Texas museums collaborate to purchase British artist’s meditation on the transit of Venus
The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (MFAH), and the Dallas Museum of Art (DMA) announce their first joint acquisition: Black Drop (2012) by British artist Simon Starling. Filmed in 35mm and transferred to HD, Black Drop connects the history of cinema with the astronomical phenomenon of the transit of Venus across the Sun and the human need to measure one’s place in the cosmos. Funded by the Anchorage Foundation and the DMA/amfAR Benefit Auction Fund, the acquisition reflects the shared commitment to contemporary art upheld by Texas’s foremost encyclopedic institutions.
“Of all the artists of his generation, Simon Starling has consistently produced some of the most compelling work; yet his practice—rooted in history, art history, sociology and the history of science—defies characterization,” said Gary Tinterow, Director of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. “Multiplicity is key to his approach, so I am delighted that we can extend our collection by acquiring this fascinating film with the Dallas Museum of Art.”
“Starling’s work reveals rich, unexpected and complex histories, brought to light through his scientific unraveling of an image, object or event,” said Maxwell L. Anderson, the Eugene McDermott Director of the Dallas Museum of Art. “We are especially pleased to make Black Drop the inaugural joint acquisition with the MFAH. The film also has a strong relationship to Starling’s other work in the DMA’s collection, Venus Mirror, and we look forward to placing them both on view.”
At first, Black Drop appears to be a straightforward documentary about the transit of Venus and attempts in the 19th century to measure accurately the planet’s passage across the Sun. At the same time, Black Drop reflects on the filmmaker’s process, as the narrative opens with, and frequently returns to, sequences of an offscreen figure spooling 35mm footage through an editing table.
The larger theme addressed in the film is the inevitable indeterminacy of even the most disciplined research. Venus transits were recognized by astronomers as early as the 17th century as offering a means to approximate the scale of Earth’s solar system. Starling’s film takes its title from the “black drop” effect, seen in the initial and final stages of the transit of Venus across the Sun. As Venus nears the edge of the Sun’s circumference, the smaller orb appears to stretch to meet the margin, an optical illusion that created a margin of error in even the most sophisticated calibrations of Venus transits.
Of Black Drop, Starling has said, “The enthusiastic attempts in 1874 and 1882 to use observations of the transit of Venus to refine the measurement of the mean Sun–Earth distance, the so-called ‘astronomical unit,’ are perhaps best known for their failings. What is less well known is that cinema is, in large part, the illegitimate child of those 19th-century scientific exertions. . . . The importance of this rare astronomical event to science has long since waned, but we now—seemingly in the dying days of celluloid-based cinema—have a chance to reconsider the historical and technological impact of the transit.”
Black Drop builds on both museums’ holdings of works by the artist. In addition to Black Drop, the DMA owns Starling’s Venus Mirror (2011), acquired through the DMA/amfAR Benefit Auction Fund; and the MFAH owns Starling’s two-part Transit Stones (2012), acquired with the support of the patron group contemporary@mfah and the Caroline Wiess Law Accessions Endowment Fund. These closely related sculptures were inspired by the dual transits of Venus
in 2004 and 2012, a theme expanded upon in Starling’s exquisitely constructed film.
Black Drop will have its Texas debut in an exhibition devoted to the work of Starling and astronomical photography opening in May 2014 at the Pearl Fincher Museum of Fine Arts in Spring, Texas. This project is part of the Pearl Fincher’s ongoing partnership with the MFAH.
About Simon Starling
Born in 1967 in Epsom, England, outside London, Starling studied photography and art at Maidstone College of Art in 1986 and 1987. He attended Trent Polytechnic, Nottingham, from 1987 to 1990 and completed his studies at the Glasgow School of Art from 1990 to 1992. Starling entered the international stage in 2003 when he represented Scotland at the Venice Biennale, and in 2005 he was awarded the Turner Prize for Shedboatshed, an installation that
involved turning a wooden shed into a boat, sailing it down the Rhine and then turning the boat back into a shed. He has since exhibited widely, with solo presentations at venues including the Kunstmuseum Basel (2005); MASS MoCA (2008); the Power Plant, Toronto (2008); and the Hiroshima City Museum of Contemporary Art (2011). Starling is the subject of the major exhibition Simon Starling: Phantom Ride on view at the Tate Britain through October 20, 2013.
About the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (MFAH)
Founded in 1900, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, is among the 10 largest art museums
in the United States. Located in the heart of Houston’s Museum District, the MFAH comprises two gallery buildings, a sculpture garden, library, theater and two art schools, with two house museums, for American and European decorative arts, nearby. The encyclopedic collection of the MFAH numbers more than 65,000 works and embraces the art of antiquity to the present.
About the Dallas Museum of Art (DMA)
Established in 1903, the Dallas Museum of Art ranks among the leading art institutions in the country and is distinguished by its innovative exhibitions and groundbreaking educational programs. The Museum’s global collection encompasses more than 22,000 works and spans 5,000 years of history, representing a full range of world cultures. Located in the vibrant Arts District of downtown Dallas, the Museum welcomes more than half a million visitors annually. In January 2013, the DMA returned to a free general admission policy and launched DMA Friends, the first free museum membership program in the country.
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