historical and economic stories, Starling traces the ups and downs of the modernists, their well-to-do friends, and the culturati who acquired Brancusi’s works over the years. There are some captivating stories as histories intersect with bootlegging, family drama, and architectural innovation. Frankly, it is also a drag. This information—the dynasties, the price points, the corporations—does it add up to more than its own accumulation?
Throughout both exhibitions, it can be hard to tell just who is in control of the artist’s work—Starling, or the endlessly spiraling stories he devotes himself to. When the stories are in control, the work is excellent; which is to say—when Starling is in control, it is superb. When not, the work risks faltering under its own conceptual weight. Regardless of this possibility, Starling’s penchant for highlighting connections is impressive. Nineteen sixty-seven—a year Madeleine Grynsztejn attributes to the founding year of the MCA and Starling’s birth year, a “happy coincidence”—is also marked by the founding of the National Accelerator Laboratory, later renamed Fermilab. The connection may appeal to Starling given his enduring interest in hard science. It is a transformation—an alchemical process—from object to object. At times, mentally processing Starling’s work feels comparable: a sifting of information, a search for the illusive quark—the moment when information becomes art, solid gold.
Roelstraete’s contribution to the monograph, sharing the same title of the exhibition, discusses such transformations while also linking them to the mysterious (creative product) into value (capital). Between the essays accompanying both exhibitions—which can be seen as an essential aspect of the work itself—a balance is stuck between explaining Starling’s work methods, his intentions, his work itself, and his placement in the art world of today.
Metamorphology is playfully complex, erudite and engaging. Winning combos. See it, and hope that the American museum landscape starts featuring more work like this soon.
 Written to accompany his exhibition at The Arts Club, entitled “This Thing Is Made to Perpetuate My Memory, or Notes on the Provenance of an Exhibition.”
—James Pepper Kelly
(Image on top: Simon Starling, Bird in Space, 2004, 2004; Photo: Nathan Keay, © MCA Chicago)