Adrift: Matthew Buckingham’s Obscure Moorings at Satellite

by Sarah Davidson

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Matthew Buckingham’s show, on now at Satellite, situates viewers in a strange position relative to his wandering film. Viewers are implicated in the act of understanding the film, and this is highlighted most immediately by the artist’s spatial intervention in the gallery: a gigantic wave-shaped viewing platform, covered in carpet. Buckingham often takes history and narrative as his subjects, and this work is no exception. In Obscure Moorings, based on an obscure character sketch by Herman Melville, a defunct sailor meanders unhappily through modern-day Liverpool and eventually dies.

It is difficult to unravel even this basic narrative from the film alone, which lacks any nondiagetic narration, dialogue, or music. To help situate the film, the source text has been printed for the show as an edition by Publication Studio Vancouver, and curator Cate Rimmer has drawn parallels to local history by filling the adjacent room with objects and photographs from Vancouver’s own sea-faring past. Following a similar methodology to Buckingham, Rimmer has foregone strict chronology in displaying the archival images, in favour of a wandering sensibility. Her selections read like a series of glances, an archive of interests. Looking at these works is akin to how one might actually experience being presented with the uncurated abundance of the large Vancouver Archive she pulled them from.

These archives boast their own fascinating flickr account, which is worth a visit.

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Obscure Moorings is a show that takes place in the mind of the viewer as much as it does in the gallery space. A quote by Buckingham from BOMB magazine  locates this strategy at work in much of his art: “History tries, in a sense, to get us to imagine something that no longer exists, but that once did […] to imagine the past we use the same mental space that we use for imagining things that never existed.” Viewers must make their own sense out of the information presented, forming a narrative as much related to history as it is to fiction.

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Publication Studio’s edition of Daniel Orm, available at the gallery

Tangentially, Buckingham isn’t the first filmmaker to remake Melville with a focus on a displaced protagonist. French director Claire Denis wove a tense story of a displaced soldier around Melville’s Billy Budd in her film Beau Travail (1999) .

Denis used choreography as a physical metaphor within her film, illustrating the situation of her protagonist as an outsider. Buckingham also involves the body in his work: by positioning the viewers on a wave of change, he implicates us not only in the act of understanding the film, but more broadly, in shaping the narratives of our own urban environment.

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