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Mycore Matronae Consider the Triangle 2010. Courtesy of the artist, Cabinet, London and Galerie Cinzia Friedlaender, Berlin.
Bonnie Camplin: Bricolage

"The only hero able to cut off Medusa’s head is Perseus, who flies with winged sandals; Perseus, who does not turn his gaze upon the face of the Gorgon, but only upon her image reflected in his bronze shield." [1]

Following several aborted attempts to commence this text with a clear and concise reflection on the themes and scope of Bonnie Camplin’s work, I decided to give in to the mercurial and holistic quality of her art practice, which I imagine to be like a liquid element, impossible to contain within the walls of a gallery or an auditorium, or indeed within the lines of a résumé or artist’s statement, and, as such, impossible to contain within the confines of these pages. The London-based artist describes her practice as the invented life, an existence fraught with ingenuity and creativity, making the most of the tools and materials within her reach to negotiate a systematically precarious and hostile environment. It is, in the spirit of Jerzy Grotowski’s poor theatre, [2] a unostentatious yet intense practice that unravels inside and outside the exhibition space.

Camplin engages with a way of life and of DIY art production that could be defined, following Joe L. Kincheloe’s theories, as subversive bricolage. In Introduction: the power of the bricolage: expanding research methods, this Canadian pedagogue, writer and critic makes use of the French word bricoleur, which he describes as “a handyman or a handywoman who makes use of the tools available to complete a task (…) often involving trickery and cunning.” Kincheloe analyses the use of the term by the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss and later by the sociologists Norman K. Denzin and Yvonna Lincoln, with the goal of advocating for an elastic and interdisciplinary process of construction of knowledge and understanding of reality, in opposition to the reductionism of empirical rationalism. For this, Kincheloe proposes a research methodology in constant evolution that embraces the uncertainty of human experience, and that includes the diverse and mutable contextual dimensions both of the researcher as well as the phenomenon under study. [3]

This subversive bricoleur methodology is integrated in Bonnie Camplin’s invented life and is reflected in her work as a form of resistance to the determinism that underpins modern western thinking. In this way, her videos, drawings and performances allude to the agents and forces that determine “consensual reality”, the experiences and identities that are acceptable within this reality – normality – and how it is translated into social control. By engaging with such heavy issues, Camplin astutely adopts an oblique and humorous gaze on reality, thus maintaining a lively suppleness of thought and movement.

During the opening seconds of the video Get Me a Mirror, 2006, one hears – over a buzzing technological sound – an impossible dialogue between two women; and I rate it as impossible due to the speakers’ lack of communicative intent, with their voices seemingly cocooned in obstinate autism. The first voice desperately begs for a mirror, while the other one, slowed down in post-production, monotonously repeats instructions to be followed during an emergency. This beginning signals an inherent tension in Camplin’s work between the normative – evinced in the authority of the commanding voice – and the pathological – evinced in the hysteric tone of the pleading voice. Both the mirror and hysteria have been culturally connoted as feminine. The mirror bears witness to the construction and destruction of a woman’s public image; of the ritual of creating a feminine artifice by applying make-up, hairdressing and clothing to the naked body and vice versa, the removal of these same components to return to the original intimacy. Likewise, official medical theories explaining the alleged physical and psychological disorders of hysteria – and here one ought to remember that this condition was initially defined by Hippocrates as the pathology of the wandering womb [4] hinge on studies into women’s bodies, reaffirming the scientific and patriarchal power that rejects patients’ real experiences in favour of a specific idea of femininity.

“Get me a fucking mirror!” cries the off-screen voice, as the face of a young woman appears on screen floating over white noise. Immediately afterwards, a fly – symbol of transformation and adaptation, but also of decadence and death – lands on the image, crawling across the beautiful face. This is followed by a succession of various semi-nude, self-absorbed feminine archetypes wandering about; dancing or getting dressed; wavering between grotesque and beautiful; occupying an ambiguous space that transmits the – practical and existential – complexity of defining femininity. In line with Judith Butler’s gender studies, Get Me a Mirror depicts femininity as an invention, a cultural construct that is articulated by a continued yet mutable manufactured performance, which can be reformulated at any time. This loop of construction and deconstruction of realities and identities appears in Camplin’s work bathed in glamour and intention. With this, I am referring to the decadent glamour of Soho’s 1990s night-life, where Bonnie directed, performed and DJed in experimental clubs; [5] and to the decadent glamour of the Victorian era and the aesthetic of England’s colonial past; and the abundance of glamorous fashion magazines, lipstick and high heels in domestic settings. With intention I aim to define the noetic attitude of affecting subjects and objects surrounding us with every thought, word and deed. There are several theories, both popular and scientific, that study the mechanisms by which humans can introduce a thought into reality and later see it materialised. As Camplin explains when speaking of her creative process: “if everything I make and everything I do incorporates a desire to end warfare, it’s an intention that’s like casting a spell that will inevitably – doesn’t matter how long it will take – bring about an end to warfare.” [6]

