Magazine article Artforum International

1000 Words: Matthew Buckingham Talks about the Spirit and the Letter, 2007

Magazine article Artforum International

1000 Words: Matthew Buckingham Talks about the Spirit and the Letter, 2007

Article excerpt

WHETHER EXPLORING the colonial history of the Hudson River, recounting the life story of a freed slave in the American Northeast, staging a tale by Edgar Allan Poe, or recording his own attempts to discover the origin of four home movies from the 1920s found on a Manhattan street, Matthew Buckingham, in his film and video projects, often seems also to be documenting the exploits of an amateur enthusiast: himself. Indeed, the New York-based artist's practice might be seen as sharing common ground with the fast-growing hobby of historical reenactment, involving as it does the exhaustive researching and re-presenting of the past. Yet Buckingham is less interested in accurately portraying earlier times than in considering how any investigations of what went before inevitably reflect back on our current condition. Buckingham's works frequently include accounts of his own involvement in their production--the process of discovery, error, and frustration in unearthing events or facts--thereby making apparent the imprecision, personal decision making, and projection that underlie any attempt to record history. As the artist says, "The importance or unimportance that we assign to past events, here and now, is one of the ways that we define or even actively create the present."

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Buckingham's most recent project, The Spirit and the Letter, 2007, speaks eloquently to the problem of trying to understand the past with only the tools and mind-set of the present. Currently on view at the Camden Arts Centre in London, this piece consists of a specially devised installation and video in which an actress in eighteenth-century dress reads from Mary Wollstonecraft's writings, principally fragments of her Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792). The decision to center this work on Wollstonecraft was dictated in part by her relationship to the city where the exhibition is taking place; however, to apply Buckingham's own method, we should also ask: Why Wollstonecraft now? Given the attention paid to her life and to writings by feminist critics over the past decades--and, as significantly, in view of the reevaluation of 1960s and '70s feminist politics, art, and writing under way today--Buckingham would contend that the reexamination of her life and work offers a productive means of engaging with the social and critical thinking of our own time.

THE SPIRIT AND THE LETTER is a project I have wanted to make for a few years. I was familiar with Mary Wollstonecraft's life and work through reading political philosophy and the history of feminism, but then, while researching another project, I discovered she had translated Johann Caspar Lavater, an eighteenth-century Swiss proponent of physiognomy. This intrigued me, as it pointed to the conditions of her professional life--the means of her self-sufficiency.

So I returned to Wollstonecraft's best-known work, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, and reflected on what happens to her language and ideas when we read them today. Wollstonecraft is widely credited as a founder of feminism, and while true in some ways, this assertion nevertheless raises interesting problems of historiography: The terms feministe and "feminist" date from nearly a hundred years after her time. How do we tell her story in a way that avoids teleology, anachronism, and projection? Much of the recent scholarly work on Wollstonecraft takes these concerns into account, presenting her not as someone ahead of her time, but as someone very much of her time. …

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