BY Francis McKee in Frieze | 02 JAN 01
Featured in
Issue 56

Chicken or Egg?

Simon Starling

BY Francis McKee in Frieze | 02 JAN 01

n the 1820s, Frederik Moritz Stamm designed a prison to be set into the new city walls of Bremen. The prison formed one of the gateways to the town centre, standing opposite an identical building which housed the municipal administration. The façade was stylishly neoclassical, concealing more austere quarters where the prisoners were billeted - a function the building continued to serve until quite recently: during the 1990s it was used to detain illegal immigrants. By this time, the architectural fabric had deteriorated badly, a process accelerated by the regular fusillades of eggs and bricks unleashed during protests by the Green Party and the Anti-Fascist Alliance. The interiors were also damaged in the fires started by rioting inmates.

It was finally closed in the late 1990s, sumptuously refurbished and then reopened as a museum dedicated to Wilhelm Wagenfeld, a Bremen-born designer who had studied at the Bauhaus. Returning to Bremen, Wagenfeld had worked closely with the Jenaer Glas company, which specialised in developing scientific and household products that were formidably resistant to heat. Perhaps his greatest success with the company came with the design of an egg-coddler - a convex glass dish with a clip to keep the lid on during cooking. It was a mini-casserole, ideal for poached eggs or desserts, and quickly became a design classic.

Starling first saw one of these objects during a symposium held at Camden Arts Centre in London. One of the speakers illustrated a point concerning the connectionist modelling of human memory by rolling a marble around the inside of a Wagenfeld poacher. 1 Reminded of this during a visit to Bremen, Starling decided to rebuild the Wagenfeld Museum - scaled-down and in the form of a hen-house - and began to collect timber from skips around his studio in Dundee. The completed model resembled a run-down doll's house and was duly installed on a free-range chicken farm near Dunoon. It proved a success with the hens, and the artist was able to collect a sizeable quantity of fresh, free-range eggs from the stark interior of his building. In London, Starling built a makeshift stove with bricks from the Camden Arts Centre (once a public library), and cooked the eggs in Wagenfeld egg-coddlers over heat fuelled by the burning timbers of the now derelict hen-house.

This work, Burn-Time (2000), is typical of the trajectory followed by many of Starling's creations. In the Museum of Modern Art at Heide, Melbourne, for instance, Le Jardin Suspendu (1998) had the following subtitle: 'A 1:6.5 scale model of a 1920s French "Farman Mosquito", built using the wood from a balsa tree cut on the 13th May 1998 at Rodeo Grande, Baba, Ecuador, to fly in the grounds of Heide II designed in 1965 by David McGlashan and Neil Everist.' Like the tip of an iceberg, this description only hints at Starling's epic sequence of preparations for the flight of his model plane: the discovery of a gum tree with a canoe-shaped scar in its trunk in the grounds of the museum; his journey to Quayaquil, Ecuador to select a balsa wood tree; and the making of the model by hand. Likewise, the title barely suggests the hinterland of research for the project, which touched on the 8,565 mile voyage of explorer Vita Alsar from Quayaquil to Brisbane; Le Corbusier's interest in 'flying machines' as models for his buildings; indigenous Australian technologies; and the Modernist origins of the museum at Heide.

These are formidable lists, but they are offset by the lightness of touch Starling brings to the outcome of his projects. The hard-won process that characterises each of them has a complex effect on the end results, collapsing historical time through its reanimation of various events, and underscoring the absurd and playful dimensions of the works. The obsessive and convoluted stories that emerge from the process spawn endless alternative narratives that mutate as often as the objects he makes. Describing the interrelationship of these two aspects of his artistic practice he says:

I feel much more comfortable with a way of operating in which creativity is about the space in between the fragments that you bring together, rather than actually creating something new. You create new relationships, not new objects. 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 towards the realisation of these things. Their production values allow people to immerse themselves in these fragile stories. You have to go the whole way. 2

As Starling points out, he seldom creates a new object, preferring either to recreate an existing one or to fabricate a model of an existing structure. The quality of the making is always an important issue - it has an old-fashioned amateurishness about it that is quite nostalgic in itself. Playfulness, rather than technical perfection, becomes the priority, and this toying with things - a refusal to aim for mastery - prompts us to consider a value for these models beyond mere utility. Discussing the peculiar properties of the miniature, Susan Stewart points out that: 'The reduction in scale which the miniature presents skews the time and space relations of the everyday lifeworld, and as an object consumed, the miniature finds its "use value" transformed into the infinite time of reverie.' 3 This skewing of time lies at the heart of many of Starling's projects - opening channels to the past and cutting across historical boundaries. By instigating a kind of perpetual motion, these works forestall the deadening of ideas and constantly modify experience.

In another recent work, Project for a Modern Museum, Moderna Museet, Stockholm (1999), Starling tests this more acutely by setting the project in the landscape of a Swedish crematorium built by the functionalist architects Gunnar Asplund and Sigurd Lewerentz. In the Skogskyrkogården crematorium complex, Northern Modernism attempted to streamline death through a symbolically constructed network of buildings, paths, and lawns. Developing some of the ideas of Le Jardin Suspendu, Starling invited an elderly model maker, Kurt Mellander, to build a radio-controlled model aeroplane, intended to fly over the area and film it, simulating a 1:600 scale view of the complex. Mellander was born in the 1930s, a time when Swedish functionalism became recognised as an important visual embodiment of the country's welfare state, and his life paralleled the development of that system. The construction of a model aeroplane within the perimeter of this architectural complex echoed the inspiration Le Corbusier derived from aviation, the passing of the utopianism implicit in Modernism, and a sense of the soaring of the spirit after death.

In the event, the model crashed on its maiden flight. The subsequent modifications of the enterprise brought a model flying enthusiast into the museum to repair Mellander's plane throughout the remainder of the exhibition. Meanwhile, a video camera surveyed a model of the crematorium in a neighbouring space separated only by a transparent plastic wall. This evolution of the project illustrated perfectly the principles of mutation that are always at work, morphing Starling's ideas from one situation to another, evading death.

The salubrious quality of this process can be found in the texts that accompany each piece in the gallery. Starling often refers to these extended titles as 'recipes' and the cooking metaphor holds true, even becoming literal in Blue Boat Black (1997) and Burn-Time. The various elements of his work are mixed, cooked up, and consumed by individual readers to their own taste, and, as the story of each project becomes known, it is embellished, edited, and emended in the retelling. The texts, for all their loquacity, never succeed in circumscribing the object on view. The handmade nature of Starling's copies of mechanically manufactured commodities - imperfect and 'professionally amateur' objects - make us ever more aware of the gaps between their reality and that of the original. 4

1. The speaker was Mike Page from the MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit at Cambridge University. He later summarised his argument in Strange and Charmed: Science and the Contemporary Visual Arts, ed. by Siân Ede, London, 2000, p.109.

2. Simon Starling, Galerie für Zeitgenössische Kunst, Leipzig, 1999, p. 43.

3. Susan Stewart, On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection, London, 1993, p. 65.

4. Simon Starling, Galerie für Zeitgenössische Kunst, Leipzig, 1999, p. 43.