Camplin’s fascination with the different theories that explain how thoughts, beliefs and intentions affect the physical world has led her to combine science and magic in her creative process, with quantum theory affording a space to reconcile both, where the principles of magic can be accepted by empirical thought. In Mycore Matronae Consider the Triangle (2010), for instance, three futurist witches crowned with bronzed halos meditate on the occult properties of the triangle against a Vorticist backdrop. This collage on paper was inspired by Camplin’s research into the mechanics of remote viewing – the practice of feeling with the mind an object, person or event that cannot be seen and being able to provide information or coordinates for it – in military applications for the USA government. In this regard, the ink drawing The Pebbledash Swells, 2012, depicts a hybrid creature inspired by two tarot cards that represent masculine power (the king of wands and the emperor), two businessmen and a row of ties – the elements of their corporate disguise – surrounded by a growing wall of pebbles and stones. The hybrid being seems to be melting away, while one of the businessmen is on the verge of being strangled, in an uncertain future, by his own tie as a snail advances slowly towards it. Hazarding a clairvoyant interpretation of the situation, the image hints at the fragility of the patriarchal and capitalist model, the need to accept uncertainty, and the wisdom of understanding the nature of time. [7]

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The Pebbledash Swells 2012, Courtesy of the artist, Cabinet, London and Michael Benevento, Los Angeles.


The collapse of the authority figure, in this case the archetype of knowledge, can also be decoded in the video Cancer, 2004. Against the static image of a biology professor a distorted off-screen voice explains the behaviour of cancer cells in the human body, while one can hear an unsettling melody probably coming from an electrical piano. The professor’s head vanishes intermittently by dint of rudimentary special effects, eventually leaving just a pair of eyes floating against a cloud of smoke. Immediately afterwards, a rain of miniature human silhouettes is accompanied by frog croaking sounds; perhaps a knowing nod to the extraordinary meteorological phenomenon of raining frogs, or perhaps in reference to the saying “to drop like flies” to allude to mass deaths. There is something robotic in the professor’s descriptions, as if he were reciting without any hint of subjectivity, a factual performance that is systematically disrupted by the conspicuous nature of the special effects. Thus, Camplin pulls a face at absolute belief systems, like Western science, which has often been criticised for its role as the religion of the modern world.

Writing on paranormal phenomena such as raining animals or mythological creatures, Charles Fort explained in The Book of the Damned how these were disdained by modern science because they did not fit in with the parameters of normality, and he compares the intolerance of scientists with that of religious fundamentalists: “That theological pronouncements are as much open to doubt as ever they were, but that, by a hypnotizing process, they became dominant over the majority of minds in their era. That, in a succeeding era, the laws, dogmas, formulas, principles, of materialistic science never were proved, because they are only localizations simulating the universal; but that the leading minds of their era of dominance were hypnotized into more or less firmly believing them.” [8] Fort was criticised heavily by many sceptics because of his lack of empirical rigour. In Camplin’s work scepticism is an attitude to be confronted, and the leading minds of their era of dominance is a figure to be unmasked.

After the bricolage of ideas and disciplines touched on above, it seems relevant to conclude the text by returning to Ítalo Calvino’s words from the opening quotation, which describe Perseus’s victory over Medusa and how he managed to defeat the Gorgon, looking at her image reflected in the bronze shield, thus avoiding her petrifying gaze. Calvino finds in this image an allegory of the poet’s relationship with reality, or how to face a tough, even monstrous reality without being petrified in the attempt, and he called this skill lightness. I believe that Camplin’s work is based on this lightness, which has nothing to do with superficiality, escapism or rejecting our complex reality, but rather with a lateral vision and the espousal of other logics, thus articulating an agile political ideology without falling into any dense dogmatism. Calvino continues his reflections telling us how Perseus, wanting to wash his hands after the deed, carefully places Medusa’s head on a soft bed of leaves and covers it with little branches. And then the real miracle takes place: “when they touch Medusa, the little marine plants turn into coral and the nymphs, in order to have coral for adornments, rush to bring sprigs and seaweeds to the terrible head.” [9] Perseus’s genteel intention is turned into a reality – an image which I believe illustrates the noetic principle of Camplin’s invented life; or how, by combining our intention with what we have at hand, we can, as if we were practicing alchemy, make the heavy light and the ordinary extraordinary.



Bonnie Camplin has been nominated for the Turner Prize 2015 for The Military Industrial Complex, a project commissioned by South London Gallery and Anxiety Arts Festival 2015 and curated by Anna Gritz and Bárbara Rodríguez Muñoz.



This article has been translated from an original text in Spanish from June 2014.



FOOTNOTES:

[1CALVINO, ITALO: Six Memos for the Next Millennium, Vintage, New York, 1993, p. 4

[2Jerzy Grotowski (1933–1999) was a Polish experimental theatre director and creator of the concept of poor theatre, a pared-down and innovative form of theatre that values the relationship between the actor and the audience and the intensity of this interaction. GROTOWSKI, JERZY: Towards a Poor Theatre, Simons and Shuster, New York, 1968.

[3KINCHELOE, JOE L. & BERRY, K.: “Introduction: the power of the bricolage: Expanding research methods” in Rigour and Complexity in Educational Research: Conceptualizing the Bricolage, Open University Press, New York, 2004.

[4The theory of the wandering womb believed that the displacement of the womb could cause psychopathologies in women. This belief was based on the teachings of Hippocrates in ancient Greece and endured for centuries in western medicine.

[5The Sound y Harderfasterlouder.

[6In “Psycho-Physical Subjective Emergence”, Mousse No. 35, Milan, October–November 2012, pp. 256–263.

[7In her talk at Central Saint Martins, London, on 17 February 2014, Bonnie Camplin explained that her interest in the nature of time is framed within Albert Einstein’s theories of space-time.

[8FORT, CHARLES: The Book of the Damned, 1919 (first edition). Online: http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/22472

[9CALVINO, ITALO: op. cit, p. 6.

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