In 2000 Simon Starling rode an aluminium ‘Tassajara’ mountain bike, designed by the cyclist Gary Fisher, to a disused bauxite mine in Les Baux de Provence in France. There he collected a few hundred kilograms of bauxite rocks, which he afterwards processed into aluminium. His installation Work, Made-ready, Les Baux de Provence (Mountain Bike) 2001 presents a do-it-yourself production line based on the small-scale methods of aluminium production that Starling followed. He simplified the techniques used in the industrial processing of aluminium, so that he could produce small quantities of aluminium with the improvised apparatus available to him. This production line ends with the casting of processed aluminium to replicate part of the frame of the same ‘Tassajara’ mountain bike that he had ridden to the mine. The title is a direct reference to the Duchampian readymade and to Starling’s belief that its radical potential can perhaps only be unlocked now by reversing the practice – by making his own objects – to, as it were, make them ready once more. He has explained how he has used
the idea of returning objects to a kind of innocent state, taking an existing object and rethinking it again, as if for the first time ... All the work I make deals with existing structures, with readymades if you like. I am quite resistant to the Duchampian idea of taking an object, an industrially manufactured object, and rarefying it ... My attitude toward these things is maybe much closer to a Marxist idea of labour, the alienating effect of mass manufacture – an estrangement from things.
(Quoted in Simon Starling, Cuttings, p.C5.)
The installation consists of twelve groups of elements, each of which provides a snapshot on the different stages of the process that Starling followed; eleven of these groups of objects are installed in a sequence around the gallery space while the first group acts as an introduction to the installation and is displayed in an antechamber to the main gallery. Nine of the groups are lit by aluminium modernist hanging lamps designed by the architect Poul Henningsen (1894–1967) – one illuminates the introductory group, while the remaining eight hang in the main gallery space. The range of PH lamps were first intended to be used to provide lighting for industrial exhibitions and trade fairs, the earliest being designed for an exhibition hall in Copenhagen in 1925. These lamps represent a high point of modernist industrial design and as such have become highly collected, developing a second life as domestic lighting. The designs are still in production. In this respect the installation describes two circuits – one the shifts of function, context and value these lamps have experienced – the other the circuit of production. With this work Starling returns the PH lamps to their original function as exhibition, rather than domestic, lighting.
Introducing the installation in the adjoining room is a framed colour photograph of the bicycle at the disused mine in Les Baux-des-Provence and one of the blue woven sacks Starling used to collect the bauxite ore. This photograph is illuminated by a Henningsen PH 4-3 pendant lamp. The lamp was one of Henningsen’s last designs, but was modeled on one of the prototypes for the series designed for use at the 1926 Danish Car Show – one of a number of industrial design shows for which Henningsen produced lighting. From this photograph the viewer moves through to encounter the installation, the first element being a restaging of the photograph – the bike lies on the floor of the gallery, next to it is the blue sack, one third full of small rocks, and next to that one large bauxite rock. This is illuminated by a PH-5 pendant lamp, which had originally been designed in 1958, making its debut that April in the Danish Museum of Decorative Art in Copenhagen. It was designed to be glare-free, regardless of bulb size or type. The three subsequent groups detail sequences of collection, grading and breaking the rocks, before arrival at the stage where the rocks are crushed, sieved, cleaned and screened. Usually this process would take place at the mine, but in Starling’s small-scale situation he is able to make a cleaner and finer powder which creates a more productive reaction within the subsequent process of producing aluminium. This group is illuminated by a PH Contrast lamp – a design that was developed between 1958 and 1962 and was Henningsen’s most adaptable lamp in this series, allowing various qualities of light to be produced from a single unit. The next four groups are the heart of the installation and display the mixing of ore with a solution of sodium hydroxide, before then introducing the dry crystalline aluminium hydroxide to a small furnace that heats it to 1000°C to make possible the transition to aluminium oxide, which in turn is then smelted to produce aluminium. This aluminium is then used to cast the portion of the aluminium frame for a mountain bike. These groups are each illuminated by a different lamp from the PH range.
Although the installation presents each element of the production line as stilled, the work is more about the circularity of the process than a particular finished object. As art historian Mark Godfrey has outlined, each group within the installation – even each object in each group – ‘involves a series of activities connected to this physical form. As viewers learn the process or “back story” of the object, their thoughts may be deflected away from the gallery, and as a consequence, the present-tense experience of the object becomes somewhat less crucial to the total understanding of the work than expected.’ (Simon Starling, Cuttings (supplement), p.A12.)
Work, Made-ready, Les Baux de Provence (Mountain Bike) contrasts the qualities of the home-made and handcrafted with objects that have been mass-produced. The work highlights how an object’s meaning is formed from function as much as context. Here, bauxite (and the process of producing aluminium), the mass-produced mountain bike (and the home-made replica of its frame) and the hanging lamps all have the same substance in common but project different meanings – as do the processes that produced them. Furthermore, the absurdity of the sequence and circularity of Starling’s process can be contrasted with the distance the source mountain bike had traveled before becoming the subject of this work: it was designed in the USA, manufactured in Taiwan and sold around the world. Similarly, the transposition of a lamp from the world of function as exhibition lighting, to a domestic setting as an icon of modern design, and back again indicates the shifts of context that Starling relishes. He reflects on objects and materials that we often take for granted.
Poul Henningsen, Simon Starling, exhibition catalogue, Cooper Gallery, Dundee 2001.
Simon Starling, Cuttings, exhibition catalogue, Kunstmuseum and Museum fur Gegenwartskunst, Basel / The Power Plant, Toronto 2005.
Simon Starling, Cuttings (supplement), exhibition catalogue, The Power Plant, Toronto 2008.