Hammer Projects: Simon Starling

Hammer Projects: Simon Starling

References to music, architecture, social history, and philosophy abound in the work of British artist Simon Starling. Taking the utopian ideal of Modernism as his point of reference, Starling will present Inverted Retrograde Theme, USA (House for a Songbird), 2002 - complete with birds. In the installation in the Hammer's Lobby Gallery, two scale models by Austrian architect Simon Schmiderer of a Puerto Rican housing project dating from the 1960s double as birdcages. They sit atop tree trunks that stretch up from the floor below. Art critic Massimilano Gioni notes that "by replicating the elaborate pattern of steel gates and fences, and by trapping a couple of songbirds in one of his miniaturized houses, Starling evokes the contradictions that disarm and immobilize any version of utopian thought when faced with the unpredictable chaos of life."

Hammer Projects are curated by James Elaine.


Simon Starling was born in Epsom, Surrey, England, in 1967. He studied at Trent Polytechnic, Nottingham, and Glasgow School of Art and currently lives and works in Glasgow. Recently he has had exhibitions at Casey Kaplan 10-6, New York (2002); Dundee Contemporary Arts, Dundee, Scotland (2002); Vienna Secession (2001); and Magasin, Grenoble, France (2000).

Life: A User’s Manual

By Massimiliano Gioni

Two crooked branches of tropical wood sprout from the floor of the gallery like some sort of exotic plant mysteriously insinuating itself into the hard geometry of the white cube. As our gaze follows the gentle curves of the branches upward, we encounter another curious apparition: two miniaturized buildings are pressed up against the gallery ceiling. The miniature models have been flipped upside down; their roofs delicately balance on the tips of the branches like fragile tree houses. In spite of their diminutive scale and awkward positioning, the houses still manage to preserve the lean austerity so typical of modernist architecture, with its glacial proportions and severe elegance: sharp angles, clear-cut windows, and airy patios, the division between interior and exterior completely blurred. But—again—the purity of these solutions is corroded by another anomaly: the once open structure has been enclosed by steel gates and screens. The buildings have been transformed from open-air abodes into claustrophobic cages. And, trapped within one of the house’s walls, a couple of colorful songbirds have found their nest.

Like the houses in Inverted Retrograde Theme, USA (House for a Songbird), Starling’s work grows on shaky ground, envisioning a space crossed by different tensions and incongruities. Out of these contrasts, however, a trembling equilibrium always emerges—a moment of suspension that solves and yet exposes a tortuous process of research. Starling’s world, in fact, is perennially in motion: within its fluid borders objects get transformed, values exchanged, contexts overlapped. Whether working on a photograph, a sculpture, or an installation, he never seems content with creating a mere product or image. He aspires instead to use art as a catalyst for a variety of meanings. Starling’s work, then, becomes both the point of departure and the terminus of an endless journey through the spirals of memory and the windings of geography.

The coordinates of Starling’s imaginary expeditions are traced by the titles and notes that accompany his exhibitions: these instructions—or recipes, as the artist calls them—outline a maze of multiple narratives, which often gravitate around a series of historical allusions. In Starling’s projects, in fact, each detail results from careful encyclopedic investigations, while illustrious antecedents are found in order to justify every decision. No matter how absurd or arduous, Starling’s plans are always carried out with the manic concentration one expects to find in the work of a self-taught, obsessed amateur. But the final output is more similar to the findings of an archaeologist who has been studying the metamorphosis of life and culture through the lens of art history.

Massimiliano Gioni is an art critic and curator. He lives and works in New York and Milan.


Hammer Projects are made possible, in part, with support from the Horace W. Goldsmith Foundation and The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts. Additional support has been provided by the Los Angeles County Art Commission.