Issue #178
Any Port In A Storm November 11, 2011

Matthew Buckingham
The Spirit and the Letter (still)
2007
Continuous video projection with sound, electrified chandelier, mirror
Dimensions variable
Courtesy of the artist and Murray Guy, New York

View Gallery

Matthew Buckingham

Brooklyn Museum, New York

Through January 8, 2012
by Sarah Demeuse

How do we talk and think about women’s emancipation and sexual equality now? It’s a question that continues to energize the Elizabeth E. Sackler Center at the Brooklyn Museum. It’s undoubtedly also a difficult task to strike a balance between, on the one hand, historical homage, which risks de-activating past feminist discourse or turning it into moralist sentences and opening up the discussion into the present moment on the other. Matthew Buckingham’s 2007 The Spirit and the Letter, a video installation currently showing on continuous loop in the museum’s Herstory Gallery, tackles precisely this problem.

The piece sets a historical stage: it is a static take of an empty domestic interior apparently of a well-to-do family from the 18th century. An electric chandelier anachronistically dangling from the ceiling suggests a crossover of time. The protagonist, a woman around her thirties, dressed in a sober dress of the same white tone as the walls, recalls a character from a BBC historical drama. In fact, it’s as if one of the Brooklyn museum period rooms came to life with an eerie inhabitant.

The woman walks in and out of the camera field, speaking about female inferiority, the lack of education, the need for self-governance and the free exercise of one’s faculties. Her soliloquy merges Enlightenment language with a female liberation manifesto and is made of Buckingham’s selections from the writings of Mary Wollestonecraft, considered by many as the founder of the women’s rights movement in Europe and the UK. The empty room and the woman’s use of the space—walking on the ceiling and talking off camera—extends the fiction beyond our immediate field of vision, making us aware that we’re entering a mental rather than a historical space. Instead of witnessing a re-staged historical event, we are in an indirect discourse, in an individual stream of consciousness that at times resembles a motivational talk.

While the speech is hard to hear and follow, the film’s forte is a reflection about bodies in space. Not only do the protagonist’s actions off camera intrude on our own viewing space, Buckingham has devised sculptural interventions, an identical upside down chandelier placed in front of the projection and an inverted mirror opposite the screen, that cleverly collapse fiction and reality. This story is not simply a historical document re-staged; rather, it has a liminal appearance, injecting revenants of the 18th century into contemporary life. We’re placed in a continuous self-reflexive now-time. The protagonist’s statement, “there’s no clock here,” therefore refers as much to the period room as it does to the gallery itself.

Though the omission of a specific historical context often leads to flattened out interpretations, Buckingham’s inversion of past and present comes as a welcome insertion into the Sackler Center’s exhibition space, which remains dominated by Judy Chicago’s anything but nuanced Dinner Party. When I visited, the Center also showcased Eva Hesse’s beautiful, though unavoidably biographical show, Spectres 1960. In this determined panorama that risks straying on the essentialist side and becoming less in sync with contemporary approaches, Buckingham’s plea for individual interpretation is a breath of fresh air.

Sarah Demeuse reads, translates, edits, writes and makes exhibitions. Together with Manuela Moscoso, she founded rivet, a curatorial office that currently focuses on object-oriented approaches in philosophy and contemporary art.

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