I went to this year’s Turner Prize at Tate Britain last week, and it inevitably got me thinking about In(ter)ventions. Four artists are nominated this year, James Richards, Tris Vonna-Michell, Ciara Phillips, and Duncan Campbell. To me the standout candidate is Duncan Campbell, for his film It For Others. A response to Chris Marker and Alain Resnais’ film Statues Also Die (which I had not seen prior to going but am now determined to watch before seeing It For Others again, it’s that kind of film), Campbell’s work is a meditation on the uses and values of art and artefacts, especially in the European museum or gallery context.
Campbell’s film focuses first on the problem of objects held in European collections which were looted from their original cultures, usually eighteenth- and nineteenth-century colonies. How can we best view and make sense of these objects? (Implicit within Marker and Resnais’ film is that perhaps we can’t, because the objects have been or are being silenced). Initially Campbell’s emphasis is rather narrow – he looks at Benin sculptures in the British Museum – and one might want to broaden the debate to include human remains, for example, or the effect on any object when it is moved from its original culture, whatever the means. Campbell’s film then moves through a series of vignettes, including a dance by the Michael Clark company in which the bodies of the dancers spell out the theory of value from Marx’s Das Kapital (I think), and a consideration of the different uses to which a photo of the IRA fighter Joseph McCann has been put, including, bizarrely, its printing on Christmas stockings.
Throughout his work, Campbell focuses on how the meaning that the viewer makes of objects always depends on the context of their encounter with those objects, but inevitably this also involves questions about how meaning and use conspire to transform the form of the object itself, especially in the final section, as the original photo of Joseph McCann is transferred on to increasingly different media. When does an object become a different object? (A question which has been raging since at least Walter Benjamin’s The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction). Campbell opens with images of the Benin sculptures from Statues Also Die, except that he doesn’t, because he couldn’t obtain permission from the British Museum and so resorted to using replicas. This points both to the booming appetite in developed nations for artefacts from so-called “undeveloped” countries, but also to the widely-held notion that somehow, once objects enter museum collections, encounters with or uses of them, particularly involving the sense of touch, are circumscribed, their form is fixed, inviolate.
These are conversations that, for a museum worker, are important but can be difficult to have. Returning to the question of European museums and colonial objects, this is an issue which is just becoming louder and more urgent, but it is a conversation that British and French museums are reflecting on and participating in.
For further information about Duncan Campbell and the Turner Prize 2014, see the artist discuss his work here. And I would also recommend you check out his earlier work Bernadette, a portrait of the Irish political Bernadette Devlin, if you can find it.