Art review: Simon Starling: At Twilight, Glasgow

If you've ever wondered what it might look inside the mind of artist Simon Starling (and yes, over the years from time to time I have) there's a glimpse at Glasgow's The Common Guild.
Starlings work transforms old ideas into new forms. Picture: ContributedStarlings work transforms old ideas into new forms. Picture: Contributed
Starlings work transforms old ideas into new forms. Picture: Contributed

Simon Starling: At Twilight | The Common Guild, Glasgow | Rating ****

In the ground floor hallway hangs a massive monochrome collage. Among the ink squiggles, diagrams, notes and photocopied images, the eye alights on a number of historical characters. There’s the modernist poet and provocateur Ezra Pound and Irish literary giant WB Yeats pictured fencing in Ashdown Forest in East Sussex, socialite intellectual Nancy Cunard sporting some serious bangles, AA Milne’s gloomy donkey Eeyore (similarly born in Ashdown) and the Japanese dancer Michio Ito. It’s a mind map of high modernism, popular culture and global references.

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What brings these figures together? Turner Prize-winner Starling has long drawn unexpected narratives from the world of art history and modernist design, pulling off unlikely translations and transferences of form and function, such as the shed that he turned into a boat and back into a shed again. But his current project is more about the slipperiness that occurs between cultures rather than within them. At Twilight, a major project by the Glasgow-trained artist will culminate in a series of live performances at Holmwood House on 26, 27 and 28 August of a new play made in collaboration with one of Scotland’s most important theatre makers, Graham Eatough, and the choreographer Javier de Frutos, that promises to a highlight of this year’s cultural calendar. Its starting point is Yeats’s 1916 play At The Hawk’s Well, a retelling of Irish folk tales through the highly ritualised and ultra-traditional Japanese art form of masked Noh theatre.

In exhibition form, At Twilight is more than just an exercise in research. The stunning masks and costumes that the characters will wear, including a lumbering pantomime donkey, are presented as both props and striking sculptures. Using the Common Guild’s architecture, and in particular its many architectural mirrors, the installation evokes Noh’s Mirror Room where masked actors take on new forms and old characters before taking the stage. The stunning gilded mask of Nancy Cunard is cleverly positioned so it echoes the golden onion dome of the Sikh Temple down the hill to take us beyond the boundaries of history and into the present. It is a reminder that this was art created out of crisis: the blackened wooden stumps upon which the masks sit are like the blasted trees that artist Paul Nash once painted on the Western Front. Some are made of emblematic oak, but some of the humble and ubiquitous rhododendron.

At the Venice Biennale in 2003, Starling explored the placement and displacement of the rhododendron, a fertile foreign flower that came to be despised on these shores as an invasive species. The implications are clear: this is new art about old art in which appropriations and mistranslations can tell us more than rigid adherence to tradition. Ideas travel, take root and hybridise to create new forms. This is a good thing.

• Until 4 September

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