File Note 20: Matthew Buckingham - Camden Art Centre

Essay by Stuart Comer



Backward Glances Images References Quote Biography Credits

Backward Glances

Matthew Buckingham’s filmic installations have consistently provided an urgent negotiation of film, history, and the performance of social space. Buckingham’s carefully researched work draws on many of the aesthetic and critical strategies developed during the 1960s and 70s to examine the shifting uses of historical documents and cultural memory. He uses the cinematic space of film and video to stage personalized narratives that question the relationship between the living presence of the viewer, the phantasms of history, and the politics of institutions and archives. 

Seeking to amplify an awareness of the spectator’s surroundings by avoiding the ‘placeless’ nature of the darkened cinema, Buckingham has situated his installations in galleries and other sites that encourage mobilized viewing and ‘unpredictable’ encounters. Using the time-based nature of film and installation to his advantage, he reworks the material evidence of history into open circuits that give the spectator occasion to reflect on, translate, and re-inhabit the information presented to generate new stories and fresh meanings. 

A Man of the Crowd (2003), for instance, revisits Edgar Allan Poe’s 1840 short story The Man of the Crowd, relocating the narrative from 19th-century London to 21st-century Vienna, which in turn is relocated to the site of the gallery. Poe’s account of a man’s twenty-four hour elliptical journey trailing a mysterious, older figure through the streets of the city is transformed into a constellation of elements that break down the conventional projector/screen relationship and amplify the reflection and doubling inherent to the story. The viewer’s shadow joins this arena of clandestine observation and reciprocal glances, staging the uncanny push and pull between the past and the present essential to Buckingham’s practice.  

Buckingham’s newest film installations invoke the past and confront the conventions of biography through figures whose life stories are fascinating demonstrations of history’s contingency. Their lives were marked by journeys, returns, exclusions and uncertainties; what Roland Barthes called ‘‘a field of permanencies and permutations’’. These figures  —  the early film inventor Louis Le Prince, the maverick 18th-century feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, and the Weimar medical practitioner and lesbian icon Charlotte Wolff — foreground Buckingham’s interest in the histories of cinema, feminism, gender and identity studies, and the emergence of a mobilized, modern subject.  Buckingham’s address to history seeks to problematise the ‘amnesia of the present’, and in these projects he engages influential figures whose historical position has always remained unresolved, if not uncertain. 

Likely the first person to successfully record and project moving images, Louis Le Prince’s mysterious disappearance from a train in September 1890 short-circuited both his career and historians’ attempts to reconstruct the exact details of his accomplishment. One of the cameras that he developed had eight pairs of lenses, prompting speculation that he hoped to produce stereoscopic moving pictures. Although probably inaccurate, this notion offers a compelling relationship to Walter Benjamin’s interest in using ‘stereoscopic’ or ‘dimensional’ seeing to grasp the construction of history, to ‘‘see into the depths of historical shadows.’’ Benjamin’s ‘dialectical optic’ suggests an interesting model for reconsidering the politics of visibility and the reclamation of a figure like Le Prince. 

For his 16 mm film installation, False Future 2007, Buckingham re-visited the site documented in the surviving one second clip shot by Le Prince at Leeds Bridge. Shooting it again from roughly the same perspective and extending the duration to ten minutes, Buckingham poses interesting questions about the nature of repetition, physical presence and ‘actuality’. Layering acts of spectatorship one on top of the other, Buckingham’s doubling act opens a new set of questions about the history of the moving image. It reconsiders Le Prince’s shadowy imprint and its implications for contemporary visuality. 

Walter Benjamin, whose own death was also mired in mysterious circumstances, was one of several prominent intellectuals befriended by Charlotte Wolff, a doctor who fled fascist Germany in 1933 after being arrested for espionage and cross-dressing. In 1936 she settled permanently into a life of exile in London, where initially she earned a living by reading the hands of accomplished acquaintances such as Virginia Woolf, Marcel Duchamp, T. S. Eliot and George Bernard Shaw. After publishing several books on the study of the hand, she began major research into lesbianism that resulted in a landmark psychological study, Love between Women, in 1971. This publication generated interest amongst the spirited lesbian movement that emerged in Germany during the 1970s, and Wolff was invited by L74, a Berlin-based lesbian activist collective, to present a reading from her work in 1978. 

Wolff’s return to Berlin forms the focus of Buckingham’s project Everything I Need 2007. Shot on a retired plane similar to the one that would have carried Wolff on her journey, the work imagines the space of reflection that she would have encountered immediately after confronting the physical reality of her homeland following 40 years in exile. The plane offers an intriguing site that is an amalgam of public and private space which bridges two distinct periods in Wolff’s life. In her youth Wolff experienced the vibrant public life of the particularly visible gay and lesbian subculture in Weimar Berlin. As a lesbian Jew she was a first-hand witness to the violent and rapid collapse of this unique society under the Nazis. To return to Germany on the occasion of a political re-awakening for the lesbian movement must have provided Wolff with a unique moment to reconsider the fluctuating visibility and mobility of lesbians and women throughout the 20th-century.  Much like lines in the palms of the distinguished hands that Wolff read, Buckingham retraces her quotidian, private paths as they became more public and questions what it might mean to reignite them again within contemporary public space.

