The Spirit and the Letter (2007)
Utilizing photography, film, video, audio, writing and drawing, Matthew Buckingham's work questions the role that social memory plays in contemporary life. His projects create physical and social contexts that encourage viewers to question what is most familiar to them. The Spirit and the Letter explores the 18th century radical political philosopher and education reformer, Mary Wollstonecraft (1759– 97), through her own words and work. As biographers and analysts have noted, Mary Wollstonecraft’s work might never have materialized had her life been easier. Born in London in 1759 to a financially precarious family, Wollstonecraft eked out a living as a Lady’s companion, schoolteacher, and governess, some of the only positions open to an eighteenth-century woman. But, writing in her spare time, she eventually established herself in London’s political and literary circles. A Vindication of the Rights of Men (1790) fanned the flames of debate over the implications of the French Revolution for England. In A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) Wollstonecraft extended the critique of sexism she began in the first work to society as a whole. She reported on the aftermath of the French Revolution from Paris, published an account of her travels in Scandinavia, and died at the age of thirty-eight, after giving birth to Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, later Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein (1818). The viewer enters a space that has been arranged to evoke a feeling of inversion. A chandelier, glowing dimly, protrudes upward from the floor. An inverted mirror hangs on one wall. A video image on the opposite wall displays another room where the same chandelier can be seen hanging from the ceiling. A woman in 18th century dress paces across the floor. She exits the image and a moment later reappears standing on the ceiling. The woman is the actor Kate Miles portraying Mary Wollstonecraft. She delivers a brief, erratic, but impassioned, exposition of Wollstonecraft’s ideas, edited from Wollstonecraft’s books, letters, memoirs and tracts. The actor’s monologue constitutes an ambiguous encounter with a ghost of sorts. Wollstonecraft’s words resonate with our own contemporary questions of social and political identity, and are arranged to reveal her own evolving self-criticism. By bringing Mary Wollstonecraft out of the past into our present a subtle proposition is made – the viewer is invited to see past moments of social change in connection to one another, rather than as isolated or thwarted moments of resistance.
Video’s aesthetics are deployed to heighten the temporal aspects of the project, invoking the medium’s associations with simultaneity (live transmission), and with surveillance. The Spirit and the Letter utilizes the electronic image to avoid film’s photographic reference, moving between the present moment and Wollstonecraft’s »prephotographic« time. Without digital effects Wollstonecraft disobeys gravity, wandering across the ceiling of a Georgian room, a copy of a lounge at the Westminster School in London. Both the videoprojection and the space in which the viewer experiences the work refer materially to Wollstonecraft’s questioning of the connection between domestic space, architecture and property, as well as gender. As the title suggests the project describes a space between intent and action, privacy and the state, where a radical rethinking of identity took place over 200 years ago.
The Spirit and The Letter was co-commissioned by Film and Video Umbrella and Camden Arts Centre in association with Frac Bourgogne Dijon; Dundee Contemporary Arts; Des Moines Art Center and Henry Art Gallery, Seattle
Biography Matthew Buckingham 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. His work has been seen in solo and group exhibitions at ARC / Musée d’art moderne de la Ville de Paris, Paris; Camden Arts Centre, London; The Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington DC; Hamburger Bahnhof National Gallery, Berlin; Moderna
Museet, Stockholm; Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago; Museum of Modern Art, New York; Whitechapel, London and The Whitney Museum of American Art, New York.
Photo: Hendrik Zeitler