Bonnie Camplin

Tate Britain

The earliest of the five short videos Bonnie Camplin presented as part of the Tate’s “Light Box” series of artist’s films and videos was Good Health, 2003, and it set the tone as well as the formal parameters for the rest. What’s immediately striking about Good Health (as with most of the other works) is the importance of its sound track, as signaled by the fact that one hears it before seeing anything: The video opens with the music accompanied by (which is not to say accompanying) a white screen. Similarly, the most recent work on view, Terrazzo, 2008, begins with sound accompanied by a black screen. The priority Camplin gives the ear over the eye might be expected, since she is a musician and DJ as well as an artist; in these works she uses sound as an independent element that sometimes seems to direct the image rather than the other way round.

That Good Health conveys movement primarily by splicing still images together—constructing motion as overtly artificial, jerky, and nonnaturalistic—also connects it to the artist’s subsequent video work. In Colonial Fanny, 2005, the only silent piece here, the images are at once still and not still; the camera is stationary, and the single recurrent figure barely moves: a woman shown against various tropical backdrops, her poses reminiscent of those in fashion photos, always wearing a wide-brimmed hat that hides her eyes, making her seem inaccessible,
 neither seeing nor seen. The woman 
idly fans herself—a motion that, while
 only a subtle inflection of the otherwise 
motionless shot, never stops. At the
 end, the fan turns into an animated
 butterfly and flutters off. Consistently,
 Camplin takes a painterly approach to 
the time-image that is not lyrical, but 
instead humorous and allusive—and 
above all formal, as exemplified by her
 recurrent joking with the picture plane; 
at the end of Good Health, for example,
 a dot zips around like a fly across the screen, thereby anticipating the “actual” fly that moves across the screen at the beginning of the video shown next in the program, Get Me a Mirror, 2005.

All five works were constructed around female protagonists—a pair of swimmers in Good Health, dancers in A (Like Akarova), 2006, which is a collaboration with Paulina Olowska; in fact, none of them depict men at all. Camplin’s work—which also includes drawing and performance—has been described in this magazine as “negotiating the problem of essentialist readings of gender,” but somehow this work doesn’t feel as dour as that might make it sound, despite the sensations of dislocation, unease, or simple detachment it recurrently evokes. Instead, there’s a woozy sense that everything is always on the verge of change—if things are off-kilter and unresolved, well, a way out could always open up. Camplin’s freewheeling mixture of techniques—using stills, moving images, animation, and so on—always intimates liberty. Maybe that’s why the fundamental consistency among these works never keeps them from surprising.

Barry Schwabsky