Duncan Campbell

| June 8th, 2012, 7:21 PM

Installation shot of "Duncan Campbell" showing screen prints (alt)

The other day I did an interview about this blog with Tyler Green of Modern Art Notes, and he was telling me that he thinks one of the things that makes it great is that it doesn’t feel like we’re plugging something. True, we’re usually just interested in sharing what we’re interested in. But now I’m going to actively promote something. Sorry Tyler! I hope you’ll forgive this transgression, because this is important:

There’s about a month left to see new screen prints and three powerful films by Duncan Campbell—Arbeit (2011), Make It New John (2009), and Bernadette (2008)—which are playing on a timed daily rotation in our Forum Gallery. I think people don’t necessarily expect to sit down and watch a longish (39 min., 50 min., and 37 min., respectively) video when they come to a museum, but this is an opportunity not to be missed. The dinosaurs aren’t going anywhere, so if you live in the Pittsburgh area or will be visiting before July 8, please don’t rush past Forum en route to somewhere else—commit a little time to this show.
 

Rooted in immense amounts of research—I mean years of rummaging in some cases—as well as the conviction that the documentary is only “a peculiar form of fiction,” each of Duncan’s films combine archival material with his own footage, animation, and/or narration to revist a consequential historical moment through one important protagonist. The striking thing about these unorthodox, self-reflexive biopics is the sensitive—and tentative—way in which they re-open their subjects (and history) to personal interpretation, projection, and memory. Through Duncan’s attention to found materials and his method of taking them out of a context in which they are subjugated to a strict linear narrative, we see things in images we would have otherwise missed. In many ways his films deny the viewer an immersive cinematic experience, never letting us forget that they are authored representations, one perspective among many. But they unfold according to a complex internal logic and sense of rhythm that is no less alluring than traditional narrative, and a lot more interesting.

The most recent work on view, Arbeit, takes as its subject Hans Tietmeyer, a German economist and bureaucrat who played an important role in the centralization of the European financial system, which as you likely know is currently in a major crisis, with the potential to wreak havoc on economies around the globe. Make It New John looks at the life of troubled American automobile engineer and mogul John DeLorean and his iconic DMC-12 car, as well as the West Belfast plant where it was (briefly) produced during the early 1980s. Bernadette focuses on Bernadette Devlin, the controversial Irish republican MP and civil rights activist who became an object of media fixation at the start of the “Troubles” in the late 1960s. It’s easy to understand why after seeing Duncan’s film—reportedly all of the art handlers that worked on this show are smitten with her.

Though these three people may at first glance have seemingly little to do with Pittsburgh, their stories are bound up with issues of labor, class, money, and power that are relevant to everyone, but of particular interest in a remade factory town like ours, shaped by robber barons and foundry workers alike. The relationship between the two—in contemporary terms of corporation and individual—is given form in Duncan’s show by a series of screenprints on the walls outside of Forum. Subtly altered enlargements of (nearly inscrutable) bond offering documents from the likes of Goldman Sachs stand in contrast to prints based on handwritten protest signs declaring “GIVE US WORK NOW.” The oversized “NO SMOKING” sign, based on actual signs posted in the Carnegie Museum of Art bathrooms, distills the disembodied, authoritative corporate tone to two words and an alarming shade of orange.

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