Simon Starling, the Turner Prize-winning artist who studied photography in Nottingham in the late 1980s, returns to the city for his biggest UK exhibition at Backlit Gallery and Nottingham Contemporary, opening on March 19. The exhibition at Backlit, an independent two-storey gallery and studios complex in inner city Nottingham, is an official fringe event for the larger Simon Starling exhibition at Nottingham Contemporary, just a short walk away.
At Backlit Starling will be showing artworks dealing with time and space. These include the film Black Drop, which explores the impact of astronomy on early cinema, and a collection of natural and man-made objects titled Nine Feet Later among which is a fifteen million year old piece of petrified wood. “Together they are the raw materials for building some kind of a rustic time machine perhaps or a means to establish a sculptural vocabulary of sorts,” says Starling, whose artworks are often concerned with, and sometimes literally involve journeys of various kinds. His startling artwork shedboatshed, where he turned a large wooden shed into a boat, sailed it down the Rhine and then turned it back into a shed, won him the Turner Prize in 2005.
Starling has strong connections with Backlit because he is a graduate of the former Trent Polytechnic, now Nottingham Trent University, where he studied photography until 1990. Backlit itself was set up eight years ago by NTU art graduates with the specific aim of supporting their fellow NTU alumni. Starling was also a selector for last year’s Bloomberg New Contemporaries exhibition which was staged at Backlit and two other Nottingham galleries.
Starling has warm memories of his time as a photography student in Nottingham in the late 1980s and talks of how important it has been to work on the ‘periphery’ of the art world: “I seem to have been an artist who has made many of his most important exhibitions and projects away from the accepted centers of the art world. The periphery seems to suit my way of thinking and working. The ‘local’ and its relationship to the ‘global’ has been an ongoing interest for me and many of my works have their origins in very local situations.”
Two artworks at Backlit, Blackdrop and Venus Mirrors, deal with contemporary and historic attempts to measure the Transit of Venus, when Venus is observed to travel across the surface of the sun. By coincidence the exhibition coincides with another planetary event, the Transit of Mercury, on May 9. Starling will discuss the impact of physics on contemporary art in a talk at Nottingham Trent University’s Trent Observatory on June 3.
Talking about the the origins of Black Drop, Starling says: “I was invited by Oxford University and Modern Art Oxford to make a work to mark the 2012 transit of Venus, which is a rare but historically important astronomical event – a moment when the planet Venus can be seen to be passing across the face of the Sun. I’m not someone with any great insight or interest in astronomy but I very soon discovered a few references to the French astronomer Pierre Jules César Janssen and his innovative chronophotographic revolver, a clockwork camera developed in an attempt to precisely record the transit of 1874. This proto-cinematic device caught my imagination precisely because it is considered to be an important precursor to the movie camera. I realised that it was quite likely that the 2012 transit might be the last time it would be possible to record the transit of Venus on traditional film stock – the next transit not being due until 2117.”
Backlit director Matthew Chesney said: “I had just started studying fine art at Nottingham Trent University when Simon Starling won the Turner Prize in 2005 so I went down to London to see his work. I can still remember being impressed by his use of narrative, mythology and the sense of metamorphosis. The fact that he had been a student in Nottingham was also an inspiration a few years later when Backlit was set up because the gallery was all about supporting the Nottingham art scene and young artists at the start of their careers. So it is a real milestone for Backlit that Simon is now exhibiting his artworks in the gallery. His work here is all about journeys – into time and across space, delving into unexpected connections between astronomy and cinema, science and art. I am delighted that he has chosen Backlit to show these artworks.”
Simon Starling: Backlit Gallery Nottingham UK March 19-June 26, Tue-Sun 10am-5pm, with a private viewing on March 18.