photo: Samuel Kirby
What drove you to become an artist?
I guess my fear of language was probably a factor. I always struggled with words, but found making images easy. My father was really into DIY and we had a wonderful workshop at home with a lot of good tools, so I spent my childhood making things. Art seemed a very natural thing for me to gravitate towards.
Your art career started out here studying a photography degree at Nottingham Trent University…
Yes, although it was known as Trent Poly in those days. I arrived in 1987 and spent three years here. It was an important time for me. I actually think the most important thing for me were the colleagues I had on the course. I collided with a lot of really great people, several of whom are still colleagues and friends today. One of them, Jeremy Miller, came to the opening night here. For us both to be artists and to still know each other thirty years later is kind of amazing.
Let’s talk about your new exhibition. Firstly Project For a Crossing. That’s a brand new commission for this show, right?
Yes, it's still very much a work in progress. But this is not the first time I've presented an unfinished piece. The first part of the project has happened relatively quickly, which has essentially been me building a boat from sea water. The water came from the Dead Sea, which has a very high concentration of magnesium chloride, from which you can produce magnesium. The initial inspiration for this came from my brother-in-law. He's a keen cyclist and showed me this bike frame that he bought on the internet – it was made in the eighties by British engineer Frank Kirk. He used magnesium because it’s so light.
I just took that idea one logical step further. I looked for the highest concentration of magnesium in seawater and the Dead Sea came up fast. It’s a very manageable sea to get across too, as its only 10km wide. But it also brings its own problems, as it’s one of the most contested seas in the world, lying between Israel and Jordan. The second part of the piece will be to sail the boat back over the water it’s built from. So getting the permission to do that will involve a very complex series of negotiations from here onwards.
photo: Hugo Glendinning
That’s not the only boat in this exhibition is it?
No, the first boat project I ever made is here too. BlueBoatBlack (1997) was realised in Marseille and involved making a small fishing boat from a museum display case. The case came from Scotland, where I was living at the time. I dismantled it and took it to a residency program in Marseille and built a boat with it over there. I went fishing in that boat for a couple of weeks and caught nine fish. Then the boat was made into charcoal and some of that was used to cook the fish. You can see the names of the fish written on the gallery wall in charcoal.
Your most famous boat, ShedBoatShed, won you the Turner Prize in 2005...
I was invited to make a piece for a museum which sits right on the banks of the river Rhine in Basel. I had this idea to do something that used the river in some way. One day I borrowed the curator's bicycle and I made a trip up the banks of the river, past all these chemical works and pharmaceutical companies. After I passed those, I came out into this clearing. There in front of me was a small wooden shed with a paddle nailed to the side. The project formed in a matter of seconds. We contacted the boat club who owned the shed and they said they’d actually been looking to get rid of it anyway. So they let us have it and gave me a space to work.
How aware are this boating club that their old boating shed has been transformed and won the UK’s most prestigious visual art award?
They’re very aware. They all came to the opening of the exhibition and put on a special party for us to launch the new boat. They think it’s great. It’s strange to think, however, that if I’d taken a slightly different path that day on the curator’s bike then so many things could have been different for me.
Another big piece in this exhibition is Red, Green, Blue, Loom Music, which has never been shown before in the UK. It’s a combination of a film about weaving and a self-playing piano. What inspired that?
I went to visit a weaving works in Turin, which used old punch-card technology to programme its machines. While I was there, I found this piece of handwritten sheet music and came up with the idea of using a pianola, which uses similar technology to the looms, to play it. Then I discovered this wonderful man called Rex Lawson who lives in London and is the foremost performer of pianola music in the world. He’s a complete enthusiast for that technology and has his own perforating machine for making paper rolls in his garden shed. He was responsible for arranging the music for me onto pianola. The project was kind of there, waiting for me to discover it really.
photo: Hugo Glendinning
As well as the exhibition at Nottingham Contemporary, you also have a fringe exhibition at Backlit in Sneinton...
Before Nottingham Contemporary got in touch with me I had been emailed by Matt [Chesney] at Backlit, which was a very generous invitation to come and make an exhibition for them. I’d already done some work with them as a selector for the Bloomberg New Contemporaries series last year, and when I got the call from Contemporary I wanted to try and make both work. So we agreed to an exhibition over two venues. The Backlit space is a very raw, but beautiful, light-filled former industrial space. It has a lot of resonances in relation to the way I work and so I think it makes a lot of sense. My work can be quite demanding on a technical and financial level to stage, they've done a fantastic job in realising a very precise exhibition there.
I’m told there’s a piece of petrified wood in there that’s fifteen million years old...
Yes. That’s part of a bigger piece called Nine Feet Later. It’s a series of wooden objects that are all 9ft long and could all be construed as the building materials for a time machine of some kind. In that is a bit of tree trunk which was petrified millions of years ago. There's also a 45,000 year-old piece of bogwood from New Zealand, which had been preserved in the bogs before the last ice age and is still usable as timber. Also there’s a 3D-printed branch, which I have enlarged. So those objects are all equivalents, but from different times.
How does one go about getting hold of that?
That's where the internet comes in. If you search hard enough you can buy pretty much anything on the internet. There are people who sell it, mostly for ornamental furnishings. Other people just collect it. There’s definitely a market for it out there.
Your work seems to revolve around journeys. I assume you travel often?
Endlessly. When I was living in Glasgow I was constantly criss-crossing the world, particularly Europe, on different kinds of vehicles – solar powered bicycles, cars and boats. I’m really interested in tracking down the materials I want to use and making sure that their origins become part of the work. I suppose it’s also been my attempt as an artist to try and map my own activities and to connect.
Simon Starling’s exhibitions run at Nottingham Contemporary and Backlit until Sunday 26 June. Simon is also doing a talk about his work on Thursday 12 May in the Newton Lecture Theatre at Nottingham Trent University and on Friday 3 June at the Astronomical Observatory on their Clifton campus.