Thoughtful, reserved, and considered in his speech, Duncan Campbell, who won the Turner Prize in 2014, is the opposite of the kind of flamboyant artistic personality that usually grabs the headlines. He is no Damien Hirst or Tracey Emin. In fact, rather than being a showman, he is literally a backroom boy, spending most of his working hours engaged in research, reading, writing and scanning endless hours of archive footage.
The whole notion of the archive, especially the film archive, looms large in the substance and character of his work which is, in a way, a process of looking again at things we presumed we knew and suggesting that the familiar is more problematic than we thought.
He has addressed such subjects as Bernadette Devlin McAliskey, the DeLorean car project and – the work that won him the Turner – a 1953 film by Chris Marker and Alan Resnais, Statues Also Die.
Now with his new commission for the Irish Museum of Modern Art (Imma), The Welfare of Tomás Ó Hallissy, he draws on the 1968 anthropological film, The Village, about rural Co Kerry made by two American academics, and three anthropological books that cover much the same ground in varying ways.
All this material goes into the melting pot from which emerges a 30-minute black-and-white film that mixes archive footage with a great deal of new material, performed by actors and filmed by Rina Yang.
One of five siblings, Campbell was born in Dublin. His parents, Paddy and Veronica, were well known through their company Campbell Catering which, for a time, took over and developed the Bewleys brand before selling it on.
In his 50s, and partly inspired by his son, Paddy decided to pursue his passion for sculpture and became a representational, figurative sculptor. Their approaches may be worlds apart, but he and his son seem mutually supportive.
The younger Campbell studied art, initially at NCAD then at the University of Ulster in Belfast in the early 1990s. He wasn't specifically interested in working with video or film. "In fact I was more into radio, and I was always interested in writing."
He was drawn to the creative energy in the city and was on the committee of the Catalyst Arts Gallery. There were strong connections, he recalls, between Belfast and Glasgow, where he went to complete an MFA.
“Glasgow had this reputation. There were interesting people there, but I don’t think when I arrived I felt, this is it. It was a gradual thing. I like that it’s a can-do place, with an ethos of people organising things for themselves. If you are not offered opportunities, you create them. The people are very friendly. I have to go to London quite a bit, and I like London, but the scale of the place . . . I’d never get my head around it. Glasgow is more like Dublin.”
Campbell edged toward film via collage and slide-tape projects. “I was interested in people like Chris Marker and Alan Resnais, and Canadian and American structuralist filmmakers – though they didn’t always like that term. Basically they were exploring the nature of the medium rather than simply working within it, and I liked that. The thing is that I had an almost mythological idea of what they were like. It was really, really hard to actually see the films, not like now when virtually everything is just one click away.”
Commodification of cultural artifacts
Northern Ireland has remained important to him and several projects have been based there, not least Bernadette. "I'm not saying that the historical narrative is meaningless, but it can be reductive. The Troubles narrowed perceptions of politics in Northern Ireland into this one conflict. It's only become possible to look at it in a more complex way fairly recently."
In researching his 2008 film Bernadette, he felt that Devlin McAliskey's political life – she was only 21 when first elected as an MP in 1969 – had become simplified into a fixed iconic representation. "I'm not dismissive of her iconic status, but that is not the whole story." Her political evolution and experiences, including her surviving a horrific assassination attempt in 1981, pointed to a wider story. "I tried to avoid any sense of being definitive, of neatly bookending her life, and that's why the film kind of unravels in the end."
Had he hesitated to take on such a significant historical figure, someone still very much around? “I think I was a bit naïve about it, so I just got on with it without worrying too much about that. I don’t know if I would do it again.”
He subsequently met her, "in a less pressurised circumstances", when Leila Doolin was making her 2011 film, Bernadette: Notes on a Political Journey.
Campbell is careful to distance himself from the position of being an omniscient authority pointing out the flaws of his predecessors: a pitfall of the deconstruction process. While some observers saw It for Others as a critique of Marker and Resnais' film, that wasn't what Campbell had in mind. Their work considers how the traffic in, and commodification of, cultural artifacts in a colonial context distorts and negates their meaning. He elaborates on that and includes an extraordinary ballet sequence, made with dancer Michael Clark, based on Marx's ideas on value exchange and the workings of the market, and an oblique look at the uses of Republican iconography in Northern Ireland.
"My attitude always evolves as I work on a project," Campbell says. "What struck me was that Statues Also Die is quite optimistic in terms of the future in Africa. But by the time Marker made Sans Soleil (1983), you can see that he has become cynical because of what's gone on in the meantime. For me, what comes across is how he is willing to change his mind, to rethink."
Sans Soleil, incidentally, is an amazing film that can in some respects be seen as a template for Campbell's approach to both medium and subject matter.
Dysfunctional relations between the sexes
Campbell's new film also takes an earlier film as its starting point. He came across Paul Hockings and Mark McCarty's 1968 production The Village in the IFI. "It was made as a teaching aid, as part of a course in anthropology."
He was intrigued by the idea of Americans arriving in an unfamiliar setting and proceeding to interpret what they found. They were looking at a society on the brink of irreversible change: “Or even collapse; collapse generated by inner tensions and economic pressures. Yet the film is polite. They ask questions and they take the answers at face value. The fact is, if you went into a small village in the 1960s and started asking people questions about their sex lives you weren’t going to get much of an answer.”
In his reworking, he imagines the anthropologists questioning their own methodology. Here he points to Nancy Scheper-Hughes's 1977 book Saints, Scholars and Schizophrenics: Mental Illness in Rural Ireland, which took a more outspoken, incisive, closely argued and analytical approach. Based on extensive fieldwork in the Dingle village of An Clochán, the study used invented names for places and people but it horrified the subjects who had no trouble identifying themselves. Her devastating account details the wretched plight of bachelor farmers, hopelessly dysfunctional relations between the sexes and an unhealthy focus on internal family ties. She subsequently cast a critical eye over her own procedures and the local reaction, but her book stands as a benchmark work.
In The Welfare of Tomás Ó Hallissy, Campbell uses Scheper-Hughes's voice as a source for the dialogue between his imagined anthropologists. The key presence in the film, however, is a silent observer, the 10-year-old of the title. Born into one, fast-disappearing world, he will grow up in a new, emerging world. How best will his interests be served? The question is implicit but Campbell declines to offer – or should that be impose – a view.
The Welfare of Tomás Ó Hallissy by Duncan Campbell is at the Irish Museum of Modern Art, The Royal Hospital, Kilmainham, Dublin until May 7th (imma.ie)