Interview: Simon Starling

Published 21 March 2016

As his biggest exhibition in the UK to date opens at Nottingham Contemporary, we spoke to the Turner Prize-winning artist about industry, technology and alchemy.

How did you go about selecting pieces for your new exhibition at Nottingham Contemporary?

My choices were strongly influenced by the gallery’s position in the former lace-making district of Nottingham. I had already been working on Red, Green, Blue, Loom Music for a completely different context in Turin [investigating the way a factory still employs punch card technology to program the looms that produce its complex textiles], but it seemed to have a real resonance in this industrial city. For me this exhibition is very much about making, production and manufacturing.

That brings us on to Blue Boat Black...

This is one of the first pieces I made for a specific context, responding to a particular opportunity. Soon after finishing university I was invited to work in this amazing studio in an old cigarette factory in Marseilles. The work evolved out of that. Before I left I was given a huge old Victorian display case from Edinburgh University. I strapped it to the roof of my car and went to France. I spent a few months building a small boat from it, then I went fishing on the harbour – eventually catching nine fish. Then I took the boat to a charcoal burner and used some of the resulting material to cook the catch. It was a circular thing, as if I was taking the case on a journey, its own Grand Tour in a way. There’s some poetic logic there.

The remainders are displayed in dialogue with your newest project, which is in the middle of its cycle [Project for a Crossing is a canoe cast from magnesium, inspired by the research of engineer Frank Kirk].

It will end up returning to its source, which is the Dead Sea. I’m trying to negotiate a very complicated crossing which includes the border between Israel and Jordan. I didn’t set out to embark on a project with such a complex political context, I just went to the most concentrated source of magnesium in the world in order to build this vessel. Now we have to find a way to get from one side of the sea to the other without getting killed.

Is building a boat out of this material hazardous?

You need very thin magnesium for it to catch fire, but if it does its very dangerous, because you can’t put it out, you just have to let it burn. It took about 1,900 litres of sea water to construct, that's 45 grams of magnesium per litre. Of course I worked with specialists, it takes a very specific skill set to work with this material.

There’s a link here to the painting The Alchemist Discovering Phosphorus by Joseph Wright of Derby, which you’ve replicated with a daguerrotype.

This was part of an exchange with Derby Museums, as part of the Grand Tour. There’s a link to my experimental processes and the alchemy depicted in the painting. It seemed to rhyme well with what we were doing in this exhibition. I’ve been making quite a few daguerrotypes, partly because of their interesting physical existence as both a photographic image and a mirror. They were developed in the era of modern chemistry, which was very experimental.

In much of your work there is an interest in outmoded technology, where does this come from?

I don’t know, these processes have a particular kind of significance, almost a charge. Some technology moves very quickly, such as photography, but others remained unchanged. Take the factory in Turin for example, the looms are so beautiful, you can’t believe they are still there! They are very moving things – they have a character, you can almost feel them. You can see the incredible intelligence of the engineers that built these machines, it’s very palpable. With computers there is no way to know what is going on inside them, there’s no access at all.

Simon Starling's exhibition at Nottingham Contemporary runs until 26 June. It is part of the Grand Tour programme along with The Harley Gallery, Chatsworth and Derby Museum and Art Gallery.

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