Mike and Doug Starn 
American born 1961

Doug and Mike Starn’s photographic assemblage Sol invictus, 1992 (fig. 1), is a confronting reminder of the museum profession’s most feared, and ultimately indestructible, foe – the passing of time. Aged beyond its years, the work relishes both its materiality and its history as an object, while celebrating the looming spectre of physical change that will occur in it over time. Sol invictus is a pivotal work that continues and expands upon a concern that reverberated throughout the rather eclectic subject matter of the Stam brothers’ early career. From self-portraits to images that include icons of art history, the Starns’ photographs have remained connected by an investigation of art as a vehicle for exploring the concept of the passing of time. While continuing to investigate this idea, Sol invictus also foreshadows the Starns’ increasing preoccupation with solar mythology, spirituality and science. 

The Starns rose to prominence, and a certain notoriety, in 1987 after their work was included in the Biennial of the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, just two years after their graduation from art school. The discussion (and debate) surrounding this introduction to the American contemporary art scene signalled the often opposing reactions to their work that have marked their career since that time. There is no division of labour evident in the Starns’ photographs, a result perhaps of their having worked collaboratively since their time at art school; as in conversation, they finish each other’s sentences and allow their thoughts to overlap in the final work.1 Doug and Mike Starn, forum at Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT), September 1993, videotape, Department of Photography, National Gallery of Victoria. Despite this, the Starns sit uncomfortably within postmodernism’s recent interrogation of the role of the artist.

While collaboration challenges the notion of the author as singular hero, the controversy surrounding the Starns and their work at the time of their debut highlights the art market’s need for ‘stars’, regardless of the theoretical proclamations of the 1980s. Moreover, by foregrounding their manipulations of photography in a quest to restore emotional power to a medium they consider ‘depleted’, the brothers perhaps inadvertently position themselves within the tradition of the Romantic artist seeking to imbue art with a particular sensibility. In so doing, they have assumed for themselves an ‘individual’ and privileged role. This individuality extends to the work itself – in subverting the perception of photography as a mechanical means of creating ‘art multiples’, the Starns’ manipulations eventuate in unique art objects, not infinitely reproducible photographs. 

While the Starns state that their selection of subject matter was initially rather intuitive,2 Doug and Mike Starn forum. their art continues to be characterised by their blatant disregard for the physical integrity of the photographic image. The photographic element in Sol invictus, for instance, breaks the bounds of photography’s traditional paper support. In this work, the image is printed not on paper but on orthographic film, which is literally under attack: stretched between pipe clamps until it is crumpled, brittle and dangerously fragile-looking. The film is no longer simply a support for the image but is an integral sculptural device that transforms the photograph into a three-dimensional, physical object.3 See A. Grundberg, Mike and Doug Starn, New York, 1990, p. 33. 

The focus of Sol invictus is the sun – a theme that has preoccupied the Starns since they first created Sol (Beckman Collection, New York) in 1988.4 ibid., p. 110, repr.Devoid of any trace of image, Sol was part of a series of abstract assemblages consisting of squares of photographic paper stained in various metallic shades.5 ibid., p. 43. The work appears a largely formal exercise that aspires to represent the nonrepresentational in a medium associated with reality and ‘truth’. An attempt to replicate the materiality of photographic paper in the early stages of the developing process,6 ibid. Sol simultaneously emphasises, through its title, the centrality of light (in the form of the sun) to photography. Yet when placed in the context of slightly earlier works from the series – Corona, 1987 (Scott Spiegel Collection, Santa Monica, California),7 ibid., p. 110, repr. and Corona Extra, 1987 (Vijak Mahdavi and Bernardo Nadal Ginard Collection)8 ibid., p. 111, repr.Sol reveals another aspect to its solar title. Never afraid to position their photographs within the realm of popular culture, the Starns have titled all three works after the names of popular Mexican beers.9 ibid., p. 43. The influence of alternative pop music on the brothers is also undeniable – the grunge treatment of their medium revealing a contemporary attitude informed by the heavy rhythm sections of bands such as Pantera, the Red Hot Chilli Peppers and Nirvana. The Starns make an analogy between the large scale of their work and these musical influences, stating that they work in such dimensions because the scale cannot help but involve the audience – like music, if it’s loud, it invades your consciousness.10 Doug and Mike Starn forum. In Sol, however, the influence of twentieth-century formalism also reveals itself, in the subtle yet meticulous arrangement of the paper – squarely positioning the work within a ‘high’ art aesthetic. Despite this, the brothers acknowledge that the overwhelmingly visual nature of their art can tend to obscure their other concerns, and they justly complain that they have often encountered difficulties with their work being perceived as like ‘stone-wash jeans’11 Doug and Mike Starn forum. – a passing fashion fad lacking substance. 

