Here and now

By Aaren Madden, April 2013

Charles Campbell’s Transporter activates a present space from which to imagine possible futures.

In Open Space Gallery right now, five geodesic spheres a la Buckminster Fuller sit about waist high in random locations across the floor. They are made of heavy cardstock triangles with the interior spaces cut away, leaving only the open lattice of supporting sides held together from the inside by simple binder clips. A different repetition of a single image is overlaid onto the surface of each sphere. As such, from any distance, these spheres appear as light and airy as giant bubbles: attractive, playful, and fascinating. In fact, at the opening reception of Charles Campbell’s Transporter exhibition, of which these spheres form a major component, a few people couldn’t resist the temptation to set them in gentle motion, then retreat and watch as they slowly came to rest.

Once you step closer to the spheres, however, you are confronted with powerful images weighted with human history. Their gravity is at odds with the weightlessness of the spheres, whose rational geometry is further at odds with the inherent messiness of human nature. The bubbles are at risk of bursting—until you step back and let the shapes lift off once again.

These spheres emerged from an exhibition Campbell was asked to do in conjunction with a conference on human trafficking at Duke University. The organizers “were interested in a dialogue between the past and the present in human trafficking, and the forces of attraction and repulsion in that system.” In turn, it fed Campbell’s general fascination with human migration, both forced and voluntary. 

He knows something about the latter. Born in Jamaica, Campbell’s family moved to Canada’s East Coast when he was five years old. He studied fine arts at Concordia University in Montreal, then returned to Jamaica at 19 and continued to hone both a painting practice and a growing social awareness. A few years later, he completed an MA at the University of London’s Goldsmiths College, then ran an arts outreach program for at-risk youth. Seeking proximity to family and an ideal environment for the two young children he now had, Campbell moved to Victoria about ten years ago. Since then he has engaged his interests in art and activism with roles as coordinator for Xchanges Gallery and communications director for the Dogwood Initiative. All the while, he has exhibited in Europe, North America and the Caribbean. 

Campbell’s work often refers to slavery, colonialism and, in particular, Jamaica’s violent past; it’s why the conference organizers sought him out. But planning that exhibition initiated new investigations for Campbell as well. It got him “thinking about why people move—both the push and pull of it, and these ideals of a better world,” he says. “I happened upon ideas around Buckminster Fuller and his utopian ideals; that you could figure out how everything should work if you applied yourself enough; that everything can lead toward this maximum efficiency.” Quite literally, it brought another dimension to his work and brought incredible tension to his imagery. 

“They are all about conflict and complicity; violence in some cases,” he says. One image shows a slave canoe, wherein Africans row other Africans to a waiting slave ship. “You could talk about Africans and Africans, but it’s just humans, really…that set up the economic system that motivated the Africans,” Campbell explains. “Even the idea of what is an African, it all starts to fall apart when you look at individual motivations of people.” 

Other spheres show equally conflicting imagery: open shackles could suggest liberty or imminent capture; Jamaican vultures either feed on the misery of others or perform the important ecological role of cleaning up the waste. One sphere is encircled by flocks of birds in silhouette, seemingly unencumbered by narrative. But they are in migration, and flying in all directions: neither here nor there, if you will. 

One final image begs contemplation. Arranged with careful precision into polygons, mimicking the structure of the spheres themselves, machetes flash their blades in various directions. It’s an initially violent image, but consider this: “A machete in Jamaica is used for absolutely everything, from cutting your lawn to chopping up your neighbour.” It’s a tool of cultivation as much as it is of violence. 

Faced with such overwhelming contradictions, the viewer is left grasping a bit. You have gained a rich aesthetic experience, true, but certainty and meaning dissolves. Attraction and repulsion are certainly engaged, resulting in more questions than answers. It’s disorienting—which is the whole point. Campbell explains, “There are always two things going on. There is this aesthetic quality, which pulls you in one direction and engages one part of your mind, and then there’s this narrative of the image, which engages another part. So the idea is, by activating both of those parts, it makes them both uncertain. It pulls the meaning away from the image, in some respects.” 

This creates a gap, a contemplative mental space open to new meaning. When he says his work “inhabits the interstices of artistic and political concerns,” it is this space to which he refers. It’s not necessarily a comfortable place to be, but neither is it unpleasant. It’s where the imbalance of uncertainty intersects with the beauty of potential. “It doesn’t change the facts, but it changes the possible directions you can go with the facts,” says Campbell. 

He clarifies: “In Jamaica, there is very much a feeling that our violent past has led to our violent present, which will lead to our violent future. There is lots of justification for that, in that the scars keep being perpetuated.” The legacy of residential schools here in Canada is another example of abuse and exploitation rippling across generations. Campbell’s work seeks to break down the inevitability and momentum of history by offering this space for dreaming up alternative, “aspirational” futures.

“History has its weight and its baggage,” Campbell acknowledges, noting that choice may not appear as a possibility. His work is “not in any way a denial of history, or to say that it’s not relevant to our behaviour or actions,” he explains, “but it’s a way of saying you have to put yourself into the present. That’s where decisions are made; that’s where choices are made.”

Which means the present is not an easy space to occupy; it comes with responsibility. Like Campbell’s spheres, it is as delicate and ephemeral as a bubble, yet weighted with the past. It involves the same intimacy that makes Campbell’s work at once attractive, compelling and challenging. “[My work] doesn’t give an answer to how you should think about this stuff,” he concludes, “but it does declare its presence and relevance.” What you derive has everything to do with where you are and what it means to you to be there. The future, you could say, is in the eye of the beholder.

 

Transporter is at Open Space Gallery, 510 Fort Street, second floor, until April 6, noon-5pm, Tues-Sat. On April 6 at 3pm Charles Campbell will be interviewed by Megan Dickie about his residency at the gallery; 250-383-8833, www.openspace.ca.

Aaren Madden is a Victoria writer constantly seeking grace in the present.