‘The Alchymist Discovering Phosphorous’, an 18th century painting by Joseph Wright in the Derby Museum collection, has undergone a change. The shadowy painting of an elderly man crouching before a glowing flask in a ramshackle laboratory, so strange and enigmatic that Wright was unable to sell it in his lifetime, has been replaced by a shimmering, ghostly daguerreotype. Through the alchemical processes of early photography, Simon Starling has transfigured the alchemist himself into silver. The original painting is included in Starling’s exhibition at Nottingham Contemporary, the largest exhibition of the Turner Prize winning artist’s oeuvre to date in the UK. This substitution signals the artist’s fixation with objecthood, authenticity and changes of state that permeate his conceptually dense, yet ever graceful, practice.
Works on display at Nottingham Contemporary include Starling’s famous ‘Blue Boat Black’ (1997) in which he disassembled a Victorian museum case, using its materials to build a boat that then he set alight following a fishing trip, making charcoal to cook the fish that he’d caught. The charred remnants that now constitute this work are paired in this exhibition with a new commission; ‘Project for a crossing’ (2015-16), presents a new boat before its journey, or as Starling describes, ‘an object in the middle of its life.’ For this work, Starling extracted magnesium from 1,900 litres of mineral-rich water from the Dead Sea. His intension following the exhibition is to sail the boat back across the sea from which it was built – a simple, quixotic gesture made intensely complicated by the political implications of crossing borders between Israel and Jordan.
This artistic gesture of charting objects through journeys and intercepting their lifecycles reoccurs throughout the exhibition in order to expose the socio-economic conditions that propel these transmutations. For instance, Starling commissioned a silversmith to ‘recycle’ works of antique silverware from England and China, remodelling the ornate pieces into smooth modernist bowls and transferring only the faintest semblance of the original decoration onto the surface of the new object. This idea of transposition is also stunningly executed ‘Red, Green, Blue Loom Music’ (2015-16), which takes the sound of punch-card driven looms from a factory in Turin and translates them into a musical score. The work is presented in the gallery in two adjoining rooms: the first showing a film of the looms at work and the second housing a pianola which, when the clicking weaving comes to a stop, replies in a bubbling exuberant melody.
Starling also turns a curious eye on the relationship between industry and the arts. In commissions for Mass MoCA in Massachusetts and Parc Saint Léger in Burgundy, he observes the industrial past of both these gallery spaces – a shoe factory and a water bottling facility respectively. He proceeds to take minute fragments from archival photographs depicting the former lives of these cultural facilities and magnify them into large-scale installations – half-tone dots become a precise arrangement of black blown glass orbs on the gallery floor (‘La Source’, 2009); silver particles are magnified by a million to become amorphous, yet somehow anthropomorphic, sculptures (‘The Nanjing Particles’, 2008).
This exhibition is complemented by a second solo show at Backlit, a gallery and studio complex established by Nottingham Trent University graduates, which marks a return for Starling, who studied photography at NTU in the late 1980s. The exhibition at Backlit also takes up Starling’s preoccupation with early photographic processes and the reincarnation of objects across time, but does so by tapping into a more cosmic and speculative strand of his thinking. ‘Black Drop’ (2012) tells the story of the relationship between early moving image technology and astronomy. The atmospheric film unfolds in an editing suite, as an editor attempts to draw a linear narrative from disparate historical sources, thereby collapsing the distance between the past and the present. This simultaneity between the old and new is echoed in ‘Nine Feet Later’ (2015), an assemblage of objects – including a 15 million year old petrified tree trunk and a 3D printed birch branch – that together constitute a kind of time machine.