Simon Starling is renowned for his speculative, research-based practice and for complex acts of poetic and material transformation, and his work is marked by epic journeys and elaborate historical narratives. Starling’s film Black drop, 2012, tells a story of the relationship between astronomy, photography and the invention of cinema. From the first recordings of the transit of Venus across the sun with a camera obscura in 1639 – posited by Starling as a nascent form of cinematography – the film constructs a complex narrative that connects Captain Cook’s recording of the astronomical event in 1769, French astronomer Jules Janssen’s innovation of the photographic revolver, the development of Etienne-Jules Marey’s photographic rifle and the Lumiére Brother’s invention of the cinematograph.
Set within a film-editing studio, Starling’s film self-reflexively chronicles the ‘enthusiastic’ attempts in 1874 and 1882 to use observations of the transit of Venus across the sun to refine the measurement of the mean Earth–Sun distance, the so-called ‘Astronomical Unit’. Starling posits the 1874 Venus transit as a ‘quintessential if reductive cinematic experience’ and reflects upon Janssen’s innovation of ‘chrono-photography’ – a combination of chronometry and photography – and the implications of time captured in the moving image. A complex history unfolds as the editor splices, and spools of the Steenbeck editing suite suggest celestial configurations of planetary and technological alignment.
It is significant that Starling’s film incorporates footage of the 2012 Venus crossing, filmed by the artist from the summit of Mauna Kea, Hawaii, a dormant volcano 4200 metres above sea level. With the next Venus transit not due until 2117, and with film fast disappearing, it is likely that the 2012 transit will be the last one recorded using celluloid technology. Starling’s film itself becomes an historical artefact, serving as an elegiac reflection upon a quintessentially modern medium and mode of perception.
As a discourse on the genealogies of modernity and globalisation, Black drop takes us from Hawaii to Tahiti, where, on 3 June 1769, Captain Cook and his ship’s astronomer ‘witnessed and carefully recorded the distorting effects of the mysterious “black drop” on the transit of Venus’. Starling’s film speculates that ‘the birthplace of cinema was not the gates of a factory in Lyon, but rather a black sand beach at the northernmost tip of the South Pacific island of Tahiti’.
The black drop effect is an optical phenomenon, observable during the transit, in which a distortion of Venus’s silhouette appears as it connects with the edge of the sun – a phenomenon that thwarted a precise calculation of the solar parallax and the accurate establishment of the astronomical unit. This interest in the distorting effects of the black drop, and the unreliability of images, opens up the potential for aesthetic and subjective experience as a necessary rejoinder to the empirical logic of scientific rationalism.
The accompanying Venus mirrors (05/06/2012, Hawaii & Tahiti inverted), 2012, invoke the perceptual, distorting and inverting effects of cameras obscura, speculum mirrors found in telescopes, magnifying glasses and photographic lenses. The mirrors present the 2012 transit as it was observed in June 2012 from Tahiti and Hawaii – sites visited by the artist and significant in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century observations.
Starling is an English-born artist who trained at the Glasgow School of Art. He represented Scotland at the 50th Venice Biennale in 2003, and was awarded the prestigious Turner Prize in 2005. Linking astronomy, cinema, modernity and globalisation, Starling’s filmic narrative and sculptural installation reveal rich, unexpected and complex histories that focus on the imaginative relations between art, technology and the history of modernity.
Max Delany, Senior Curator, Contemporary Art, National Gallery of Victoria (in 2014)