Richard West talks to Simon Starling
Richard West: Can you explain the title?
Simon Starling: Autoxylopyrocycloboros is an amalgam of words that come from ancient Greek. The name began with the Ouroboros, a mythical creature or alchemical symbol of rejuvenation; a snake that's consuming its own tail. I contacted a classics scholar to help me piece together a collage of a word for a kind of self-consuming, wood-burning sea serpent. So auto- is self, xylo- refers to wood, pyro- is fire and cyclo- is turning.
Richard West: What was the genesis of the project?
Simon Starling: I teach in Germany and I brought a group of students to Scotland and we stayed at Cove Park on the residency programme on the edge of Loch Long. One of the things we did was to visit the Faslane nuclear submarine base and the peace camp, which was actually an amazing experience for everybody I think.We had this bizarre power-point presentation by Commander Bill who took us through the workings of a naval base and also showed us a clip of a situation comedy to endear us to the navy somehow. Of course it went completely over the heads of the students but it stuck in my mind, this slapstick thing, as a kind of existential plea to be seen as human. It had a certain kind of poetry to it that I clung onto afterwards. This happened in the summer, then I started looking for boats and four or five months later the thing was ready to go.
Richard West: What was the history of the boat itself?
Simon Starling: We found a boat that had been built as a pleasure cruiser for Lake Windermere but then had been moved to Scotland and sunk on Loch Lomond. The guy who sold it to us had salvaged it from the bottom, refurbished it and given it this fantastic name 'Dignity'. It was a classic, small, clinker-built boat that had originally been steam but had had its steam engine taken out. We then had to refit the steam engine, which came from a separate source but was probably very close to what was in it originally.
Richard West: It was equated in your mind with a pop song from the 80s.
Simon Starling: The Scottish band Deacon Blue had this huge hit in the 80s about a guy who dreams about having a ship called Dignity and sails away into the blue yonder. So that was also another kind of strange layer that was added to the project, in a Scottish context anyway.
Richard West: What actually happened on the day that you made the piece?
Simon Starling: We started around midday. We had this fantastic calm day with a beautiful glassy Loch to navigate. We fired up the boiler and kept feeding chunks of the boat into it, over a period of about four hours, until the boat sank.
Richard West: Did you have a destination in mind?
Simon Starling: No, it was very much a circular, almost rather aimless journey. We stayed within a mile or so of our launch position and just went around in loose circles around the Loch.
Richard West: The steam engine looks like quite a dangerous contraption.
Simon Starling: Yes, it's a scary thing to have right in the middle of a boat, an open steam engine, and you would tend to be careful about it, it looks very raw and unlike a normal combustion engine.
Richard West: What about the process of making a piece of work afterwards?
Simon Starling: The plan was for myself and another photographer - who was on another boat - to make a series of transparencies on the voyage. They became the basis for editing a sequence of images together. The work is 38 slides. Technically, it is shown on a Götschmann slide projector with a linear tray; so you have a beginning and an end with the tray jogging back and forth. One of the things about using that projector is that it has a nice relationship to the steam engine. It seemed like the perfect machine to show the images on because of this simple mechanical, rhythmic sense it has and the 'ssh ssh ssh' and popping noise it makes. And I like that you can watch the tray being eaten by the projector and then spat out the other side. And actually, they are both German machines: the projector, and the steam engine was a piece of German engineering from the early twentieth century.
Richard West: When it actually took place it was like a sort of symbolic event?
Simon Starling: Yes, and a means of generating the images too. Like the actions of the anti-nuclear protestors at the peace camp. They did a very beautiful thing once and planted the CND sign in daffodils over the hill on Faslane which was a fantastic image for the newspapers. So there's a little bit about that tradition, but also of performance and conceptual art and how it's dealt with the idea of mediation too. I have always been a big fan of Chris Burden, for example, and how he deals with his performances; these succinct, carefully chosen images and text. That is one of the really interesting things about the development of conceptual art, how it evolved at that moment where media and politics and art-making came together in a very particular way. That's also a little bit of the background to the decision making process.
Richard West: It made me think of the satire around nuclear weapons, of mutually assured destruction.
Simon Starling: Yes, absolutely. I guess some people come to the work without even knowing too much about Loch Long and its history and that's fine. It is a self-contained rhetorical work as well, but one that wouldn't be there unless that context existed within which to make it. Few people would know that submarines are powered by steam engines for example. In a way, it's besides the point.