Critics’ Picks

Duncan Campbell, Bernadette, 2011, still from a black-and-white and color film in 16 mm, 37 minutes.

Duncan Campbell, Bernadette, 2011, still from a black-and-white and color film in 16 mm, 37 minutes.


Duncan Campbell

Carnegie Museum of Art
4400 Forbes Avenue
April 28–July 8, 2012

In his latest exhibition—comprising three films and a set of screenprints— Duncan Campbell juxtaposes television network footage with dramatic reenactments while using structuralist techniques, for instance incorporating scratched film and garbled audiotape, to undercut intimate biographical monologues. The effect arrived at is a kind of melancholic antiportrait, one whose viewers may well understand Campbell’s subjects less and less as the films progress. Best illustrating this point is Bernadette, 2008, one of the three films on view, which takes on Bernadette Devlin—the Irish republican activist who, in 1969, attained a parliamentary seat on her twenty-second birthday. Devlin, called “Fidel Castro in a mini-skirt” by Time magazine, captivated the media when she punched the conservative speaker of the house for implying that the British army had acted in self-defense on Bloody Sunday. After an attempt was made on her life in 1981, she mostly disappeared from the public eye, but she still lingers in its imagination, serving as the subject of political murals in Northern Ireland, several documentary films, and a recently announced Hollywood biopic. Campbell’s film, however, is less about Devlin and more about the little we actually know of her. In the striking opening sequence of the film, we are given a glimpse of splayed female toes on a sofa; this image is casually followed by hair blowing in the wind, then a beautiful pair of eyes, and a gappy set of front teeth. The audio then pops in and our heroine pronounces the unromantic line “one of the plans of the people’s democracy.” After watching the three films on view—Bernadette; Make It New John, 2009 (which takes on John DeLorean); and Arbeit, 2011 (about Hans Tietmeyer)—we have the feeling not of having digested these characters but, on the contrary, of having been made complicit in their very creation.