Both the lifegiving and the destructive aspects of the sun become increasingly evident in a work such as Sol invictus. The tension between the two opposing forces is suggested by the use of pipe clamps that stretch the large sheets of transparent film – the stretching at once distorts the film, while transforming it into majestic convex and concave forms at the same time. Although the work is attached to the wall, the viewer’s sense of spatiality is subverted by the manner in which the sheets of film take on a three-dimensional, sculptural aspect, physically opposing each other in their layering. As with freestanding sculpture, we are encouraged to move around the work, to engage with it and, most importantly, to look through it. The harder we look, however, the less it reveals. Reminiscent of Sol, the sheets of film themselves are composed of smaller squares stuck haphazardly together (or so it would seem) with transparent adhesive tape. The image is made up of photographs from NASA’s satellite Skylab,12 See D. Friis-Hansen, ‘Doug and Mike Starn: Facing the Sun’, in Mike and Doug Starn Sun Studies (exh. cat.), Olin Art Gallery, Kenyon College, Gambier, Ohio, 1994, p. 3. its grainy surface emphasising the subject’s mediated nature (the sun cannot be experienced at first hand at such close proximity), and reflecting the Starns’ concern with the manner in which ‘the history of image-making acts as a buffer between their perceptions of the world and the world itself’.13 Grundberg, p. 41. 

Despite the immediacy created by the parched surface of the work, the unusual colour registers (slightly green) highlight the unavoidable distance imposed by ‘screen culture’: the means by which we experience much in the twentieth century, and the vehicle through which contemporary science broadcasts its miraculous space discoveries to the world. 

In Sol invictus we are invited to consider the sun through the opposing lenses of contemporary science and ancient mythology. The role of Sol Invictus, a Roman sun god of victory associated with prophecy and divination, has now been usurped by contemporary scientific investigation. The sun is no longer an object of awe and wonder, an omnipotent power of the cosmic system. Twentieth-century science, with the aid of high-tech astronomical photography similar to that employed by the Starns as source material, has rationalised, and hence removed, its aura. Yet the unmitigated faith of the Romans in the astrology and fatalism that developed from the cult of the sun,14See D. Ulansey, ‘The Mythraic Mysteries’, Scientific American, vol. 26, no. 6, December 1989, p. 130. and our own unquestioning belief in the empiricism of western science, have much in common. The Starns draw the two together to invest their work with a spirituality they feel is lacking in contemporary art and culture.15 The Starns have recently translated their concerns to film in Attracted to Light, 1996–97. Their new film, starring Dennis Hopper, is scheduled for release in 1998 (see ‘The Sun Sessions’, World Art, no. 16, 1998, pp. 82–3).  

Kelly Gellatly, Department of Australian Photography, National Gallery of Australia (in 1997).

Notes

1     Doug and Mike Starn, forum at Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT), September 1993, videotape, Department of Photography, National Gallery of Victoria. 

2     Doug and Mike Starn forum.

3     See A. Grundberg, Mike and Doug Starn, New York, 1990, p. 33. 

4    ibid., p. 110, repr.

5     ibid., p. 43. 

6     ibid. 

7     ibid., p. 110, repr. 

8     ibid., p. 111, repr. 

9     ibid., p. 43. 

10     Doug and Mike Starn forum. 

11     Doug and Mike Starn forum.

12     See D. Friis-Hansen, ‘Doug and Mike Starn: Facing the Sun’, in Mike and Doug Starn Sun Studies (exh. cat.), Olin Art Gallery, Kenyon College, Gambier, Ohio, 1994, p. 3. 

13     Grundberg, p. 41. 

14     See D. Ulansey, ‘The Mythraic Mysteries’, Scientific American, vol. 26, no. 6, December 1989, p. 130. 

15     The Starns have recently translated their concerns to film in Attracted to Light, 1996–97. Their new film, starring Dennis Hopper, is scheduled for release in 1998 (see ‘The Sun Sessions’, World Art, no. 16, 1998, pp. 82–3).