Michael Lanigan profiles Irish video artist Duncan Campbell, winner of the 2014 Turner prize. His winning piece, ‘It For Others’, and other works are currently on show at IMMA.
In a time when somebody decided that it might not only be a great idea to create a biopic for FIFA president Sepp Blatter, but that he be portrayed as a hero, then it is only appropriate that the video artist Duncan Campbell ought to be elevated furthermore into the public eye. Born in Swords, Dublin, before relocating to the north, where he studied fine arts at the University of Ulster in 1996, Campbell has produced a body of work, which rightfully earned him the 2014 Turner Prize for his various deconstructions of historical depiction and the creation of icons. By fixing his attention upon the vitality of editing, misappropriation and revisionism in the telling of an alluring story, he has spent the best part of the past decade analysing the complexities of Western media and consumption, blurring the lines between documentary and art.
From the outset of earning the Turner prize nomination for his video essay tetralogy, 2013’s ‘It For Others’, Campbell was almost a shoe-in for scooping up the controversial award. The work may not have functioned with an instantaneous appeal due to its density, delving into the commercialisation of African objects, Western consumerism and fetishes, and the creation of martyr symbols through mass production. However, what served to benefit the multitude of ideas that he forwarded within the work was its ubiquity in exhibits globally. Having made himself clear by stating that ‘It For Others’ required repeated viewing, this promise was to prove accurate and hence, his emerging as the victor met with scarcely any scepticism.
At the same time, ‘It For Others’ is quite a significant departure from his previous works, several of which, are on display in the Irish Museum of Modern Art until the end of March. Previously, his attention focussed on individual figures of history and the processes by which Western media remould such personas in order to create a compelling narrative. Although he touched upon this concept in one of the ‘It for Others’ segments, surrounding Joe McCann, of the IRA, his most revered work in this regard is perhaps 2008’s ‘Bernadette’.
Here Campbell used archival footage of the Northern Ireland MP Bernadette Devlin as the focal point in assessing how even apparently impartial historians slant and manipulate an angle in order to captivate the imagination of consumers. Superficially, he presented a straightforward history of the young woman’s ascent into politics, yet, by trying a near Kubrickian style of chopping out the glut of film reels on Devlin, the viewer must question the accuracy of her depiction, which almost veers into the Hollywood structure for biographies.
On the opposite side, his 2011 film ‘Arbeit’, took on the life of German economist Hans Tietmeyer as the core subject matter, tearing down his reputation as a relatively unknown figure of bureaucracy, in order to herald him as the sole pioneer in the nations journey from post-war trauma to its ‘economic miracle’ in the 1970’s. By reassessing his work as the hidden hero of economic realism, whose downfall stemmed from the failures and dishonesty of others, Tietmeyer becomes into an iconoclast of startling intellect. This, Campbell reinforced by focussing on one particular photograph of the economist smoking a cigarette, immersed in thought and which, by using it as the main image to advertise the IMMA exhibition, has effectively given Tietmeyer the recognition as a protagonist that the unknown narrator of the film desires him to be.
Audiences of Campbell often split in their view on how to grasp his approach to art; hence, since picking up the award, many critics are essentially urging him to follow in the footsteps of Steve McQueen by taking his art to the cinema screen. This might be an indicator that many are unsatisfied with his sitting in various galleries, as his distinct brand of video art does not necessarily give one the impression of being an installation, but something much larger. He may remain on the fence about that suggestion, but perhaps, by refusing to make such a transition, Campbell is destined to work as an innovator, who continues to challenge his audience with questions of where art stops and documentary begins.