Simon Starling’s Project for a Masquerade
Complex sculptural meditation features a star-studded cast
Turner Prize-winning artist Simon Starling talks to Neil Cooper about his new conceptual show, a dense collage of references to an ongoing East-West-divide
The pan-global plot of Simon Starling’s latest work is as labyrinthine as a Cold War spy thriller. The quiet elegance of the GSA-trained 2005 Turner Prize winner’s Project for a Masquerade (Hiroshima) / Mirror Room similarly references both real and imagined history to highlight events relating to an ongoing East-West divide. Taking in everything from a Henry Moore sculpture to Japanese Noh plays and James Bond to art historian-turned-Russian spy Anthony Blunt, the show is a complex sculptural meditation that takes us backstage to witness an array of individually carved masks and imagine the actors inhabiting their characters before the real drama begins next year on the other side of the world.
‘It’s kind of the first part of an exhibition that will take place later in Hiroshima,’ says Starling down the line from Copenhagen, where he’s lived with his family for the last five years. ‘The Glasgow part is sort of an ante-chamber to the second exhibition.’
Starling’s mission impossible goes something like this. While researching Moore’s work for his own ‘Infestation Piece (Musselled Moore)’, first shown in Toronto in 2008, Starling became fascinated by Moore’s 1965 ‘Nuclear Energy’, commissioned to commemorate the site of the first nuclear reactor in Chicago. This had grown out of ‘Atom Piece’, commissioned by Hiroshima museum two years earlier. When Starling was approached by the same institution, his imagination was fired by assorted conspiracy theories involving CND posters, political intrigue and the lingering diplomatic fallout over the American bombing of Hiroshima in 1945.
Turning to a 16th century Noh play about an aristocratic boy escaping in disguise from a Buddhist temple aided by a local milliner, Starling began work with a Noh mask-maker in Osaka to create images featuring a star-studded cast that includes KFC founder Colonel Sanders, Sean Connery’s Bond circa Goldfinger as – what else? – a gold merchant, and Blunt as the hat-maker’s wife.
‘It’s looking at these things in a playful way,’ Starling says, ‘but using this ancient and incredibly intricate artform.’
In Hiroshima next year a film will be shown of the masks being made, although given the West’s long-standing fascination with Noh aesthetics by theatrical auteurs including Bertolt Brecht, Peter Brook and Robert Lepage, the logical next step would be to see Starling’s vision staged.
‘It would be interesting if that did happen,’ says Starling, ‘but I’m not sure how possible that would be. The mask-maker’s art is an incredibly entrenched form that remains belligerently unchanged. His job is to make masks for specific actors, so for him to step out of this very small Noh community for this show is incredibly brave.
‘Before the masks are painted, the mask maker writes little messages inside them that personalises them in some way. On one of the masks he wrote in Japanese something along the lines of “Ban the Bomb”. I didn’t ask him to do it, but he was very happy about it.’
The plot, as they say, thickens.
Simon Starling: ‘Project for a Masquerade (Hiroshima) / Mirror Room’, The Modern Institute, Glasgow, Saturday 20 Nov–Tue 7 Dec.