Art review: Jim Campbell: Indirect Imaging

LIGHT is at the heart of Jim Campbell’s work, and the pieces on show in Dundee use it simply but effectively, writes Moire Jeffrey

Jim Campbell's 'Home Movies 1040' video installation. Picture: Contributed


Dundee Contemporary Arts

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise


It was a bright, cold day in January and the clocks were striking 58. Not, as you might think, the first lines of a sequel to George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984, but the delightful opener to a rather utopian, and at times ineffably sad, show at Dundee Contemporary Arts.

Behind the reception desk at DCA, where the staff greet visitors and answer the phones, the glowing orange numerals on the LED clock on the wall show something other than the conventional 24-hour daily cycle.

San Francisco artist Jim Campbell has placed a light sensor on the top of the building. The clock is an artwork, Untitled (for the sun), which starts counting at sunrise and displays the percentage of the day’s light that has already passed. It relies on modern technology, but it’s the simplest of things. Our circadian rhythms played out anew.

The machine, a clock that is canny enough to set itself, is also apparently delightfully human. Its small electronic brain takes time to adjust to each new light cycle when it moves location. It is heartening at this time of year to think that even microprocessors suffer from jetlag.

January, it must be admitted, is a truly dire time with its credit card bills, wind and weather. But the calendar is also on the turn and over the last days of the show it will be possible to see the slow creep of daylight, as the days grow longer.

I’m wary of exhibitions that rely too much on technology. There’s a danger that the hum and zing of machines becomes too much of a spectacle and an end in itself rather than a means of expression. But Chicago-born Campbell, now 58, who studied maths and engineering at MIT in the late 1970s, has used his expertise in circuits and light technology to tell simple stories.

Campbell’s trick is the magic of the low energy LED bulb. In a homespun version of the pixels that make up your TV screen or your monitor, the artist uses minimal means to show moving images. Motion and Rest 5 shows footage of a figure on crutches moving slowly, painfully across the room. It’s not, as you might expect, a film shown on a monitor but on a simple panel of 768 individual LEDs set against the wall.

To give some perspective, that’s about 4 million fewer than the screen I have written these words on. I was told that the whole exhibition of seven major light works runs off the same kind of energy it takes to boil my domestic kettle.


Subscribe to our daily newsletter (requires registration) and get the latest news, sport and business headlines delivered to your inbox every morning

• You can also follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Google +

The point, I think, isn’t just that less is more, but about an economy of means that takes us back to the impact of early photography, or the thrill of the magic lantern show. The struggle to capture movement, something those early technologies wrestled with, is now reconnected with the everyday struggle and achievement of human mobility.

That magic is there again in Exploded view (Commuters), a suspended cuboid of over 1,000 globe-shaped LEDs that looks a little like a compact milky way or a dense hedge of fairy lights. The shadows that pass through the tight network are images of walking commuters as they pass through a station.

But most spectacular of all is Tilted Plane: a huge black mesh box, holding 300 old-fashioned filament light bulbs, each cannibalised and holding an LED and suspended in vast diagonal sweep across the space. Stepping into the installation, where you can walk between the ranks of bulbs, feels a little like walking into the human brain, or perhaps into a cheap, homemade version of the matrix.

At first you can’t see the light for the light bulbs, but gradually you become aware of a sweeping motion around you and looking down you see the shadow of birds flying across the space.

It’s a lovely but unsettling moment, both about the joy of simple things and about the way that simple binaries: light and dark, on and off, positive and negative, need the complexity of human processing to make sense.

And it’s in this space between the stark of technology and the nuance of real life that Campbell’s work takes flight in unexpected ways.

The final piece in the exhibition is a gallery sized installation that consists of just 26 lights, each suspended at even height from the ceiling to cast a pool of circular light on the dark floor below.

The work is called Last Day in the Beginning of March and it was made in heartbreaking circumstances after the death of Campbell’s brother. You enter the gallery to a soundtrack of incessant rain and a pattern of pulsing light. On the wall small backlit text labels describe simple events or actions.

The idea behind the work is that each pulsing rhythm, its brightness and its pattern, is a kind of memory. Each light describes an invented moment, based in an attempt to honour or reconstruct this final 

It is such dangerous territory, running the risk of being both mawkish and reductive. Can the complexity of our own neuro-circuitry, the rich, terrifying nature of our lives and losses, be reduced to a simple heartbeat?

As you move around the room, read the words and stand spotlit against the darkness, the un-named man appears to you in a kind of visual poem. His eyelids open and close, he paces the room, breathes and coughs, he ploughs his way through a couple of packs of cigarettes and fights to keep anxiety and bad thoughts at bay. The light pulses follow his heartbeat and capture the cold blast of fluorescent lights outside his window.

Somehow you are beside this 
man you have never met, as he struggles and fails to keep in 

Until 25 January


• Download your free 30-day trial for our iPad, Android and Kindle apps