Video artist Duncan Campbell sees between the lines

by

Staff Writer

When Irish artist Duncan Campbell won the Turner Prize last December, it was met with both high praise and criticism, as often happens with the notoriously controversial event. But perhaps such a difference in perception is appropriate.

Campbell’s 54-minute film “It for Others” explores our relationship with images and objects, questioning how our perception and interpretation of them are constantly being manipulated by corporations, media and politics. As a response to Chris Marker and Alain Resnais’ 1953 essay film “Statues Also Die” — which argues that colonialism altered the way in which African art is perceived and produced — it includes commentary on ownership of art, commercial exploitation and economic theories, presented through narration, imagery and even dance.

The work is a perfect fit for the Yebisu International Festival for Art & Alternative Visions, which this year focuses on “changing perspectives” and presenting new ways to see and question our “layered” and complex world.

In a recent email interview, Campbell spoke about his award-winning piece and other works now showing at the multimedia festival.

There are quite a few examples of Japanese packaging design featured in “It for Others,” and they all anthropomorphize the products. Is this of significant relevance?

Yes you’re right, the starting point for this section of “It for Others” was anthropomorphic packaging. As part of my research I used blogs and forums online that specialize in this and it was on these that I first discovered Japanese packaging.

I like it because it is simple and bold, in terms of product design — classical. There does seem to be more of this type of packaging in Japan. Having said that, from what I’ve read about how brand identity is created, most packaging is anthropomorphic. It may not have a face on it, but the shape of most consumer goods is designed to correspond to the human body. It seems that people feel innately more comfortable with objects like this, and that this applies across cultures.

There is also a link between the shape of these consumer goods and the African art objects that feature at the start of the film, which very often anthropomorphise everyday objects.

Your 2009 film “Make it New John” is also being shown at the festival. What initially attracted you to the story of John De Lorean?

The car has a real mystique and appeal but is highly flawed — it’s a sports car that doesn’t go very fast. That’s the paradox that attracted me. The mythology of mobility is important in most capitalist societies. In the 20th century cars were central to this. John DeLorean’s own career is a kind of rags-to-riches story and he became a folk hero because he took on the monolithic corporate culture in America at the time. People were very taken by him, they believed in him. Just as he got the finance to build his own manufacturing plant the American car industry crashed against the oil crisis and competition from Japanese and German car-makers. There’s so much to the story, the difficulty I found was deciding what to leave out.

The car is iconic because of the “Back to the Future” films. That’s the fantasy where the promise of the car is fulfilled.

“Make it New John” has some interesting divorcement of image and sound. It forces the viewer to question who the narrator is or what is making the sounds. Could you tell us more about this?

This usually comes about when I’m editing — at a point when establishing a rhythm becomes important — so these sections are improvised. As a viewer myself, I appreciate films where the connection between sound and image is tested. When the relationship is not simply a passive one, it makes you question some basic principles. That’s partly what I am attempting to do in the clip you mention.

Some people have described your work as journalistic or akin to documentary. Do you think documentarians, historians or journalists are capable of being unbiased or neutral in their presentation of the truth? Would we benefit from a different way of representing people, events and history?

That’s a big question. As far as the facts go, journalists and historians should be able to describe events with enough objectivity. But it’s a phenomenon of our time that journalism has become as much about opinion as it is about fact and personalities, and dispositions really come through. I think it is important to be aware of this.

With any representation, events or history, there is much that is not said. New facts are discovered, things are forgotten. It’s a dynamic process. I think of what I do as not being singular or in any way definitive, but as a contribution to a more collective effort.

I’m not sure about a different way of representing events. Certainly I think it’s important to look at the forms we choose to represent history and to ask why we want things to mean the things we do.

The Turner Prize nominations last year were quite a victory for video art, and your work is being shown in Japan at an exhibition focusing on multimedia works. But do you think video art has had to struggle to be accepted and fully appreciated?

It’s a mixed picture. I’m definitely not the first winner to make video art. Laure Prouvost and Elizabeth Price, who won the two previous years, both make video art. There have been many more winners over the years who have made video art.

If you visit galleries in the U.K., it’s extremely common to encounter art through a screen or via a projector. This is not reflected in the market, for example in what you might see at art fairs. As a debate, I think it’s over, but there are still sections of the press in Britain who see film and video as contaminating art spaces.

You are based in Glasgow and studied at the Glasgow School of Art. But your past work has often referred to political aspects of your roots in Ireland. Why Glasgow? Is there a compelling reason to settle there?

I came to study and then just stayed. It’s hard to put my finger on exactly why, all sorts of reasons. Glasgow has a strong art scene. It isn’t a collector city, which makes it less competitive and more outward looking. It’s a far cheaper place to live than London or Dublin. Personally I find looking back to Ireland easier from a distance.

The Yebisu International Festival for Art & Alternative Visions 2015, takes place at various venues in Tokyo’s Ebisu area. For more information, visit www.yebizo.com Duncan Campbell’s “Make it New John” is screening every day through March 8 at The Garden Hall in Yebisu Garden Place; on March 8, there will be a talk by the artist at 1:45 p.m. Entry is free.
“It for Others” and “Bernadette” are screening at the Auditorium of La Maison Franco-Japonaise on March 3 (3 p.m.) and March 7 (6:30 p.m., followed by Q/A session). Admission is ¥1,200.