During the past few decades, the mobility of women and the history of their position in public life are issues that have made necessary and productive demands on urban and cultural studies. This development provides an interesting critical framework for artists like Buckingham for whom the navigation of the spectator through the visual, verbal and physical components of his work has been a major concern. When asking ‘Who?’ Buckingham addresses not only the historical figures whose biographies he reconstructs, but also who is the potential audience for the restaging of their memory, and what are the consequences of creating an interface between the two.

Feminist studies have had a profound influence on Buckingham’s politics and his conception of subjectivity and constituency. The 18th-century British philosopher and writer Mary Wollstonecraft was a founding figure of feminism. Best known for her 1792 treatise A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, she died at the age of thirty-eight due to complications from childbirth. Wollstonecraft’s life was marked not just by extraordinary literary productivity, but also by a series of love affairs and personal attachments. As a result her legacy has been continuously re-evaluated over the years, as generations of scholars have grappled with the question of whether to relate her biography to her writing. For his video installation, The Spirit and the Letter  2007, Buckingham presents Wollstonecraft as a spectre who haunts the confines of a Georgian interior appearing inverted, walking on the ceiling. Ghosts are unresolved and incomplete entities who are neither fully detached from the past nor completely manifest in the present. The figure of this spectral Wollstonecraft becomes an appropriate allegory for a radical agenda whose cry for certain freedoms has not fully been accommodated, even in contemporary times.  This ‘haunted’ image also recalls the conjuring acts and magic shows that so influenced the development of cinema in Le Prince’s era. 

Just as Buckingham’s work makes us look back at history, so it makes us look back (and around us) literally in the projection space. Alluding to precedents in experimental cinema from the 1960s and 70s by artists such as Morgan Fisher and Anthony McCall, Buckingham lays bare the construction of cinematic display to transform the space between projector and screen into a field of active possibility for the viewer. At the back of the installation for The Spirit and the Letter Buckingham positions an upside-down mirror, recalling another key art historical precedent, the work of Robert Smithson. Smithson’s frequent use of mirrors, doubling and inversions attempts to negotiate what he termed the ‘non-site,’ an elusive chain of meanings that aimed to break down the schisms between interior and exterior, public and private, past and present in order to generate a third space that could accommodate each of these dichotomies. This allegorical model suggests the intellectual space at the heart of Buckingham’s historical project. Shifting amongst mirrors, projections and shadows, we are encouraged to reflect on our position as spectators and historical subjects in the hope that we might form what the French philosopher Jacques Rancière recently termed ‘‘an emancipated community of storytellers and translators’’.


Mary Wollstonecraft A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, New York: Norton (1988)

Mary Wollstonecraft Letters Written During A Short Residence in Sweden, Norway and Denmark London: Penguin (1987)

Virginia Woolf ‘Four Figures’ in Collected Essays, Volume Three. London: Hogarth (1967) pp.181–206

Charlotte Wolff Love Between Women, Duckworth (1973)

Charlotte Wolff Hindsight, Quartet Books (1980)

Mannoni, Crangle, Gunning The Great Art of Light and Shadow: Archaeology of the Cinema, University of Exeter press (2000)

Cecilia Dougherty ‘My Failure to Assimilate’ (1995) 20 min.

Sally Potter ‘Thriller’ (1979) 45 min.

Curt Siodmak, Robert Siodmak, Edgar G. Ulmer and Fred Zinnemann ‘People on Sunday’ (‘Menschen Am Sonntag’). Written by Curt Siodmak and Billy Wilder (1929) 74 min.

Peter Jackson ‘Forgotten Silver’ (1995) 80 min.

‘When I look at Wollstonecraft, Wolff or Le Prince today, I feel called to task by what they have left behind — challenged to re-measure my own assumptions and find out what others think.’ Matthew Buckingham


Matthew Buckingham (b. 1963) lives and works in New York. He studied at the Art Institute of Chicago, received a BA from the University of Iowa, an MFA from Bard College and attended the Whitney Independent Study program. Utilising photography, film, video, audio, writing and drawing, his work questions the role that social memory plays in contemporary life. Recent work has investigated the Indigenous past and present in the Hudson River Valley; the ‘creative destruction’ of the city of St. Louis and the inception of the first English dictionary.
Recent solo shows include ‘Messages from the Unseen — Matthew Buckingham/Joachim Koester’, Lunds Konsthall, Sweden (2006); ‘Time Lines’, Kunstverein und Kunstmuseum St. Gallen, Switzerland (2005); ‘Concentrations 44: Matthew Buckingham, A Man of the Crowd’, Dallas Museum of Art, Dallas (2004); ‘Subcutaneous’, Charles H. Scott Gallery, Vancouver, Canada (2003) and ‘Definition’, P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center, Long Island City, New York (2002). Selected group exhibitions since 2000 include ‘Liverpool Biennial International 06’, Liverpool (2006); ‘This Storm Is What We Call Progress’, Arnolfini, Bristol; ‘I really should …’, Lisson Gallery, London (2005); ‘Faces in the Crowd’, Whitechapel Art Gallery, London (2004); ‘Territories’, Kunst-Werke, Berlin, Germany (2003); ‘Greater New York’, P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center, Long Island City, New York (2000).
Buckingham was a guest of the DAAD Artist-in-Berlin Program in 2003 and is currently an External Tutor at the Malmö Art Academy in Malmö, Sweden.
‘Play the Story’ is his first one-person exhibition in London. Matthew Buckingham is represented by Murray Guy, New York.


Stuart Comer is Curator: Film at Tate Modern.