Simon Starling's Blue Boat Black (1997) launches itself into the vacuum created by the failure of the traditional tenets of Science, Logic and Museology to convince us that they can still explain the world we live in. His journey proposes a more elliptical way of looking at things.
In the past Starling has re-cast a Charles Eames chair from a Marin mountain bike and vice-versa by melting down and exchanging their respective aluminium components. He has employed the same process with an aluminium Jorge Pensi chair, recasting it into an edition of nine solid Eichbaum Pils beer cans cast from an 'original' empty can found in the grounds of the Bauhaus, Dessau. Starling's method is to take two objects and perform a secular and mutual transubstantiation, melting them into each other, literally. Doppelgängers who have destroyed their creator, the resultant series hybrid objects become home-made 'design classics', but he must first destroy them in order to reinvent them. While materials like aluminium can appear endlessly malleable, the objects they form never seem to work out too well. Sometimes there's not exactly the same amount of aluminium in each and there are bits left over. Sometimes the original machine finish is impossible to duplicate by hand. Whatever the flaw, something is pleasingly not quite right. Art, Science and Faith implode. This is 'Enlightenment lite'.
But this time Starling has really lost it. Though maybe you've got to lose yourself in order to find a different path. Blue Boat Black could be one giant red herring. In fact, that would be a more accurate title for the show. Let's look at the evidence. Starling's role is that of the stereotypical B-movie medieval alchemist. The kind that promises to turn your lead into gold but 'surprisingly' fails and gets thrown in a dungeon constructed of the very metal they have failed to transform. Though, like the alchemist, Starling is smart enough to know that it is not the physical transformation of materials that will convince us of their new provenance as much as the belief in the process. This transformation necessitates a leap of faith, more than the physicality of an actual magic trick. The art viewer must suspend their disbelief in exactly the same way as the cinema-goer if they are to give themselves over to the metaphoric aspirations of Starling's skewed narrative. He proposes an endless restructuring of the world; he wants to tell us that change is always possible and imagining different perspectives on the world can make it so. When this conjuring act is pulled off, it can be genuinely exciting.
So to the plot of the psycho-geographic road movie that unfolds in Blue Boat Black: Starling picks up a redundant museum case from the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh, ties it to the roof of his 1983 Mini metro and drives to Marseilles. Okay so far? He then identifies a traditional Marseilles Barque (a small one-man fishing boat) and makes a full-size replica of it with the wood from the museum case, accurate in every detail. This takes two months as Starling first has to learn the first principles of boat building. The boat is immaculate. He then paints it blue (Bleu de Provence). Still following? Now the intrepid seaman Starling puts out with rod and reel (presumably not made from the museum case) and promptly catches two dorade, two red mullet, one saddled bream, one European porgy and three rock fish. Satisfied with his modest catch, Starling retires his boat to land and finds an oven large enough to burn the boat into charcoal. This reduces his two months' labour to a (just recognisable) skeleton of charred fragments. With this charcoal Starling cooks the fish he caught in the Mediterranean. Then he eats them, brings the leftovers back to Scotland and displays them at Transmission. These curious fragments are soberly displayed on plinths and shelves. They are reminiscent of the expensively exhumed remains of the Marie Rose. Once again on public view, the museum case/boat/charcoal appears reluctant to divulge its provenance.
Starling has implied that this particular journey ends here, but who knows whether he will not keep the domino effect rolling by canning, Manzoni style, the resultant shit produced from the meals of French fish. We must persevere with the relics displayed in the gallery if we are to believe this quest really took place. One can only marvel at the perverse attention to 'realistic' detail as Starling destroys his careful illusion with the obsessive desire for flux. Nothing is fixed, nothing is 'real'. The fact that the whole story is true is neither here nor there. All the props are visible, like the reconstruction of a plane's fuselage from an air disaster or a film set after the wrap. Starling is operating in a parallel universe and Blue Boat Black is an open invitation to join him in the realms of the unbridled imagination.