Artist in Residence Home

Matthew Buckingham

Buckingham’s Work

As the American writer William Faulkner expressed, “The past is never dead. It’s not even the past.” Investigating archives, specific documents, urban settings, historical figures, telling anecdotes and mythic personas of the past, Buckingham finds uncommon source material for his films and installations. These remnants serve as points of departure for his exploration of the past and our contemporary relationship to it. Troubled by the fable of truth in our understanding of history, Buckingham’s works reassemble and reinterpret the facts and facets of the historical record as one way to address the nature of information and the image.

Since making The Truth About Abraham Lincoln in 1992, Buckingham’s photo-based works have explored the varied and dramatic histories of topics as diverse as the life of Samuel Johnson, the demolition of an entire neighborhood in downtown St. Louis, the historical evidence documenting the life of an industrious freed slave, and the introduction of the sparrow into North America. All of the works have looked to the past as one way to decipher the trappings of the present.

Film still from "Situation Leading to a Story" by Buckingham.

Matthew Buckingham, Situation Leading to a Story, 1999, 16mm black-and-white film still

In Situation Leading to a Story (1999), Buckingham explains how he found a small box containing four 16mm films after leaving the Waverly Cinema in Manhattan one night. Buckingham watched the films, each independently labeled “Garden,” “Peru,” “Guadalajara,” and “Garage.” Noting different aspects of the found films—how the men and the women are shown in different shots or how the women socialize and smoke cigarettes—Situation Leading to a Story expresses the development of cultural and social differences since the 1920s, when the film was made to the present, when the footage is rediscovered in art. Buckingham also tells the story of how he travels to Ossining, New York in order to find 52 Underhill Road, the address of the family who owned the films.

Buckingham’s unveiling of his own proclivities and failures as a historian—such as incorrectly recalling 55 as the number of the house on Underhill Road instead of 52—underscores for the viewer how facts and knowledge can be described by Michel Foucault’s ideas of “negotiat[ing] between documents,”1 whereby history is not couched in relativism but recognized as reflective of the culture that produces it. Because of this insistence on exposing and confessing the subjective, Buckingham’s works evade the pitfalls of didacticism and eschew any confirmation of history as a teleological narrative.

Film still from "Situation Leading to a Story" by Buckingham.

Matthew Buckingham, Situation Leading to a Story, 1999, 16mm black-and-white film still

When Situation Leading to a Story begins to discuss the segment marked “Peru,” the focus shifts from daily life to the larger issues of government, politics, and economic and social systems. Buckingham, the quiet and patient narrator of the film, tells the tale of the Cerro de Pasco Mining Corporation. Named for a small town in Peru, the company was bought in 1901 by Henry Clay Frick and other American investors. It eventually developed into a dominant force in Peruvian politics and economics, ultimately reaping the benefits of legislation that exempted it from paying taxes for ten years.

For those familiar with the history of Latin America, the narrative of American exploitation in the region is not news, but the approach to these facts—the way the sequence of events unfolds in order to destabilize the viewer’s assumption of fairness, justice, and order—is central to Buckingham’s work. In Buckingham’s own words, he describes his intention of reforming the structure of history as an alternative means of creating, writing, and learning from history.

To talk about producing and consuming history could refer to older models of history as objective, universal, producing a single flow of time leading toward progress. I would always try to disrupt that model.1

Suspicious of unquestioned tropes of memory, Buckingham’s model gives the viewer an agency to think critically about the past and the present.

Continuing to mine history, Buckingham explored the Hudson Valley Region in Muhheakantuck—Everything Has a Name (2004). For this project, Buckingham captured the striking landscape of the Hudson River from a helicopter that hugged the coastline traveling up and then down the river. The rosy dream color of the projected film creates a false sense of veracity or goodwill for Buckingham’s version of the history of New Netherlands, now New York State and parts of New Jersey.

From Buckingham, we learn that in the early 1600s, Henry Hudson was sent by the Dutch East India Company, later the Dutch West India Company, to find a waterway connecting Europe to the East. Hudson never found this imagined Northwest passage, but he did find fertile ground for beaver pelt trading. Soon after Hudson’s crew had mutinied against him and set him adrift with his oldest son in what is now Hudson Bay, the Dutch company was ready to interact and trade with the Native peoples of the region, who call themselves the Lenape, or “the people.”

“Everything has a name,” Buckingham reminds the viewers watching the film, as he explains how colonization or exploitation can be enforced and dissected by language. He explains that the Lenape called the Dutch “the salty people” or “the bitter people.” The phrase aptly describes the Lenape’s troubled interaction with Europeans in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries that led to the death of 90% of the Lenape population by 1700. Buckingham also explains that we understand the world from expressing our own experiences and learning about others’ experiences from language. The omission and even the description of both jovial and tragic events in our written histories are never objective, never wholly reliable. As the film recounts tales of Dutchmen shooting Lenape or of militia attacking villages at night—burning and shooting men, women, and children—we quickly realize that these ravages are not the focus of the dominant narrative of North America. In the quiet sanctuary of the film installation, viewers are given an opportunity to rethink the facts passed down from generation to generation and the apparatus producing them.

By baring the devices and the details that led him to discover the business dealings of the Cerro de Pasco Mining Corporation or the traumatic history of the Lenape people, Matthew Buckingham problematizes a system of learning and history that pervades our culture. His films, video works, slide installations, and photographs use various devices of film production and history to urge the viewer to think critically about the past and our contemporary relationship to it.

—Jane Simon, Curator of Exhibitions
Madison Museum of Contemporary Art

1Jennifer Allen. “Clues, Shadows, and Faces: Interview with Matthew Buckingham.” Metropolis M. No. 5, 2004, pp. 95-106.

2Jennifer Allen. “Clues, Shadows, and Faces: Interview with Matthew Buckingham.” Metropolis M. No. 5, 2004, p. 104.