On Making Ready

Published in Simon Starling, Reprototypes, Triangulations and Road Tests (Sternberg/Thyssen-Bornemisza Art Contemporary)

The first project to take place under the auspices of TBA-21’s collaboration with the Belvedere […] will see the programming of contemporary work within the Augarten studio, a striking modern structure designed as an artist’s workspace. Fittingly, the works selected for Simon Starling’s show present us with various strategies for siting the contemporary within the modern. With his alchemical understanding of objects as unstable complexes, his peripatetic appreciation for how they are transformed and revalued through geographical displacement, and his eye for the ways in which narrative frames and reframes them, Starling presents us with a number of contemporary tactics for disrupting the self-sufficiency of modernism.

In Venus Mirrors, the rare transit of Venus across the sun during June 2012 sees Starling reenacting the 1874 attempt to determine the distance of the sun from the earth through triangulation. The repetition of this experiment, which ultimately had more significance for cinema than for astronomy, unveils a general strategy at work here: We can gauge our ‘standard distance’ from an object of universal illumination (modernism) only by observing, from a local position, the passage of other, minor bodies across it. And rather than affording us an absolute viewpoint, the resulting parallax effect tends to give rise to strange alignments and unexpected narratives. Temporal distance is collapsed, and contemporaneity is produced as immediate affect, rather than as historical category. In effect, Starling transforms the Augarten back into a laboratory or workshop, telescoping time so that objects that modernist dogma and historicism have rendered distant and imperious are set in relative motion, and imbued with a certain incompleteness and futurality.

Perhaps the most complex and intriguing piece, in terms of its address to modernism, is Starling’s Exposition, whose centerpiece consists of a glass panel modelled after the designs of Lily Reich for the 1929 Barcelona Exposition. Reich’s contribution to the Werkbund’s promotion of German industry took shape in a period when a new awareness was emerging of the shop window display as aesthetic form, along with a contestation over its proper nature. Working in window dressing at the beginning of the twentieth century, Reich participated in a certain polemical modernist critique that denigrated earlier efforts – theatrical presentations providing legible narratives for the featured products, and staged with mannequins and other props – in favour of a presentation of wares that sought to be true to the objects themselves and their serialised, industrial nature.1 Reich’s exhibition designs evidently prolong this refusal of narrative and context, presenting commodities – whether beer, mechanical cranes or textiles, Vom Sofakissen zum Städtebau2 – in a state of implacable objectivity. As the Werkbund declared: ‘the display booths are bare; only the products should speak, should vouch for themselves’.3 But this speech is undeniably muted: the ultimate effect is one of sheer visuality, of a glacially abstract presentation of objects that threatens to eclipse the ostensible aim of informing visitors. Commodities are subtracted from their production and use and even their matter, taking on a sublime, cultic aura.

We can trace a direct kinship between the glass screens of Lily Reich’s exhibition designs, which form the centerpiece of Simon Starling’s Exposition [2004], and Duchamp’s readymade, which serves as an implicit foil to many of Starling’s works. It is with Reich’s modular glass screens that this connection becomes evident: their transparent, immaterial articulation of the trade show booth creates a crystalline structure in which decontextualised wares are displayed as objects of abstract desire, precisely as if the ‘shop window’ in which Duchamp sought ‘proof of the existence of the external world’ (a world outside art), had been multiplied and ramified in this new, exalted space of display. Without wishing to reduce the readymade to this sole dimension (that of Duchamp as ‘spiritualist of Woolworths’, according to a phrase of Robert Smithson’s that Starling likes to cite),4 we should note that not only does Duchamp describe Fountain [1917] as ‘a fixture you see every day in plumbers’ shop windows’; but that, according to at least one authority, the artistic exigency of the readymade itself appeared during a visit to a trade show:

Duchamp, who […] had not yet ‘invented’ the readymade […] went […] to the Salon de la locomotion aérienne and, to Leger and Brancusi, who were accompanying him, he offered this verdict: “Painting’s washed up. Who’ll do anything better than that propeller? Tell me, can you do that?”5

