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Simon Starling The Nanjing Particles

  • Archive, Archive Exhibitions, Exhibition

  • December 13, 2008 - November 1, 2009
  • Galleries

Continuing his investigation into manufacturing processes and labor, Simon Starling created a major new work for MASS MoCA’s Building 5 as part of an exhibition entitled The Nanjing Particles. The installation addressed a particularly poignant socioeconomic moment in North Adams’ history — the period during which the city was, surprisingly, home to the largest population of Chinese immigrant workers east of the Mississippi. Overlaying local labor history onto current and historic practices in art production and presentation, the installation drew surprising connections between art, industry, and, global economics.

The jurors who awarded Starling the prestigious Turner Prize in 2005 singled out Starling’s “unique ability to create poetics, drawing together a wide range of cultural, political and historical narratives.” Engaging directly with the sites where he exhibits, Starling often retells the stories of a particular place while making revealing — and often unexpected — connections to distant times and places. Invited to take on MASS MoCA’s largest and most dramatic venue, Starling employed an extraordinary economy of means, choosing to animate the enormous exhibition space with sculptural forms derived from microscopic particles. In doing so he offered an elegant, if provocative, critique of recent museum trends that embrace size and spectacle. At the same time, he continued his exploration of labor and materials and their geographic, political, and cultural roots and repercussions.


In an adjacent gallery at MASS MoCA, Starling exhibited the newest iteration of Strip Canoe (African Walnut), a continuing project begun in 2007, which involved a journey down the nearby Hoosic River. Starling is known as much for his elaborate and performative working process — and the complex narratives he weaves together — as he is for the exquisitely crafted objects he produces. Travel and various forms of transport play an important role in the artist’s work; his own pilgrimages mimic or re-trace the paths of the resources and stories that drive his investigations and illustrate the collapsing nature of the globe. His work frequently addresses colonial histories and the relationships between first-world economies and the communities that provide an increasing percentage of global resources. Other works track the physical transformation of objects and materials as well as their changes in meaning, function, and value as they cross and re-cross borders.

Photography figures prominently in Starling’s work and was the starting point for the main work in the exhibition, titled The Nanjing Particles (After Henry Ward, View of C.T. Sampson’s Shoe Manufactory, with the Chinese Shoemakers in working Costume, ca. 1875). The installation began with two very small albumen prints — each measuring roughly 3×3 inches. This pair of stereographic photographs depicts a group of Chinese laborers in work clothes posed in front of the Sampson Shoe Company (a factory once located on what is now the MASS MoCA campus). The Chinese men, who were reportedly more productive in the factory than their American counterparts — and who worked for far less money — were brought to North Adams in 1870 to break a strike, and they stayed in the city for roughly ten years. While the nearly identical photographs were originally meant to be viewed using a stereoscope—an optical device which produced the illusion of a single three-dimensional picture — a fleshed-out image of the Chinese immigrants’ presence in North Adams remains elusive. A collection of photographs and a handful of newspaper articles are mostly all that remains of their time in North Adams. By 1880, the group had largely evacuated the area, most returning to China and some to California.

As Starling had done in several previous works, for The Nanjing Particles (After Henry Ward, View of C.T. Sampson’s Shoe Manufactory, with the Chinese Shoemakers in working Costume, ca. 1875), he literally and metaphorically mined the history captured in the two photographs. Interested in the photographs as a receptacle for meaning as well as in their physical existence as repositories for metal grains used in forming the images, the artist extracted silver particles from the prints’ emulsion in order to present their three-dimensional, sculptural characteristics. Working with scientists in nearby Albany, New York, Starling created 3-D images of two particular silver particles with the aid of a one million volt electron microscope which magnified the particles 25,000 times. Starling translated scanned images of the particles into computer renderings from which three-dimensional models were produced. These models of the tiny image fragments were then replicated as immensely enlarged sculptural objects, scaled up one million times their original size. At this point the story came full circle: economic imperatives took Starling to present-day China where the enlarged particles were fabricated into sculptures, forged in stainless steel and polished to a seductive, reflective sheen, reminiscent of works by sculptors such as Jeff Koons and Anish Kapoor. By juxtaposing historical material with contemporary modes of production and market conditions, Starling’s project drew attention to economies of labor both past and present. The works were presented in a manner that thwarted visitors’ expectations of a dramatic view of the cavernous gallery.

The second part of the The Nanjing Particles exhibition featured Strip Canoe (African Walnut), a work that references the 1909 expedition to northeastern Congo by scientist and photographer Herbert Lang. Sent on a biological survey by the American Museum of Natural History, Lang is now perhaps best known for his photographs of the Okapi, an elusive animal related to the giraffe. The Okapi’s black, brown, and white markings are referenced in the stripes of Starling’s canoe which was constructed in the manner of typical New England cedar strip canoes (derived themselves from Native American birch bark canoes.) Using African hardwoods instead of cedar, Starling has transformed the canoe into a hybrid: part African, part American, part camouflage, part sculpture, part vessel.

