Art Review: Simon Starling: Modernism Gazing Into the Past

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A video features the alluring Thomas Edwards, of the Scottish Ballet, in a hawk costume, as he reimagines the play’s largely undocumented choreography. He swoops his arm down, in flight; he lunges backward, pushing his head to the ground; he bobs left and right, like a disco dancer, against a score of cymbals and horns that charges harder than the flute and drum backdrops of Noh. You can later see his ravishing steel-gray costume, which Mr. Starling designed with a Tokyo atelier.

Mr. Starling, who won the Turner Prize in 2005, first presented “At Twilight” in Glasgow, where the masks were used in a three-night performance of a new play whose characters included Yeats, Pound, Ito, Cunard and Mr. Starling himself. (A critic for the magazine Frieze called the performance “as much theatrical lecture as play.”) At Japan Society, the new masks and costumes are instead placed in conversation with impressive archival materials from Yeats and his circle: letters from the poet detailing the preparations for “At the Hawk’s Well,” on loan from the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin; “The Rock Drill” from the Museum of Modern Art; and a newly cast edition of Brancusi’s Cunard bust.

Half a dozen Noh masks from the 14th century, and woodblock prints of Meiji-era Japanese actors, reintroduce the theatrical tradition that Yeats and his collaborators — with the confident universalism that we later generations can find suspicious — actually understood rather poorly. And, a bit weirdly, there is a stuffed Eeyore, A. A. Milne’s depressed poetry-writing donkey; Yeats and Pound waited out the war in the Sussex forest where Milne set “Winnie-the-Pooh.”

Photo

“At the Hawk’s Well (Grayscale),” a mask by Yasuo Michii.

Credit
The Modern Institute/2016 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, via DACS, London

In other, more nervous hands, the kind of archival project that Mr. Starling has undertaken could become defensive, an easy way to buttress one’s own position in an art history that can seem infinite. (When everything’s been done, isn’t it safest to rework an older masterpiece?) What makes this project more engrossing — beyond the beauty of the masks and the elegance of the filmed dance — is Mr. Starling’s understanding of historical modernism as a transnational condition, indeed the first such transnational style, which an Irish playwright, an American poet and a Japanese dancer could share even if they understood it with slight differences. That promiscuous approach is one the globe-trotting Mr. Starling adopts in “At Twilight,” though here Noh theater and Irish legend have been supplanted, as source materials, by modernism itself: The recent past is our own mythology.

And yet gazing on Mr. Starling’s masks and on the photos and letters from a century ago, I felt that the distance between the two bodies of work was not so great. The idea that modernism may be our very own kind of antiquity emerged in the 1990s during a moment of relative peace and permanence that some thought signified the end of history. Two decades later, the themes of Yeats, Pound and other modernists — themes of alienation, decay, a world in fragments — feel more current than anyone expected.

Correction: January 2, 2017

A picture caption on Friday with an art review of “Simon Starling: At Twilight,” at Japan Society in Manhattan, referred incorrectly to one of Mr. Starling’s works. The work, “Project for a Masquerade (Hiroshima),” is not part of the Japan Society show.

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