– Autumn/Winter 2000

Undomesticating Modernism

Charles Esche

Simon Starling, Le Jardin Suspendu, 1998. Courtesy of the artist and The Modern Institute, Glasgow.

Simon Starling, Le Jardin Suspendu, 1998. Courtesy of the artist and The Modern Institute, Glasgow.

a 1:6.5 scale model of a 1920’s ‘Farman Mosquito’, built using the wood from a balsa tree cut on the 13th May at Rodeo Grande, Baba, Ecuador, to fly in the grounds of Heide II designed in 1965 by David McGlashan and Neil Everist. (Moma at Heide, Melbourne, 1998, The Modern Institute, Glasgow).

Modernist art is meant to be difficult. It was intended to shock, to stir up passions and outrage bourgeois values. It achieved much of that ambition, but where could it go? The audience became dulled to shock tactics and, ultimately, even the most conservative of institutions valued the frisson of transgression that 'modern art' could provide.

For artists, the past thirty years has allowed a gradual reassessment of the impact and purpose of modernist ideology. Much work has been a critical evaluation of its successes and failures, postmodernism being in most cases a response to, rather than a break with, modernism itself. Coming late to the field of modernist critique, the work of Simon Starling occupies a fascinating position. Perhaps sitting on the cusp of a redefinition of value systems, it looks back with sympathy and knowledge at the work of the early twentieth century, while allowing the audience sight of its failure. His contribution is also peculiarly reflective of modernism's history in Britain, or perhaps more accurately, England.

In England, the exception in Europe, modernism was not the defining cultural moment of the twentieth century. Instead it remained for much of the period a type of optional extra, occasionally applied to foreign-designed architecture or to art from the rural idyll of St Ives, but never securely anchored in the metropolitan heart. It is certainly not without reason that artists such as John Piper and Paul Nash sought to define the particular qualities of English art in relation to historical models of Anglo-Saxon culture or its relationship to landscape and countryside. They wanted to maintain a sense of continuity that separated English history from the rest of Europe

  1. Judith Collins, The Englishness of English Art, Modern Britain 1930-1939, London: Design Museum, 1999

  2. For the Leipzig show, this view is recreated using a make-shift lightbox.

  3. Bicycle Wheel, 1913, which consists of a kitchen stool and the front wheel of a bicycle.

  4. See, for instance, Jean-Christophe Royoux, Visual Syntax in the work of Pierre Huyghe, Afterall, issue 0, 1999

  5. Interview with Ralph Rugoff, 21st Century, Winter 1991-92. Quoted in Mike Kelley, Stuttgart: Edition Cantz, 1992