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Pimp Daddy of Video

A scene from a video loop in Matthew Buckingham's "A Man of the Crowd"

It's truly amazing what casting sculpture in video rather than the traditional media can do. Materials such as bronze, wood and stone just seem so clunky in comparison to video's lightweight incandescence. Whether analogue or digital, the result of emulsification processes on paper or a pixelation on a screen, video seems revolutionary when juxtaposed with conventional forms of sculpture. The displacement of concepts and fracturing of images, the shift from space to time, the fusillade of icons, countenance, action, drama and sentiment: Video as the fount of this and much more make it so apt to our current condition, such a likely and successful mode of cultural mediation and representation for what I have called elsewhere our collective gospel of the screen--our shared existential being bound within and to the spectacle.

The Iowa-born artist Matthew Buckingham understands profoundly well the timeliness and formal poignancy of video in our moment. Recently installed in the deep caverns of the Dallas Museum of Art's contemporary art galleries, Buckingham's A Man of the Crowd unabashedly informs us of the artist's expertise in the medium of video. The visceral effect of Buckingham's installation is absolutely stunning.

Taking place in two separate rooms, Buckingham's installation consists of photographs and video that, while exhibited in independent spaces, work in unison by way of their shared monochromatism and Old World setting. Exhibited in a small room adjacent to the gallery where the video is projected, somber photographs of desolate streets in the old city center of Vienna introduce the viewerto the urban setting of the narrative at hand. The video installation takes place in a long, rectangular gallery where a loop runs of two men perambulating through Vienna, one in pursuit of the other. Bisecting the space is a two-sided mirror that deflects and refracts the video projection onto the facing wall. Both functional and representational, dispersing light and mimicking the shop windows of Buckingham's narrative, the mirror-wall makes for a breathtaking play of identities, as one oscillates between being actor and viewer.

Please don't hesitate to walk in front of the projection and in between the makeshift glass window and gallery walls. In fact, you're supposed to. By way of bodily interaction your shadow becomes part of the urban to-and-fro of the Viennese crowd. Buckingham invites onlookers to become not only part of the piece but also pedestrians on the streets of Vienna.

Buckingham's formal gestures and textual influences are clear. The piece is a distillation in video of Edgar Allan Poe's 1850 short story "A Man of the Crowd." While Poe's fiction takes place in the streets of London, the setting of Buckingham's reinterpretation is Vienna, a topographic shift that marks a wink and nudge to the extravagances and high camp of noir film. In appropriating the cinematography of postwar noir, in particular Carol Reed's film The Third Man (1949), which takes place in Vienna and stars the master of noir himself, Orson Welles, Buckingham seeks to instill a sense of urban alienation, loss and wandering desire. Perhaps, however, Buckingham doesn't go far enough in this appropriation of noir formalism. He tends to clean up the flow of pictures, making the narrative sharp and legible through stabilizing what is in the hands of noir directors a current of topsy-turvy scenes and stories. He may be using the architecture of shadows so common to noir films, but absent are the expressionistic cocked perspectives--that hurly-burly point-of-view at or from below the ground plane of action so artfully imposed on viewers by noir filmmakers.

Buckingham is a well-honed puppeteer--or better yet a hustler of the moving image, the pimp daddy of video--who, in his understanding of the well-nigh Pavlovian effect of filmic play, almost loses sight of the substance of what it is he seems to be casting as image and tale. What I am getting at here is the way in which his keen understanding of the medium--his awareness that an audience is bowled over and wowed by images cast upon screens--seems to be almost more important than his message. Indeed, this is a case in which the medium is the massage, where video acts more upon our bodies than our minds as the physics of the piece works slightly to the detriment of the actual content. Wish images of a city from a bygone era, the black-and-white film and photos of desolate streets in Vienna are vaguely nostalgic.

For what Buckingham misses in the realm of content he makes up for in his creation of emotional ambience. There is a striking loneliness about both the photos and the video. While in the photos this solitude and detachment are blunt and obvious, in the video their presence is subtle. Mirroring the artist's disposition as a man of meek rebellion, Buckingham wields subtlety in a provocatively quiet fashion. Nuance and finesse become the stuff of urban performance. Buckingham has brought the often subcutaneous sentiment of alienation to the surface, channeling feelings of angst and disquiet through the solemn yet erratic rhythm of ricocheting facial expressions. Registering on the actors' faces, the urgency of the follower plays against the evolving unease of the followed. Spliced and sutured amid this play of countenances are the curious if not deadpan faces of uninvolved passers-by. The visages of some of these bystanders come at you head on directly from the body of their faces, while others come to you as reflections of reflections. Such mirror-like semblance enters your spectrum of vision by way of deflection and refraction--as faces bouncing from shop to bus window and back again. Keen on Poe's belief that "everything is but a dream within a dream," Buckingham transforms human bodies into phantoms of flesh, shadow and shine that roam willfully and otherwise through the city-as-dreamscape.

We might look upon Buckingham's filmic ruminations as part of an emergent genre within the world of video, the full body of which is surely yet to come. The angst and drama set off by careening vectors of vision, clashing gazes and covert watching bring to mind the work of the French artist Sophie Calle--her photo-documentation of following unwitting pedestrians and other urban players through the streets of Paris and watery byways of Venice. Beyond what already exists, Buckingham's work projects the mind of the viewer into the world of what-ifs. What if the setting of Buckingham's game of nimble curiosity and benign urban stalking were, beyond Franz Josef's 19th-century Vienna, a contemporary airport or the streets and raised walkways of Tokyo or Hong Kong? How about a car-vs.-18-wheeler chase along the lines of Steven Spielberg's Duel taking place on the freeways of Belgium and Holland, a vibrantly green urban landscape dotted by an amazing array of state infrastructure in the form of gargantuan locks and dams? Or, what about the good old obvious here in our own back yard, the highways and byways of North American freeway urbanism?

Aside from the somewhat mawkish feel of the black-and-white imagery and the Old World sensibility, you should see the new video installation, if not only to pass by the delightful array of other contemporary pieces en route, including a lovely Polly Apfelbaum piece on the floor. There is no denying that the back-and-forth of images in Buckingham's video installation makes for a pyrotechnics of vision that shouldn't go missed. While the photos are platitudes on place, Buckingham's piece is, without a doubt, foxy photoplay.


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