Reviews

Illuminating Twilight: Simon Starling Riffs on Yeats at the Japan Society

Through January 15 in New York

Simon Starling, in collaboration with Yasuo Miichi (masks) and Kumi Sakurai/Atelier Hinode (costumes), At the Hawk's Well (Grayscale), 2014, installation view. COURTESY SIMON STARLING AND THE MODERN INSTITUTE

Simon Starling, in collaboration with Yasuo Miichi (masks) and Kumi Sakurai/Atelier Hinode (costumes), At the Hawk’s Well (Grayscale), 2014, installation view.

COURTESY SIMON STARLING AND THE MODERN INSTITUTE

Wander deep into the series of rooms housing this splendid exhibition and you will find Simon Starling talking on video about his project. “Knowing too much,” he reflects, “can stifle creativity.” This endorsement of ignorance suggests one of the key themes of the artist’s At Twilight project.

However, it might have also taken a good deal of pressure off most spectators if they’d been aware of what to expect in the first room of the show. Here, in near darkness, is an installation of masks that Starling made in collaboration with present-day Noh artists. Each is supported on a charred oak branch and lit dramatically from above. Some of the masks are drawn directly from the Noh tradition, and there is a mask of the controversial Japanese dancer Michio Ito; another of W. B. Yeats; one of Ezra Pound (based not on Pound’s actual appearance, but on Henri Gaudier-Brzeska’s Hieratic Head of him); one of Nancy Cunard (based on Brancusi’s famous 1928 portrait head); one of Jacob Epstein’s 1913–15 Rock Drill sculpture; and finally, and perhaps most perplexingly, one of Eeyore, the donkey friend of Winnie-the-Pooh.

Simon Starling, in collaboration with Yasuo Miichi, At Twilight / Mask of W.B. Yeats, 2016, paulownia wood, Japanese lacquer, gesso, pigment, glue, animal hair, charred oak, and powder-coated steel. COURTESY SIMON STARLING AND THE MODERN INSTITUTE

Simon Starling, in collaboration with Yasuo Miichi, At Twilight / Mask of W.B. Yeats, 2016, paulownia wood, Japanese lacquer, gesso, pigment, glue, animal hair, charred oak, and powder-coated steel.

COURTESY SIMON STARLING AND THE MODERN INSTITUTE

Exactly one hundred years ago, during the dark days of the First World War, Yeats premiered his Noh-inspired “dance play” At the Hawk’s Well. Yeats had never visited Japan, had no knowledge of the Japanese language, and had been introduced to Noh theater by his then-secretary Ezra Pound. Pound’s own comprehension of Noh has been repeatedly questioned, but he provided Yeats with a successful stylistic framework for a metaphoric tale of artistic frustration. The play’s premiere featured Michio Ito’s choreography and took place at the London home of Lady Emerald Cunard and her daughter, the celebrated beauty and somewhat infamous socialite Nancy. It was during preparations for the performance that Nancy first met Ezra Pound. They would subsequently share a long love affair.

Though we might understand little of this, or of At Twilight’s other sprawling themes, the exhibition also features a vast explication of Starling’s research and thinking around Yeats’s play. This includes explanatory text panels, Starling’s huge collaged Mind Map, drawings and photographs from the era of Yeats’s play, centuries-old Noh masks, Isamu Noguchi’s bronze portrait of Ito, and a cast from a 2013 edition of Brancusi’s portrait of Nancy Cunard, Jeune Fille Sophistiquée.

It is while absorbing all this information that it becomes obvious that at the heart of this work is a recognition that a process of incomprehension, discovery, and something close to understanding is fundamental not only to artistic endeavor, but to the way we live our lives.

And Eeyore? It turns out that Ashdown Forest, the very place where Yeats and Pound worked together, was also the home of A.A. Milne, and provided the model for Pooh’s Hundred Acre Wood. Of course, like Yeats, Eeyore was a poet, though a rather less prolific one. His “POEM” appears at the end of The House at Pooh Corner and, entirely appropriately, it includes the lines:

The fact is this is more difficult
than I thought,
I ought –
(Very good indeed)
I ought
to begin again,
But it is easier
To stop

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