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Playing Host to Istanbul's 16th Biennial: A Highlight from the Pera Museum

The seemingly unexpected trajectory of storytelling—an amalgamation of time, space, and events—poignantly unveils itself through the 2005 Turner Prize winner, British artist Simon Starling’s Infestation Piece (Musselled Moore). The methodical narration, that metaphorically links Anthropocene, cultural exchange, and historical narrations, is woven through his four works exhibited at the Pera Museum for Istanbul’s 16th Biennale, The Seventh Continent.

Simon Starling, Infestation Piece (Musselled Moore), 2006-08. Courtesy of the artist. (Image: Raphael Goldstein, 2008)

The Infestation Piece (Musselled Moore) revolves around the influence of the Courtauld’s notorious director and Soviet spy Anthony Blunt, as a British art historian on the career of Henry Moore. While Blunt acted as a counsel for British art at the Art Gallery of Toronto (now the Art Gallery of Ontario), he recommended the purchase of Henry Moore’s Seated Warrior (later named Warrior with Shield). The acquisition of Moore’s sculpture heightened the global presence of the museum’s collection; the gallery’s relationship with the artist would eventually result in Moore's donation of an extensive representative body of his work. Blunt’s actions as a Soviet spy and Canada’s fear of British colonial influence are symbolically seen through Simon Starling’s use of invasive zebra mussels.

Zebra mussels, otherwise known as Dreissena polymorpha, were introduced to the Canadian side of Lake St. Clair through commercial vessels originating from the Black Sea in 1988. The ballast of oversea ships invisibly move the exotic marine species into new ecosystems, disrupting the food web. The impact of the non-indigenous (exotic) species, like the zebra mussel, on the ecosystem threatens the native biotic communities and the municipal water system.

The surface of Starling’s steel replica played host to a colony of zebra mussels while being submerged in Lake Ontario for one and a half years. In 2008, the sculpture was exhibited at The Power Plant, a contemporary gallery located in Toronto. The relationship between Simon Starling and the legacy of Henry Moore interact through a single image that was once inspired by a pebble found on a beach. The infestation of zebra mussels functions as an overarching metaphor for Soviet espionage, post-colonialism, and art history. However, the redeploy of Starling’s steel replica of Henry Moore’s bronze sculpture Warrior with a Shield is reactivated—by two photographs, a timeline, and a dust mask—in light of contemporary concerns of the biennial.

The curator Nicolas Bourriaud frames Istanbul’s 16th Biennial, The Seventh Continent, through the ‘Great Pacific Garbage Patch,’ a floating landscape of human originating non-biodegradable waste within our oceans. This merchandised topography, a byproduct of mankind’s consumption, marks a shift in the state of biodiversity and the biosphere. The introduction of non-invasive species into foreign environments mirrors the movement of ships and expansion of globalized trade.

Simon Starling, Infestation Piece (Mask for Istanbul), 2019. Courtesy of the artist and the Pera Museum. (Image: Pera Museum, 2019)

As current discourse of biennial is fixated on the consequences of the changing environment, which parallels the United Nations UN Climate Change Summit, Simon Starling’s practice is a scientific observation on the consequence of biological invasions by an unnatural and natural ecosystem. Two light-box photographs showcase the 2011 conservation work—completed within the museum’s contemporary galleries—removing unwanted moths from the protein-rich surface of the sculpture. Furthermore, the aging preservation of the steel artwork has led to the disintegration of the originally established mussels and pieces of corrosions. Similar to “scientific” conservation of nature, artistic restoration on the Infestation Piece (Musselled Moore) has attempted to artificially restore the work to its “natural” state by reestablishing shells and introducing a cohesive beneath carbuncles. The second infestation and restoration implicates the space of the museum and the outer world—culture and nature. This relationship is further investigated by a newly produced sculpture. The zebra mussel infested dust mask, Infestation Piece (Mask for Istanbul), dramatises the physical boundaries between humans and their environment. The infestation of the invasive species on the dust mask, introduced into ecosystems by maritime shipping, threatens the user’s ability to breath, to live. The mussel-colonized sculpture is a warning of the possible future for mankind if solutions to ongoing environmental uncertainties are not discovered.

Nature and civilisation are not separate, but interconnected. Simon Starling’s approach to material and scientific investigation is the highlight of the Pera Museum. I applaud the depth and resonance that each work contributes to the sequence of storytelling.

The Pera Museum is one of three venues hosting Istanbul’s 16th Biennial, The Seventh Continent. It runs from September 14 - November 10.

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