Simon Starling: Display Case based on Fiat Rooftop Basket - Glass, Woven Wicker

The Modern Institute, Glasgow: Simon Starling – A-A’, B-B’

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Glasgow: Until 28th October
Turin: 15th October – 11th January 2020

There’s a perennial, and circular, discussion around how much background information should be available to the viewer about an artwork or exhibition. While mostly s/he will need some context or story in order to engage with the work, pieces that depend on explanation in order to work risk appearing obscure, aloof and overly reliant on context; over-explanation risks draining a piece of of its intrinsic qualities, and the viewer may tire of having to put in the work before it begins to reward.

Engaging with Turner prize-winner Simon Starling’s exhibition at Glasgow’s The Modern Institute undoubtedly needs the leaflet available on entrance, and some effort has to be expended on mentally associating the apparently disparate artefacts, before things begin to fall into place, and a comprehension takes hold.

The exhibition is about bisection, ‘A-A’ and ‘B-B’ denoting the end-points of two straight cuts. Italian painter Giovanni Battista Tiepolo’s 1738 panoramic painting The Finding of Moses (1736-38) was cut in two in the early 19th century, with one large section now in the National Galleries of Scotland’s collection. The smaller, right-hand section, reproduced here full-size, comprises a now-marooned halberdier, carrying a ceremonial sword and dressed in 17th-century courtly finery, a greyhound at his side; this made its way into the collection of automotive giant Fiat, whose supremo for thirty years was Giovanni Agnelli.

While Agnelli enjoyed a privileged lifestyle in common with the courtly life represented by the soldier and canine, he enjoyed driving his regular production Fiat family saloon around Turin, engendering a man-of-the-people reputation; in a dramatic move, Starling has neatly truncated the entire boot section of a gorgeous dark-blue 1968 Fiat 125 Special, in the same proportions as the painting’s separation – and, equally disturbingly, sliced right through the rear wheels, rendering the car of course undriveable. A piece of high-precision butchery in the name of art, but of course no more so than that visited on the original painting.

Truncated Fiat 125 Special with print of Tiepolo's Halberdier
Truncated Fiat 125 Special with print of Tiepolo’s Halberdier


The two sections of Tiepolo’s painting will be reunited, after a century apart, in the second half of the exhibition, in October at Fiat’s home, Turin, making this part more about repair and linkage. The display is also about courtly refinement: the pure-bred greyhound is echoed in a series of large-print photo’s of white dogs, taken in Fiat’s automotive photographic studio; and the refinement of man is reflected in the masks of the halberdier and of Agnelli, produced with Japanese noh mask-maker Yasuo Miichi. These are mounted on steel armatures, like standing figures, with matching sculpted hands, one of which is holding a 1974 copy of Dario Fo’s dark farce Trumpets and Raspberries, in which, furthering the artist’s associative logic, the Fiat boss swaps places with a car-plant-worker, while across the room, the other figure clutches a halberd, echoing the posture of the soldier in the painting.

Mask of Agnelli with hand holding copy Dario Fo's Trumpets and Raspberries
Mask of Agnelli with hand holding copy Dario Fo’s Trumpets and Raspberries


The unpredictable associations continue: three daguerreotypes of the artist’s hands, and his father’s and son’s, appear on shiny silvered copper, and one of two woven baskets, based on Fiat designs for a roof-luggage rack, has been re-purposed as a glass-topped display case, which houses further associated visual clue-pieces, including a brutally-truncated book of Tiepolo’s works, and one of the exhibitions’ specially-commissioned screen print posters, abruptly truncated of course.

Halberdier mask and Riforma typeface character-set
Halberdier mask and Riforma typeface character-set


For me, as a graphic designer, the most absorbing part is in fact the annexed display telling the intriguing story of how, by chance, the artist came by an envelope of slides showing designs, dated 1972, for the brand identity for an Italian corporation, Italcore. Mystery surrounds this, as no such company has been identified, despite the extensive detail in the designs, which suggest a projected industrial enterprise with extensive transport infrastructure, that never materialised and has now been all but forgotten. In a major undertaking, the tailor-designed corporate typeface has been worked-up into an entire font character-set by Swiss type developers NORM, and now marketed as Riforma, whose characters form the large black exhibit-denoting lettering around the gallery walls.

Display of Italcore corporate branding
Display of Italcore corporate branding and headquarters


It’s possible by this point that the story, or at least its ideas, takes a greater hold on the imagination than the artefacts themselves, incorporated only by the artist’s notional association, rather than by any visual uniformity. Piecing together the disparate clues, particularly those for the Riforma story, supplied a good deal of enjoyment for me and my companion, and there’s no doubt that making the necessary mental leaps drew a worthwhile measure of reward.

14-20 Osborne Street,
Glasgow G1 5QN

[Image: Vitrine with wicker base showing accompanying truncated exhibits, including the exhibitions’ screen-printed poster]

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