Inverted Retrograde Theme, USA (House for a Song Bird), 2002, Wood, iron, mahogany, tree trunks & birds,
133 x 122 x 140 inches
Simon Starling: Inverted Retrograde Theme, USA (House for a Songbird)
DECEMBER 2004 - MARCH 2005
Simon Schmiderer Died in Highland Beach, Florida, in April 2001
By Reid Shier
In Simon Starling's Inverted Retrograde Theme, USA (House for a Songbird), (2002), two scale models of prefabricated single-family houses are pinned to a ceiling by tree branches. The pair is a onefifth- scale recreation of two real houses that sit side by side in the town of Bayomon outside San Juan, Puerto Rico. The houses were built in the 1960s as part of a housing development financed by the New York–based Rockefeller Foundation. One of the Foundation's postwar philanthropic efforts (now mothballed) in developing countries, the project was intended to provide impetus for the foundation of locally driven capitalist ventures. In Puerto Rico this goal gave rise to a large-scale and idealistically designed low-cost housing scheme. Starling's models are made of distressed plywood girdled by wrought-iron filigree screens, and they replicate how the houses look today. Noticeably, one also acts as a birdcage that holds two tropical songbirds.
Starling's works transcribe circular, peripatetic, and uncanny pathways. While researching the Vienna-born Modernist musician Arnold Schoenberg (1874–1951) for the piece Inverted Retrograde Theme (2001) at the Vienna Secession, Starling became interested in the work of the lesser-known Austrian architect Simon Schmiderer (1911–2001). Schmiderer had been influenced by Schoenberg's serialist techniques, and he attempted to incorporate its musical principles into the production of his buildings. This led Starling to the housing tract in Puerto Rico, which Schmiderer had been commissioned in 1952 to design and oversee.
Schmiderer is perhaps best known for the motto "One house in one hour." He was a faithful modernist who believed that housing which didn't sacrifice principled aesthetics could be quickly and affordably produced. Like many of his generation he was indebted to Mies van der Rohe, and the open planning of Mies's Barcelona Pavilion influences the Bayomon designs. The Puerto Rican houses were built from concrete blocks and omitted doors and glass windows to further integrate inside and out. The omission also cheapened the construction while taking into account the exigencies of the prevailing heat. What Schmiderer failed to imagine was a phenomenal rise in the local crime rate in the 1970s — and how miserably his houses would provide security for their owners. Since then residents have been forced to adapt, and the iron screens around the circumference of Starling's houses are faithful copies of the elaborate barriers that have been erected in Puerto Rico to guard against intrusion.
It's common in Puerto Rican households to have birdcages, and the finches in Inverted Retrograde USA hint at the irony of enclosing a shelter designed principally for its lack of barriers. The songbirds also return viewers tangentially to the allusive musical metaphors that echo through the piece. Schmiderer's understanding of Schoenberg's twelve-tone compositions influenced his faith in the ability to assemble a house under rigorous logic, restricted to the most basic building materials. In twelve-tone composition, hierarchies between notes are abandoned, and the tones on the chromatic scale are treated with equal privilege. Under Schoenberg's design, therefore, a composer had a limited set of musical techniques with which to give music expressive range. One is the "Inversion," which turns a tone row upside-down: if the original has a rising tone the inversion is falling. Another is the "Retrograde" which is a tone row played backward in relation to the original; while the "Inverted Retrograde" combines the two techniques.
Schmiderer's fascination with Schoenberg led to his application of the retrograde principle in his designs for #2 and #4 Calle Victoria, the Bayomon houses replicated in Starling's work. Each is a mirror image of the other, and Starling pursues the musical logic by turning his models on their head. Supporting them are pieces of tropical wood — mahogany branches that also come from Central America. The branches add a modest note to a work that questions the relationship between the utopian aspirations of European modernity and its many ongoing failures — minor to catastrophic — not least those caused by an ignorance and dismissal of local vernaculars.
Both Simon Schmiderer and Arnold Schoenberg left Austria in the 1930s for the United States, Schmiderer for New York, Schoenberg for Hollywood. On his arrival in Los Angeles, Schoenberg resorted to teaching music to earn a living, and many of his students went on to write for the movies. While Schoenberg's atonality has endured almost universal derision for its "unlistenablity," it found an unlikely home in late 1930s Hollywood melodramas because its techniques could "bluntly indicate anxiety or otherwise extreme emotional states."1 Like Schmiderer's houses in Puerto Rico, this colloquial adaptation might have been difficult for its creator to envisage, as are the unpredictable ends to which any creative work may be adapted and employed. These detours are intrinsic to the geographies that Simon Starling maps, and his tracings of the interconnectivity between disparate modes of endeavor resonate with the bewilderment of discovering where paths, sometimes fantastically, lead.
1. Douglas, Stan in Stan Douglas, Editions du Centre Pompidou, Paris, 1993, p. 137
SIMON STARLING was born in Epsom, England, and lives in Glasgow. He was a 2004 nominee for the Hugo Boss Prize and recently had solo exhibitions at Miro Foundation, Barcelona; Art Statements, Art/33/Basel; Villa Arson, Nice; and the UCLA Hammer Museum, Los Angeles. Starling was also in the 2004 São Paolo Bienalle, Brazil and represented Scotland in the 2003 Venice Bienniale.
REID SHIER is a curator at the Power Plant Contemporary Art Gallery in Toronto, Canada. He has curated recent solo exhibitions of Stan Douglas, Dan Graham, and Martin Boyce, and is working on forthcoming shows with Joëlle Tuerlinckx, Geoffrey Farmer, and Michael Elmgreen & Ingar Dragset.