Magazine article Art Monthly

Never the Same River

Magazine article Art Monthly

Never the Same River

Article excerpt

Camden Arts Centre London

16 December to 20 February

Simon Starling's artworks are as much instruction manuals as they are finished products, 'how-tos' if you like, as much as they are 'done'. That the artwork illustrates the history of its raw materials is pretty much a given in our understanding of Starling's practice. So we should, probably, expect something similar in a show that Starling curates, deploying other artists' work as the stuff for imaginative transformation and historical revelation. 'Never the Same River' largely obeys this rule, with the work of a variety of artists, and a wide variety of objects, forming the raw material for an imaginative excursus through the timeline of exhibitions at Camden Arts Centre. Starling's project is apparently, then, historical; this is, after all, a survey exhibition of a historical lineage. But that would be to hold up to the world a finished thing. 'Never the Same River', as its title suggests, is never a finished thing. This is not Starling's 'history' show, it is his historiography show, an attempt to reveal how we might go about understanding the past, and the temporal and spatial relations of objects and meanings within it. History is not a stable thing but a practice undertaken with malleable materials in fluid relationships.

Inside Camden Arts Centre the only points of stability are spatial--each artwork or object selected for the show is positioned in the location it occupied in its original exhibition. Space, then, is stable, but nonetheless relative, since just inside the door we are confronted by the juxtaposition of Francis Upritchard's Sloth Creature, 2005, and Marcel Breuer's Isokon chair and tables, as shown in the 'Hampstead in the '30s' exhibition of 1975. If the former invokes anthropological and zoological practices--and it reminded me, somehow, of the old Museum of Mankind in London and the Pitt Rivers in Oxford, both institutes of affectionate and illuminating jumble--the latter invokes Camden's own archaeology, not simply as exhibiting space but as such a space in a cultural and intellectual milieu formed by Modernism, utopianism and exile. The notion that Starling might be using these works to establish questions about modes of practice, about establishing the 'rules' by which we examine and represent the otherness of the past and the different, was reinforced when they were complemented by a now largely forgotten work about the mediation of history, Tony Carter's Elysium, 1976-77. We had, immediately, works from three different moments found in situ, commenting on the practices of representing history and culture.

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So it was that to walk through the upper floors of Camden was to walk, as it were, inside an archaeological drawing, in which spatial relationships substituted for temporal, in which the survival and retrieval of objects from the past was never a given but rather haphazard, and in which the meaning of those objects, in themselves and in relation to each other, demanded fresh critical analysis. As it happens, I have been reading a good deal of outdated archaeological literature lately, mainly thanks to a wonderfully persuasive PhD student of mine, who is working on Paul Nash's 1930s paintings, and this--in itself a mnemic archaeology, since as a teenager I wanted nothing more than to dig up Roman villas--allowed a fresh perspective on Starling's thought, and onto science and art as differing modes of historical analysis. His concern with the translation of time into space is made clearest in first Douglas Huebler's Duration Piece #31, Boston, 1974, with its photographic and filmic exchange of the record for the instant of the event, and then David Lamelas's installation Study of the Relations Between Inner and Outer Space, 1969. …

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