Interview: Simon Starling, artist

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The artist Simon Starling and I are perched in the main gallery at Glasgow's Modern Institute. We have a huge crate, some bubble-wrapped parcels and two large industrial ladders for company.

He's busy, but has agreed to squeeze me in at almost no notice. He has a show to open in three days - and during that period a day trip to London, where he is curating a new exhibition at Camden Arts Centre - and there is clearly some work to be done.

Work is something Starling has been heroically unafraid of in his career. Since graduating from Glasgow School of Art's MFA course, way back in 1992, he has dreamed and drafted and grafted and travelled, carving out a body of work that has taken him across the globe.

These days the artist lives with his young family in Copenhagen. He says Glasgow, where he kept a home until 2004, is always changing. The last time he was in the Modern Institute's glamorous headquarters was when he showed here just before its renovation, when it was still a gloomy Edwardian bathhouse.

"I've still got many very good friends here," he says of the city. "This gallery, of course, is very important to me. I come back rarely enough that I really notice change here now. You get much clearer view of the evolution of Glasgow: it's exciting and scary in equal measure."

Starling's work is obsessed with time and space, with things that change and things that stay the same. His artistic journeys draw out new stories from the complex structures of the modern world, from the ragbag of art and architectural history or from our encounters with nature.

Early in his career he drove some rhododendrons from Aberdeenshire to their "home" in Southern Spain. In 2003, he transported a "raft" of the same plants, once considered prize exotic specimens and later as annoying non-native weeds, when he represented Scotland at the Venice Biennale. He has crossed the Tabernas Desert on bicycle, visited bauxite and platinum mines, taught himself traditional screen printing and attempted to grasp the nature of molecules and sub-atomic particles.

Recently he threw a replica Henry Moore sculpture into Lake Ontario and later rescued it, worn and mussel-encrusted, to draw a parallel between Moore's controversial domination of the collection at the Art Gallery of Toronto and the accidental "invasion" of the colonising species of zebra mussels in the Great Lakes.

Increasingly, as his own practice gets more global, in keeping with the flow of ideas, economies and technologies that often feature in his work, he is interested in the way that artists and their art travels, the way that they can orchestrate their own history, stage their art and their lives.

At the Modern Institute his exhibition Project for a Masquerade (Hiroshima) / Mirror Room is a kind of prelude to a major show in Hiroshima, which presents his interest in Henry Moore as a Cold War fable retold using the traditional skills of Japanese Noh theatre.

Part performance, part fairy tale and part erudite lecture, the work travels through time and history, through physical and intellectual space. It fuses the story of two closely related Moore statues, one a big public commission which commemorated the splitting of the atom in Chicago and the other a controversial bronze in the collection of the Hiroshima Museum, with a traditional Japanese folk tale. Starling has worked with an Osaka craftsman who has made traditional Noh masks of a host of Cold War characters including Moore, Sir Anthony Blunt, Colonel Sanders and James Bond.

His interest in Moore is not so much to draw a parallel between their careers but to use the sculptor as a way of anchoring Starling in the complicated way the art world works, the way art travels, the way museum collections are built up and the whole vexed question of public sculpture.

"Henry Moore became a surrogate for me," he says, "as somebody who is negotiating this global art world. In a way he was the first British artist to do that and his pre-eminence at the time meant he inevitably became a pawn in a lot of Cold War power games."

This issue of pre-eminence is fascinating. Low key and scholarly in temperament, the artist is unlikely to admit it but he's widely acknowledged as a vital figure of his own age.

In 2005, Starling took a humble boat shed from the banks of the Rhine, dismantled it, turned it into a boat and paddled it downriver where he turned it back into a shed for a show in Basel. The same year, Shedboatshed (Mobile Architecture No 2) helped win him the Turner Prize, a lot of silly hostility in the press and a new legion of loyal fans, who grasped his unique blend of poetry and craft.

Did the Turner and the furore that went with it change his life at all? "I don't know," he says. "I think more people come to my talks than used to. I can fill a lecture theatre in Vancouver which I never used to before. Sometimes it gets a bit much, I've just looked at this text for a new show in Malaga, and of course the Turner is always in the first or second line.

"I can't complain. All the hoo-ha and the bad press is just like a bad memory now. But it's a really good thing, a very nice thing to win, especially if you don't live in London. Having a slightly broader and bigger audience for your work is really valuable."

We turn to talking about his involvement with the Japanese mask maker Yasuo Miichi. "He was a real find, a gem, an amazing guy," says Starling, grinning. "His apprenticeship lasted 20 years, that's one of the beautiful things; the whole nature of time is turned on its head when you start working with him."

The same might be said for Starling himself.

• Simon Starling, Project for a Masquerade (Hiroshima) / Mirror Room is at the Modern Institute, Glasgow, until 17 December.