At MASS MoCA, in an extension of Strip Canoe, Starling juxtaposed Lang’s expedition with a journey in a different time and place. In spring the artist removed the canoe from the exhibition in order to travel down the Hoosic River — the south and north branches of which run through the MASS MoCA campus — to its junction with the Hudson River in the township of Schaghticoke (named for the Tribal Nation). The artist’s travels were filmed, and a new work made from the footage was added to the exhibition in summer 2009. Conflating his own excursion on the Hoosic (in a type of boat the European colonists borrowed from the Native Americans) with Lang’s journey on the Congo and Ituri rivers (made during Belgium’s violent rule over the African region), Starling seems to raise questions about New England’s own colonial past and the relationships played out in the Hoosic region between the Dutch, British, and French, and their Native American allies and enemies.

The new film, titled Red Rivers (In Search of the Elusive Okapi), conflates the stories of the two journeys made a century apart, and completes a cycle of almost three years of Starling’s research, travel, and production, which began in 2007 with the building and exhibiting of a strip canoe at Casey Kaplan Gallery, New York. It was on view in the exhibition from October 19 to November 1, 2009.

In the film, a series of contemporary still images charts a seven-day trip Starling made in the sculpture/canoe, which he paddled down the Hoosic and Hudson Rivers from North Adams, Massachusetts, to New York City. Four hundred years after the “discovery” of the Hudson River by English explorer Henry Hudson, Starling’s voyage was made in a purpose-built strip canoe of the type made in North America since the 1880s and originally based on the Native American birch bark canoe. This hybrid canoe was fashioned from dark brown African Walnut interspersed with ash, mimicking the Okapi’s stripes, and when carried overhead by two canoeists the boat became a kind of pantomime animal. The final destination of Starling’s journey (and the starting point of Lang’s epic voyage) was the Museum of Natural History where Lang’s celebrated Okapi diorama now holds a prominent position in the Akeley Hall of African Mammals.

Starling filmed the photographs of his trip under the red safelight of a traditional darkroom, at a moment when this somehow magical technology was rapidly disappearing. In Red Rivers (In Search of the Elusive Okapi) the story of Starling’s voyage to New York City unfolded as images were selected from contact prints — enlarged, developed, washed, dried, toned, and trimmed.

The voice-over for the film tells the story of Lang’s Congo expedition in his own words. It is the story of the hunt for the world’s most elusive animal, the Okapi, in the rainforests in the heart of Africa. While collecting thousands of plant and animal specimens during his six years in Africa, Lang also made thousands of extraordinary glass-plate negatives in a makeshift darkroom/tent, including the first-ever photographs of a live Okapi.

Born in 1967 in Epsom, England, Starling attended Nottingham Polytechnic and the Glasgow School of Art. His work is in the permanent collection of distinguished museums, such as the Tate Modern, London; Moderna Museet, Stockholm; Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York; Kroller Muller Museum, Netherlands; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago; and Museum Folkwang, Essen. Starling has had solo exhibitions at numerous international venues including the Power Plant, Toronto (2008); Städtischen Kunstmuseum zum Museum Folkwang, Essen (2007); Kunstmuseum Basel Museum für Gegenwartskunst (2005); Museum of Modern Art, Sydney (2002); Portikus, Frankfurt (2002); UCLA Hammer Museum, Los Angeles (2002); Kunstverein Hamburg (2001); Vienna Secession (2001), Museu Serralves, Porto (2000); Camden Arts Centre, London (1998); and the Moderna Museet, Stockholm (1998), among others. In conjunction with the exhibition “Cuttings”, the Kunstmuseum Basel and the Power Plant co-published a two-volume catalog featuring a selection of Starling’s works made between 1994 and 2008. In 2003, the artist represented Scotland at the 50th Venice Biennial. He has received many awards, including, most recently, the Tate’s Turner Prize in 2005. Starling was short-listed for the Guggenheim’s Hugo Boss Prize for contemporary art in 2004. Starling is a Professor of Fine Arts at the Staatliche Hochscule für Bildende Künste, Städelschule, Frankfurt, and currently lives in Copenhagen and Berlin.

The opening reception for the exhibition was held on Saturday, December 13, 2008, from 5:30 to 7:30pm. Following the opening at 8pm, there was a performance of a new work-in-progress collaboration between Toshi Reagon and Sarah East Johnson and her dance troupe, LAVA.

MASS MoCA published an illustrated catalog featuring an essay by exhibition curator Susan Cross as well as a contribution from Mount Holyoke College Professor of Art History Anthony W. Lee, the leading expert on the photographs, which act as the exhibition’s foundation and the author of A Shoemaker’s Story: Being Chiefly about French Canadian Immigrants, Enterprising Photographers, Rascal Yankees, and Chinese Cobblers in a Nineteenth-Century Factory Town (published by Princeton University Press, 2008). The exhibition catalog includes photographs of the new installations as well as archival photographs and documentation of the works’ fabrication.

Download a pdf of the exhibition guide.