Duncan Campbell scooped the highly-coveted 2014 Turner Prize award in December, an achievement that recognises the Dublin born Scottish-based artist’s work in the realm of video art. The film he was nominated for, It For Others, is a film about understanding history through objects. Like his other films, It For Others blends together found footage with his own material. It mixes together African art with archival footage of The Troubles, an ethno-nationalist conflict that blighted Northern Ireland for the best part of 2 years between the late sixties and light eighties.
Although Campbell hails from southern Ireland, It For Others still has a personal aspect as, during his teenage years, the conflict would never have been far from his developing mind. But the real heart of the matter here is the commodification of objects and our idea of value. Take, for example, the traditional African art found in the film; its original purpose in life was as pieces of art, ideas, enduring truths, revelations. Since their original conception, the pieces have fallen into the hands of colonists, where their value to capitalists and investors has been exploited.
Duncan Campbell was one of the favourites to win the £25,000 2014 Turner Prize award, with many believing he was a complete shoo-in. He was certainly one of the most well-known, with his films recognised for being challenging, controversial and for “rewarding repeat viewings.” Yet they are not always so easy to digest and interpret, with Penelope Curtis, director of Tate Britain, admitting even she was puzzled by It For Others. “I know in theory that it’s talking about the relationship of objects to value systems,” she says, “but the fact he has chosen to mix Marxist economics with contemporary choreography is totally unexpected and, you might think, a bit baffling.”
The Turner Prize itself has come under heavy criticism in recent years for promoting unfathomable works of art, with Apollo magazine scribe Laura Gascgoine sniping that it is “reflects the narrow tastes of an ersatz avant-garde”, whilst celebrated British artist Grayson Perry was more simple in his damning of the event as he accused it of “talking to itself.” But nobody can deny the depth, creativity, invention and intellect that goes into Duncan Campbell’s work. He might be operating on a level of intellectual depth that befuddles even the most ardent cubist fan, but there is still something to be taken – and enjoyed – from his films. Would he be able to make a conventional, more understandable narrative film? “I wouldn’t rule it out (making a narrative film), but it’s something I’d need to have a think about.”