Simon Starling and a colleague went on a "self-defeating journey" in a boat for Autoxylopyrocycloboros (2006).
Simon Starling and a colleague went on a "self-defeating journey" in a boat for Autoxylopyrocycloboros (2006). Credit: Courtesy of the artist and The Modern Institute, Glasgow

A tricked-out Fiat is suspended from a wall in the Museum of Contemporary Art’s atrium. “It’s kind of a gravitational mindfuck,” senior curator Dieter Roelstraete says of the piece, the entry point into “Metamorphology,” the first major museum survey in the U.S. of the British conceptual artist Simon Starling, opening June 7. A stone’s throw away at the Arts Club of Chicago, an associated Starling show, “Pictures for an Exhibition,” debuts June 6.

Starling’s attention-grabbing auto is bound to appeal to any visitor whose appreciation for an artwork directly corresponds to how Instagrammable it is. But Flaga, 1972-2002 isn’t merely a spectacle. As Magritte might say, “Ceci n’est pas une ordinary car.” In 2002, Starling bought a ruby-red Fiat 126—that emblem of Italian industry—and drove it from Turin, where it was originally manufactured, to Cieszyn, Poland, where production is now based. There he replaced the hood, doors, and trunk with Polish-manufactured white parts, so that the red-and-white car he drove back to Turin resembled the Polish flag. Displayed like a painting in the museum, the custom ride is a statement on corporate globalization, commercialization, and how modes of production determine meaning.

“There are strong gestures, big things, in Starling’s work,” says Roelstraete, who contributed to the artist’s monograph published in 2009 by Phaidon. “But it’s also very solidly conceptually grounded.”

Starling often uses literal vehicles—bikes, boats, cars, canoes, trains—to transport his ideas. He won the 2005 Turner Prize, the UK’s most prestigious art award, for his shape-shifting work Shedboatshed—a shed converted into a boat, paddled down the Rhine, and then reassembled into a shed. The sculpture-centric “Metamorphology” includes Bird in Space (2004), a two-ton steel plate shipped to the U.S. from Romania that nods at Brancusi’s series of sculptures of the same name that were similarly shipped to America and subsequently landed the artist in a famous legal battle with the U.S. Customs Office about what constitutes art. Bird in Space was first exhibited in the 1927 Marcel Duchamp-organized Arts Club show “Sculpture and Drawings by Constantin Brancusi,” which happens to figure into Starling’s work at the Streeterville venue. Another of the 11 works exhibited in “Metamorphology,” Autoxylopyrocycloboros (2006), is anchored by a boat. Starling and a colleague traveled in a small wooden steam-powered vessel across a lake in Scotland, all the while chopping up the boat and feeding pieces to the boiler that powered it. A “self-defeating journey,” Starling has called it. A slide show recounts the futile, charmingly cartoonish exercise. (Spoiler alert: the boat sinks.) In both cases, the real artistry is in the transformative processes.

One can’t look at Starling’s research- and process-based works and immediately grasp the artist’s many art-historical, social, political, scientific, and economic references. For the necessary context, there’s wall text, which is part of each work rather than external to it, and which Starling writes himself.

“There is a tendency in museums to want to dumb that down,” the lanky, soft-spoken artist told me during a break in installation last week at the MCA. “I guess I’ve just been proactive. . . . They’re kind of recipes in a way. It’s not about telling people what the work is about; it’s more mapping the connections that are there in a quite open way.”

How deeply you examine Starling’s research or probe the intricacies of his process is up to you. “Take the steam-powered boat,” Roelstraete says. “The Scottish lake in question is home to the British nuclear submarine fleet, which the text says. Those who are interested will find out, and those who want to know more will find out. But of course it’s also a really beautiful piece that’s completely riveting and entirely self-explanatory in its unfolding.”

Starling’s site-specific exhibition at the Arts Club is a suitable complement to “Metamorphology.” “Pictures for an Exhibition” is based on a pair of vintage installation photographs from the aforementioned 1927 Brancusi show. Eighty-seven years later, Starling traveled to track down and take his own shots of the 18 works by the Romanian-born master sculptor featured in those photos. For good measure, Starling used the same model of camera, produced in Chicago by the Deardorff Company, that was responsible for the original exhibition images.

“I’m particularly drawn to artists who engage with modernism’s past, but add something new to it, like Starling does,” Arts Club director Janine Mileaf says. She approached the artist to delve into the institution’s archives even before she knew he would be exhibiting at the MCA. By opening concurrently, the two Starling exhibitions—which the globe-trotting artist describes as “a series of overlaying maps”—show off the range of his practice: some works are quiet; some have the quality of spectacle; all point to the workings of a spectacular mind.