Written by Jacky Lo

Simon Starling
detail of One Ton II, 2005

Looking at art, we naturally consider the form, content, and context of the work and often times we tend to dismiss the monetary factors in its creation. Exposing the financial aspects of art can sometimes create a controversial presence in an artwork or an artist’s practice, as it contradicts the general assumption that visual art is simply an artistic expression. Indeed, this assumption can lead artists to steer the focus away from the economics of art. Considering that money can at times define or limit a work, it is refreshing to see artists take on the challenge to unfold the fiscal backside. Artists like Simon Starling have willingly generated a discourse on the topic by revealing the role economics play in their body of work. Starling addresses the economic roles through both the use of material transformations and historical narratives that deeply inform his practice.

Starling’s photographic work at the rennie museum is finely tuned, framed and displayed in sharp monochromatic tones, with an underlying sense of purpose and structure. Displayed across the brick backdrop of the original back half of the Wing Sang building, One Ton II (2005), consists of 5 repeat photographs of a South African ore mine, which Starling utilizes to highlight the commercial efforts in art making. Although visually flat, the photos are composed of hundreds of thousands of three-dimensional platinum particles at an atomic level, particles that he considers as related to sculpture. Starling has framed the prints within acrylic boxes rather than traditional frames, akin to sculptural pieces in display cases. The process he employs to obtain these particles informs the way the work is perceived conceptually.

Simon Starling
Pictures for an Exhibition, 2013

The narrative structure of the work’s material process is essentially an investigation into the origin of raw materials. In order to create the photographs, Starling oversees a chain of industrial and environmental processes. The depicted ore mine is also the supplier for the platinum used in the photographs. The result is as many prints equivalent to the amount of platinum subtracted from one ton of ore. Platinum is an expensive element that currently retails at about $45 CAD per gram, making the artwork costly to produce. Furthermore, platinum mining requires specialized industrial and environmental processes. It requires time, research, specialists, and considerable funds to complete the connection between mining operations, photographic production, and the resulting commodity that resides within a museum. This material choice and means of transformation is a demonstration of the high cost of creation, and thereby directs us towards the relationship between the creative process and the need for economic backing. This backstory of labour, as well as the embedded economic and environmental networks, reveal a facet of the fiscal and artistic process that Starling has wittingly invoked.

Pictures for an Exhibition (2013) exposes an intricate structure of historical accounts and economics of the art world through the documentation of how art is circulated. The work addresses two installation photographs of a 1927 exhibition featuring 19 pieces of famed sculptor Constantin Brancusi at the Arts Club of Chicago. These sculptures would later be sold and spread across the world in a flurry of museums and collections. Starling focused his research on discovering and photographing the trails of collectors and institutions, all of which had the means or intention to buy, sell, and gift these sculptures. He found each Brancusi work in its current location and captured them in the exact same angle as they appear in the original 1927 installation photographs. Through photo manipulation, Starling overlaid the 19 Brancusi sculptures back together to recreate a facsimile of the original installation photographs. This process directs the viewers to a historical network of financial trails regarding these sculptures and their collectors. The use of a historical lens personifies the sculptures: it represents the trajectory of their past ‘lives’ and the journeys that these sculptures have taken from the original exhibition to spaces revealed through Starling’s research. In one case, Starling found that Brancusi’s Torso of a Young Woman (1918) was the only piece from the exhibition to enter a collection outside the United States. In 1980, it was acquired by the Kunstmuseum Basel and was previously thought to be owned by collectors Agnes Drey and by Otto Werthheimer. Here, we see the route of the sculpture: passing from artist to collector, and then to institution through the use of “public and private funds”.* Like Torso of a Young Woman (1918), many of the Brancusis in the original exhibition were similarly passed from hand to hand, time and time again. Starling’s main objective in recreating the original installation photographs is to unravel the historical narrative of each sculpture. As a result, the work only exists through the sculptures’ expeditions and the documentation of their paths. Without these networks of circulation and trade, Starling would have not needed to re-photograph and reconfigure the past exhibition. Unwinding these histories simultaneously exposes the economic demeanor of the art. This reveal presents a complex system underlining that an artwork’s trajectory and economics work hand in hand together.

Installation View

Art is first experienced with our senses and is filtered through cognitive processes. These experiences can affect how we view and feel about the artwork, taking on considerations of its form, materiality, content, and context. It therefore exhibits multiplex aspects, which Starling evokes through his research and process-based practice. One Ton II (2005) translates a full network of manufacturing processes through the use of material transformation, evidencing the fact that financial means play a physically and conceptually important role in an artwork. Pictures for an Exhibition (2013) highlights a system of exchanges and distribution, addressing ownership, power, loss, and transaction in the art world. In One Ton II (2005) and Pictures for an Exhibition (2013), Starling decodes the monetary facet of art by exposing the exchanges of industrial processes and the dense network of circulation. Thanks to Starling, the viewer gains a new perspective when analyzing an artwork, and learns to consider factors beyond the form, content, and context of the work. Recognizing that financial means are often an unexposed but an important aspect of art moves that art beyond a simple artistic expression.

* Starling, Simon. “Simon Starling: Collected Works.” Rennie Collection, 2016. Page 16. Print