Simon Starling: Excerpt from TO LIFE! Eco Art in Pursuit of a Sustainable Planet

While the Holy Grail has been envisioned in numerous ways over the course of history, it always represents an era’s most elusive and most tantalizing goal. Embarking on a quest for the Holy Grail is, therefore, a heroic venture that is more often associated with quests than achievements. Such lofty pursuits often earn the elevated status of legends.

What is the 21st century version of the Holy Grail? What goal is so improbable that it seems magical and mysterious? One candidate is the quest for a source of energy that is capable of fueling the needs and desires of soaring human populations in a sustainable and affordable manner. The search is being pursued by a global cast of scientists, engineers, technicians, physicists, chemists, astronomers, and biologists all striving to materialize the illusory energy elixir.

Entries in the catalogue of alternatives for fossil fuels are as familiar as the hurdles that accompany them: solar collectors and wind turbines occupy large tracts of land; hydroelectric plants destroy free-flowing rivers and the bottomland in river valleys; harvesting biomass can cause deforestation and soil degradation; processing and burning biomass can pollute water and air; manufacturing photovoltaic cells utilizes toxic substances; natural gas can pollute ground water; spent nuclear fuel from nuclear power plants is a radioactive hazard; producing ethanol consumes nearly as much energy as it generates. 

Simon Starling is not among the contemporary artists who have joined the energy crusade. He has claimed a ring side seat to observe and critique its frenetic explorations. He then designs eccentric situations that highlight energy follies, dramatize conservation shortcomings, and contributes energy-expending processes he conducts with his body in order to avoid energy-consuming processes conducted with fossil fuels. In these works, the human body is offered as an untapped frontier of energy generation.

Starling discloses an energy folly that is as comical as it is instructive in Kakteenhaus, Cactus House (2002). The installation represents the climax of a chronicle that began when Starling picked a cactus from the hot dry desert in Spain and transported it in his beat up red Volvo to a cold and wet Northern European climate where it was installed in the Temporäre Kunsthalle in Berlin. The entire exhibition space was transformed into a greenhouse. Its sole function was to warm the single, scrawny, displaced, prickly cactus.

A wall text revealed the unfolding of the work’s story-line to visitors. Called a ‘recipe’ by Starling, it tracks the coordinates of his expedition. “A Cereus cactus found growing at Texas Hollywood Film Studio in the Tabernas Desert, Andalucia, and transported  133 miles to Frankfurt in a Volvo 240 Estate.“

Only part of Starling’s Volvo was parked outside the gallery. The engine still started from inside the car, but the engine itself was running inside the gallery. Its gasoline tubes, water pipes, exhaust pipe, and electrical wiring had all been extended so that they reached from the car outside to the engine inside. The exhaust and supply pipes discharged enough heat in the gallery to raise the indoor temperatures to 32 degrees Celsius, the ideal temperature for the cactus. Starling comments, “Internal engines produce a lot of heat that they don’t use.”  

That statement is truer than car manufacturers would like to admit. It is estimated that automobile engines convert only 20% of their combusted gasoline into kinetic energy; 80% is released as heat.  Thus the life-saving heat for the cactus was provided by the life-threatening waste of petroleum combustion for people. Starling dramatized this rampant inefficiency by putting the wasted energy of the automobile to work in a manner that visitors could observe and feel. The contrast between the superb efficiency of a cactus and the clumsy inefficiencies of technology is both droll and insightful. At the same time, Starling created an accessible metaphor for the warming of the globe which is commonly believed to be a product of carbon-dioxide emissions from burning fossil fuels.

As in all his work, Starling has created a chain of relationships, not a finite object. He typically elaborates on the energy flows he is highlighting as they pass through natural and cultural systems, explaining, “I’m very interested in eco-systems in a broad sense, whereby we can talk about nature, but we can also talk about culture, and history and sociology. Ecosystems are just systems of connection.”   Thus, besides comparing the efficiency and endurance of the automobile and the cactus, Starling added the following narratives:

–    Previous to its transport for this work of art, the ancestors of this cactus were relocated to the Tabernas to make the Spanish desert appear like the deserts in Mexico and the southwestern parts of the US. They were transplanted so the region could serve as a setting for the filming of Western movies,  which explains the work’s title “A Cereus cactus found growing at Texas Hollywood Film Studio in the Tabernas Desert …”

–    Global warming is believed to be the cause of the Tabernas Desert’s rapid expansion.  This work dramatizes the urgent need to reduce carbon dioxide emissions.

–    Industrial agricultural installations for growing tropical vegetables, fruits, and flowers now occupy 158,000 acres of the Tabernas desert. The crops are sustained in this barren region by elaborate artesian wells and irrigation systems that deplete underground aquifers and disperse chemical fertilizers. 

Shedboatshed (Mobile Architecture No 2), 2005 is another caper, but this one serves as a model of economy, not waste. The inspiration came to Starling as he was bicycling along the Rhine River near the Swiss town of Schweizerhalle, contemplating a way to incorporate the river in his upcoming exhibition downriver in Basel .  Along the way he came across a decrepit, unpainted wooden shed. He introduced himself to the owners and expressed his desire to convert their shed into a boat for an art exhibition. His plan was to then load the remains of the shed on to the boat and paddle approximately seven miles down the Rhine to Basel. There he would dismantle the boat and rebuild it as a shed that would be installed at the Museum für Gegenwartskunst.

Starling recalls, “I was looking for something that I could use for a river-based project and, being lucky, I found it. The shed even had a paddle attached! And the owners were really happy with what I wanted to do. What I’m doing is just adding another layer to its history. It used to be a guard hut on the Swiss border.”  Starling learned that the paddle was used on boats called ‘weidlings’, so that was the type of boat he constructed. It was about 30 feet long and resembled a gondola.

This journey in a hand-made vessel required more than courage. It also entailed detailed planning, knowledge of construction, and substantial outlays of effort – both mental and physical. Starling’s personal energy expenditures challenged the extravagant expenditures of energy being made worldwide through industrial mass production. By pitting sweat and calories against coal and petroleum, Shedboatshed fortifies the moral principle that production should maximize sustainability instead of maximizing productivity. Starling confirms this by stating that his efforts were “an attempt to make an artwork which is very ergonomic and easy on the environment.” 

Ergonomics maximizes productivity by reducing the worker’s fatigue and discomfort. Starling’s reference to the applied science of ergonomics seems to be transferred from reducing a strenuous human process, to reducing stress on the planet. Indeed, the total energy invested to produce and install this work of art was a fraction of conventional costs of conducting art protocols. Using hand-held tools, reusing local, neglected materials to acquire his sculptural medium, and attending to the crating, transport, fabrication, and installation in one operation, Starling accomplished an impressive feat of conservation. Despite his exertions, Starling seems to have been refreshed by the process. To him, the labor is about “slowing things down, about trying to retard this incredible speed at which we live”.  
Investing in a laborious process that entailed dismantle, construct, then dismantle the construction and reconstruct  it may seem pointless, if not incredibly ludicrous. But it is this elaborate effort that conveys the work’s compelling message. Starling made certain that museum-goers would discern this process. He comments, “…if you step up into the shed you’ll start to see the cuts, the marks of the boat-building process. Also you’ll discover lying on the floor a pile of cotton caulking which was used to fill the boards to keep the water out. There’s also some steel brackets we used to keep the ribs in place.”  He then comments, “…you can read its history in its scars”.