Thus, the ‘external world’ sought by Duchamp in the shop window – that of an object whose provenance belongs to an entirely different regime of production than that of art – converges with Reich’s elevation of the industrial commodity into high art. The latter operates via a subtraction from context and material conditions, responding to the modernist call to eschew narrative and ‘entrench’ every discipline ‘firmly within its area of competence’ (as the Greenbergian formula would have it). Whereas in Duchamp’s gesture, this critical demand, taken to an ascetic extreme, gives rise to an unmanageable excess in regard to the modernist programme (the work of art as pure nomination of any object whatsoever). Regardless, in both cases, the orphaned object ends up in vitro, flattened by the orthogonal lens of a transparent surface up against which the ‘disinterested’ spectator’s nose is pressed. For Duchamp, the ‘inevitable response to shop windows’ is that ‘my choice is determined’; and finally I pay the ‘penalty’ of ‘cutting the pane and in feeling regret as possession is consummated’. It is the nomination of the object as art – its enclosure within the ‘infra-thin’ panels of a conceptual vitrine – that suspends this feared inevitable and disappointing consummation/consumption, just as Reich’s displays preserve the wares’ immaculate aura by distancing them from their production and context of use.

Exposition’s hydrogen fuel-cell powered lamps shed a contemporary light on these transparent framings as, through and in Reich’s ‘large glass’, Starling explodes the mute, sealed integrity of the modernist object. Rather than serving as a screen (both surface of projection and prophylactic) governing the suitably disinterested reception of the object (a disinterest that plays to the interests of consumer desire), the glass partition finds itself implicated in the production processes of the object and its presentation. No longer legible as a device for the formal structuring of display, a partition reinforcing the modernist disciplinary division of labour, it is exposed as an optical device. At the same time, visual presentation itself (lights, photograph and screen) reveals its contingent constitution, in particular its dependence upon the extraction and fixing of metals. Finally, the fuel cell, with its transparent perspex casing, which would itself be at home in a trade show, seems to parody the glass cabinet featured in the foreground of the photograph (of the Barcelona Exposition) that the fuel cells illuminate. Rather than a vitreous incarceration rendering the object an inscrutable ‘black box’, here a prototype contemporary technology is exposed in its inner workings and outer connections.

Exposition’s ‘double-exposure’ thus forces Reich’s screen to reflect (on) dimensions other than those within which it was designed to constrain the objects it put on display. This is not a postmodern work comprising a modernist object as one of its eclectic elements; it is a contemporary work that, paradoxically, excavates a contemporary object from within the modern object – a gesture that seems crucial to the selection of Starling’s works exhibited here. To resolve this paradox, we must obviously understand ‘modern’ and ‘contemporary’ in a sense more profound than that of a simple historical periodisation. We must ask what constitutes a contemporary object as opposed to a modern one; which demands contemporary epistemology responds to, that modernist epistemology did not (or did not need to). In other words, one of the questions asked by Starling’s works is: What happens when the passage of historical time and the emergence of new objects and new ways of knowing compels us to reconfigure our understanding of these objects, beyond their ‘entrenchment’ within the organon of modernity? In response, he tells the stories that the objects ‘themselves’ could not ‘vouch for’; he operates disruptions that foreground the devices developed in order to configure visual presentation so that objects appeared in accordance with this organon.

This visual sequestration of the object from its conditions of production is symbolised elegantly in pictorial form in Three Birds, Seven Stories, Interpolation and Bifurcations [2007], Starling’s installation exploring architect Eckart Muthesius’s building of a modernist palace for the Maharajah of Indore. In one photograph of the completed building, its sloping roof – necessary given the climate the building was to withstand – has been dodged out of the photograph. This time, the ‘squaring off’ of the object indicates how the self-representation of a generic international modernism elided the inevitable adaptations and slippages of local situations. In Three Birds, this self-representation exists as only one element in a network of (material, historical, fictional, and historical-fictional) narratives, a multiplicity that explodes the framing conditions that authorised the object to ‘vouch for itself’ in isolation. Once again, it is a question of the excavation, within the modernist object, of a contemporary object that belongs simultaneously to various (cultural, historical, fictional, technological, political, celluloid, geological, climatic) registers, and whose determination as object depends upon the researcher presenting the object, who can include or elide each of these dimensions according to their own intentions.

