Simon Starling’s creations have only surprise in common

By KYLE MACMILLAN For Sun-Times Media

June 8, 2014 10:30PM

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Updated: June 25, 2014 12:09PM

Conceptual art can sometimes be distant or dull, because it is just that — art caught up in arcane concepts with little to look at or grab the emotions. But the work of Copenhagen-based Simon Starling, winner of the prestigious Turner Prize in 2005, is different.

As a new exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago makes clear, this conceptualist is intent on producing work, often by repurposing existing materials, which can be intriguing, imposing, whimsical or even a bit menacing. But it is almost unfailingly engaging, sometimes even viscerally so.

On the wall outside the galleries containing the show, for example, the viewer is confronted with the startling sight of an actual old Fiat mounted sideways high on the wall, a piece titled “Flaga 1972-2000” (2002). It comes off as a playful contrivance, but at the same time, some viewers are no doubt nervously thinking: “Boy, I sure hope that is sturdily anchored.”

No common style, technique or look runs through the films, installations and photographs on display through Nov. 2 in “Simon Starling: Metamorphology,” the first major museum survey in the United States devoted to this internationally exhibited British artist. Instead, his work is linked by a unifying intellectual approach and a constant desire to surprise viewers and keep them a little off balance.

Like many conceptualists, Starling turns traditional notions of art inside out, rethinking what the entire pursuit can and should be. In his case, that means borrowing from art history and current events, incessantly asking questions like “What if?” and trying to spin a good story.

What is more conceptual, for example, than idea of ripping the wood from the sides of a boat to fuel the steam-powered vessel? That’s exactly what Starling and a companion do in “Autoxylopyrocycloboros” (2006), an experiment captured in a series of 38 slides shown with an old-fashioned projector. Of course, the boat eventually fills with water and sinks, but there is something compelling about watching the process even if we know the outcome.

This work, with its simultaneous act of destruction and creation, vividly illustrates what Dieter Roelstraete, Manilow Senior Curator at the MCA, describes in an accompanying monograph as Starling’s “fascination with cycles, circuits and circulatory systems, and their inherent logic of eternal recurrences.”

Roelstraete believes that all of Starling’s work deals materially or philosophically with some aspect of transformation or metamorphosis — hence the show’s subtitle, “Metamorphology” — and much of it is interwoven with elements of art history and what the curator calls “global geo-economic quandaries.” A work, for example, such as “Bird in Space” (2004), a giant leaning slab of steel that rests on helium-filled cushions, is linked to both sculptor Constantin Brancusi and a trade war over steel imports.

Some of Starling’s conceptual works could be called visual spectacles. That is certainly the case with “Project for a Masquerade (Hiroshima)” (2010-11). The film and related masks and other objects offer a kind of a comic take-off on a 16th-century Noh play, with such contemporary figures as James Bond and Colonel Sanders unexpectedly playing characters in the story.

While an array of serious associations undergird the two-part piece, it’s also fun. And much the same can be said about this entire exhibition.

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