Simon Starling’s Three Day Sky (2004-08), which will be included in The Quick and the Dead exhibition at the Walker next spring, begins in the Tabernas Desert in Andalucia, Spain. The only true desert in Europe, it is a small area of undulating terrain bounded to the North East by the Sierra de Los Filabres and to the South West by the Sierra Nevada, though it is growing in size each year due to climate change and poor land management. The Tabernas is home to both the film studios where Sergio Leone made many of his most celebrated Spaghetti Westerns, and to the Solar Platform of Almeria, a research facility developing the use of solar energy for the desalination of sea water – a possible way to stem the tide of ‘desertification’ in the region.
Three Day Sky uses convoluted means and a great deal of time to create a simple painting, relocating, as it were, a “piece of sky” from the desert onto the gallery ceiling. In the first part of this piece, two large solar panels were used to harness energy over a period of three days in September, just outside the secure confines of the Solar Platform of Almeria. This “stolen” energy from the sunniest place in Europe has been transported to the Walker in two large batteries, which we received last week, and on this occasion I spoke with the artist about the project. He will use the batteries to run a spray gun at the Walker in April, crudely recreating the sky over the Spanish desert in a section of the exhibition galleries; the three days of desert sun captured in the batteries will allow for just over one hour of spraying time. The Walker will be the third venue for this on-going work that has previously been installed at the Modern Institute, Glasgow and the Museum for Contemporary Art, Basel, each time using the same batteries.
How long does it take to fully charge the battery on this journey?
It can be done in 3 days of full sunshine. Inevitably the amount of energy varies depending on the cloud cover etc. The more blue sky in Spain the more blue sky in Minneapolis – it’s a very simple equation.
Does the quality of the light in different parts of the world have any effect upon the energy that is stored in solar cells, or the speed with which it they are charged?
I like the idea that the energy stored is in some sense culturally specific. The Tabernas is the home of the Solar Platform of Almeria, a European research initiative, chosen of course for its sunshine hours. It’s no coincidence in the work that the Tabernas Desert served as an ersatz ‘wild west’ for Sergio Leone – a cheap and cheerful Arizona. I was originally drawn to the Tabernas desert when working on Kakteenhaus at Portikus in Frankfurt – its there I found the cereus cactus I transported to Frankfurt in my Volvo estate car. I once gathered solar energy in Suriname to use to power a boat around the canals of Amsterdam – on the equator batteries charge up very quickly, I filled battery on a 2 day boat trip from Paramaribo to the Afobaka Dam.
So you could quite easily charge this at home in Copenhagen, right? In other words, there isn’t anything special about the light in this part of Spain, is there?
Where’s the drama in that? It’s exactly that questionable ‘belief’ in the specificity of light that gives the work its absurdist sense. It’s as much about the journey as anything – this notion of the repeated ‘pilgrimage’ I’ve talked about in the past.
Likewise, how similar to the Spanish sky is the blue color you’ve chosen for the paint that will be sprayed in the gallery?
The first time a went to the desert to store energy, I took a series of color swatches (from a collection developed for a paint manufacturer by Le Corbusier in fact) I held a lot of these up to the midday sky and selected the closest match – that then become to color for ‘Three Day Sky’.
What works of yours do you think have the most in common with this piece?
It of course relates to the other works using solar energy that I’ve mentioned already, things that I’ve been doing since 1998, but further than that it could be seen to relation to other more directly sculptural works like ‘Work, Made-ready, Kunsthalle Bern’ (1997) which involved making a bicycle out of a chair and a chair out of a bicycle. The metal in this case takes on a sense of specificity. I always think of this work in relationship to the ‘bad science’ in Flann O’Brien’s ‘The Third Policeman’ in which atoms transfer from a bike to its rider and vice versa. Slowly the bike takes on human characteristics and its rider starts leaning against walls. I would also think that ‘One Ton II’ has a very close relationship to ‘Three Day Sky’. This involved a journey to South Africa to photograph one of the largest platinum mines in the world. One of these images was then printed as many times as possible using the platinum that can be extracted from one ton of ore – five 20 x 24 inch prints were made.
A significant thread throughout modern art is the shift from illusionism to literalism, from making a nice painting of something, say, to just calling that something art. Is this an illusionistic piece–a painting of the sky in Spain at a particular moment–or an effort to give us something of the sky itself?
It’s a more generic piece of sky – more of a sign than a specific moment or place. I’m not a painter in that sense. It’s more Greek Taverna than J.M.W. Turner.
Do you think more about Tiepolo’s painted heavens or Duchamp’s bottle of Parisian air?
Tiepolo for form. Duchamp for concept.