Here we can make use of a concept originating outside the discourse of art: the ‘integrative object’ proposed by Anne-Françoise Schmid and her collaborators, in order to capture the increasingly interdisciplinary types of objects with which contemporary scientists have to deal.6 Schmid proposes that ‘[s]cience now creates objects whose identity is no longer fixed by the discipline of origin, nor by given disciplinary combinations’.7 An object such as a genetically-modified fish can no longer be encompassed within a hierarchy of sciences predicated on the founding status of mechanics. Moreover, defining them as the object of one discipline (or even several disciplines synthesised into an ‘interdisciplinary’ formation) inevitably creates an impoverished image of them:

If we treat this fish instead as […] an ‘X’ whose properties […] are divided in unprecedented fashion between diverse disciplines, the effects will be very rich. The first reason for this richness is that the hierarchy of disciplines is undone: all count for one, with the same weight. The fish will no longer be thought only as a technical product of molecular biology, with the aid, afterwards, of other disciplines as necessary – for example, chemistry for traceability, quantitative genetics for the expression of genes, economics for the commercial channels and the risk of chance contamination, sociology for consumer perception, law for marketing and labelling, epistemology to understand the variety of scientific ingredients, and ethics evoked in the question of social acceptability.8

Schmid proposes that we think of such an object as a multi-dimensional entity, each of whose dimensions is a different discipline or discourse, and whose contours are sketched out according to the points at which each of these disciplines falls short of capturing it. Since these dimensions can never be added to each other so as to synthesise a whole object, it is constituted (‘made ready’ for presentation) each time through the partial perspective and intentions of a given researcher. The richness of Schmid’s model, and its application to contemporary objects, resides in this incomplete, problematic status that prevents integrative objects from ever being presented as ‘readymade’.

We could suggest the following parallel, then: where the modern object is disciplined so as to fall under one of a set of finalities articulated by the organon of modernity (the apotheosis of this would be Greenbergian modernism with its purification and division of labour into ‘areas of competence’), this disciplined/disciplinary object is always ‘cut out’ from a contemporary (‘integrative’) object, non-disciplinary or indisciplined – a multidimensional object (‘[d]isciplines are like the dimensions of the object: they are no longer at the centre, but are made use of in the construction of the object.’).9 Schmid argues that this new epistemology of the object converges with the attempt (notably in Armand Hatchuel’s C/K Design Theory) to think the process of design or invention, in which the future object, yet to be created, is precisely such an underdetermined or problematic ‘X’ irreducible to any one of the many dimensions its solution may involve – a prototype that cannot belong to any one of the disciplinary series organised by a modernist-style division of labour.

In relation to the art object, then, this implies an acknowledgement of the dissimulation (screening) involved in presenting any object from the ‘external world’ as ‘ready made’. The integrity of such objects is undermined and riddled by the contingencies of its materiality and production. Accordingly, in Starling’s work, the Marxist view of the commodity as ‘congealed labour’ is expanded to include, beneath the labour of the worker, that of the natural (geological, chemical, molecular) processes that laboured to create the materials themselves; and adjoined to it, the labour of presentation and of the construction of narratives that screen off dimensions so as to prepare the object’s reception. This is perhaps what Starling means when, in a simple but profound inversion, he refers to certain works as ‘made ready’, thus prioritising making (a problematic, indeterminate phase) over arrangement and presentation (‘infra-thin’ nomination).

This subversive procedure is doubly necessary today. For, in addition to the original zealous enforcement of the modernist conception of the object through its presentation, as object of contemporary historical discourse it is now sublimated into pure visuality all over again, as modern designs are resold to us as venerable ‘classics’. A reconfiguration of them as contemporary objects thus extracts them both from the original conditions under which they were ‘made ready’ for modernist discourse, and from their final consumerist domestication as untouchable, readymade symbols of a utopia now vaguely evoked as lifestyle or status indicator – whether high- or middlebrow (whether the ‘shop window’ is that of Ikea, MoMA Design Store or Miami Design Fair).

In Blackout [2009], as in the earlier Home-made Henningsen PH5 lamps [2001], Starling reminds us of the real, active meaning of design by literally re-manufacturing objects by hand. This is not however an attempt to revive the original utopian dimension of modernist design (as in the now-endemic ‘lost futures of modernism’ nostalgia meme). Rather, it locates a utopian dimension outside of and prior to the ‘shop window’, in the alchemy of creation and material involvement, before labour and materials congeal into a product or exhibit. This is precisely the futural orientation of design or invention that, for Schmid, indexes the integrative object. In this state, which Starling calls ‘innocent’, the integrative dimensions of the object overflow the finalities that govern its reception as ‘modern classic’.10

Starling’s presentation, in made-ready works, of the object and its apparatus of fabrication (as in Work Made-ready, Les Baux-de-Provence (Mountain Bike) [2001], presents directly such an ‘exploded’ view. In the same gesture, he refuses to perpetuate the presentative closure of the artwork itself – that is, he acknowledges that the piece itself is also an integrative object. We thereby understand that the contemporary object also exceeds the attitude of minimalism, whose ‘specific object’ still implicitly demanded that we abstract it from the dimensions (material, processual, economic, cultural) it did not seek to thematize. The contemporary (art) object has its contingent dimensions ‘folded into’ it rather than held at a distance. For example, in Exposition the photograph is not just torn from representational status to be regarded as a sculptural object; it is reasserted as representation, by evoking the narratives the image is implicated in; and at the same time it is torn from its objective appearance by regarding it as a coalescence of platinum, made-ready (made visible) by light generated through the catalytic agency of the same metal. Or, to continue the metallic theme,11 take Bird in Space [2004], which recalls US customs’ levying of an import tax upon Duchamp’s importation of Brancusi’s 1925 Bird in Space. Starling imported a slab of Romanian steel as an ‘artwork’, avoiding an identical 40% foreign import tax introduced by the Bush Government, and including this negotiation and the means of transportation in the piece, which therefore finishes up like a Serra work stripped of its high drama and emasculated by the exposure of its backstory.

As Starling suggests, works like this, emphasising the implication of the art object in a situation whose complexity is recognisably ‘integrative’ or ‘contemporary’, have to be constructed as both materialist and dematerialised.12 In them, material objects are coupled with the history of their making-ready, recalling the integrative dimensions that a purely visual experience of the piece would occlude. Prouvé (Road Test) [2012] is a kind of brutal distillation of such works. In characteristic style, it involves an object and (the record of) a journey. In an ingenious feat of ambiguity, Road Test dramatises the modernist object’s deliverance from the museum by undertaking its delivery to the museum. A rare section of a prototype glass roof panel by architect Jean Prouvé is exhibited, only after it has been subjected to a procedure that puts on trial its ‘logic, balance and purity’, at the same time truly testing the limits of our tolerance for contemporary interventions into consecrated historical material: Hitched to a truck and driven at speed, the streamlined curves of the architectural module are perilously exposed to the elements, in an action that forces us to consider this ‘piece of modern history’ as an unfinished prototype. In the midst of this renewed R&D process, it becomes an ‘object X’, invigorated one last time by the perilous uncertainty of the design process, before being deposited finally under the glass roof of the Augarten studio. Perhaps this vitreous consecration stills it once again; but equally, perhaps the display-space itself will become contaminated by association with Starling’s newly reprototyped object.

  1. See E. da Costa Meyer, ‘Cruel Metonymies: Lilly Reich’s Designs for the 1937 World’s Fair’ in New German Critique, No. 76 (Winter 1999), 161-89: 162-5.
  2. ‘From sofa cushions to city-building’, the Werkbund’s slogan.
  3. Da Costa Meyer, ‘Cruel Metonymies’, 171.
  4. S. Starling, P. Kaiser, ‘Interview with Simon Starling’, in Cuttings (Ostfildern-Ruit: Hatje Cantz Verlag, 2005),C5.
  5. T. De Duve, Pictorial Nominalism: On Marcel Duchamp’s Passage from Painting to the Readymade (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press,1991), 110.
  6. See A.-F. Schmid, M. Mambrini-Doudet, A. Hatchuel, ‘Une nouvelle logique de l’interdisciplinarité’, Nouvelles perspectives en sciences sociales : revue internationale de systémique complexe et d’études relationnelles, Vol. 7, Number 1, October 2011, 105-136.
  7. A.-F. Schmid, ‘The Philosophical Underpinnings of Design Theory’.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Ibid.
  10. S. Starling, P. Kaiser, ‘Interview with Simon Starling’, in Cuttings (Ostfildern-Ruit: Hatje Cantz Verlag, 2005), C5.
  11. We should remark here that metals have played a continual role in Starling’s work as prime exemplar of an integrative object – metals at once belong to a primary extractive relation between human and earth, a locus of capitalist speculation and control, and a palette of artist’s materials.
  12. Starling & Kaiser, ‘Interview with Simon Starling’, C8.