The 'wow' factor

Missiles, skulls, and race cars, plus a riveting film portrait at MIT

By Sebastian Smee
Globe Staff / May 29, 2009
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Walking into the thrill-a-minute Matthew Day Jackson show at MIT's List Visual Arts Center is like stepping into the bedroom of a brilliant, precocious - and possibly disturbed - 10-year-old boy. There are missiles, cars, skulls, and defaced posters, and you have to be careful not to step on things.

You also get the sense of someone who strongly feels the need, the need for speed. There is, for instance, a video of the artist drag racing and a replica of a famous drag racing engine, as well as footage of people falling from great heights and rockets ascending in blazes of (doomed) glory.

Jackson, who was born in 1974 in Panorama City, Calif., and lives in Brooklyn, has recently been an artist-in-residence at MIT. The List show, titled "The Immeasurable Distance," combines the fruit of his MIT researches with some earlier works.

It's impressive, even if Jackson, who works with video, painting, sculpture, and various kinds of found imagery, is an artist who seems to subscribe to the aesthetic equivalent of the six-pocket theory in pool: Hit the ball really hard, and hope that it finds its way to one of the six pockets (any one will do). Sometimes he's in luck, sometimes he isn't. But either way, it makes for an exciting spectacle.

Jackson's themes, like those of the better known Matthew Barney (the two artists have some overlapping concerns), are big. Human striving, the evolution of technology under military pressure, Faustian pacts, the Tree of Knowledge, the Tower of Babel, the Dialectic of Enlightenment, Manifest Destiny - it's all in there. And Jackson has a knack for finding pithy, and sometimes pathos-filled, ways of articulating them.

Consider "Lonesome Soldier," one of the first works in the show. It's simply a dummy of an astronaut in an old space suit pinned high up against the wall by a brute wooden plank. The space race, the work reminds us, was less a story of heroic individualism than of high-stakes technological advances, the kind that made individual human beings expendable and often went tragically wrong.

As a subject, humans in space crops up several more times in the show. In one case - a work that is more likely to excite tech geeks than aesthetes - Jackson has produced facsimiles of two documents containing computer codes developed by MIT scientists to get astronauts safely to the moon. He found the documents, each hundreds of pages long and indecipherable to lay people, in the MIT Museum.

According to a gallery brochure, these dense sequences of code contain quotes from Shakespeare, snippets of evidence of '60s counterculture, and "strange asides to the astronauts and future readers." But leafing through the pages, I found all this hard to find. Considered as artworks, the facsimiles sit there mutely on a shelf, as enigmatic and incommunicative as only literal objects, untransformed by imagination, can be.

This is a problem Jackson encounters more than once. The themes he's interested in (science, hubris, war, the urge to self-destruction) are so pungent and powerful that, like a truffle pig, he seems to feel he's done his job just unearthing significant items that evoke them. (The replica of the drag racing engine commissioned from "Big Daddy" Don Garlits, the so-called father of drag racing, is an example of this tendency.)

But if such literal-minded gestures elicit a "wow," it tends to be short-lived, and the viewer, burdened by an unfair share of the responsibility for finding meaning in the work, loses patience.

Luckily, there are plenty of good things to move on to. "Study Collection," for instance, is a stainless-steel shelf unit covering most of a wall and supporting all sorts of objects inspired by Jackson's time in the MIT basement storeroom. The work is like a sleekly modern cabinet of curiosities. It coheres thanks to the links Jackson suggests between the objects. One shelf, for instance, has a series of evolving models of nuclear bombs and missiles; it suggests a terrifying variant of those cliched evolutionary diagrams that show apes becoming humans.

There is much more to this work, as there is to the whole show, which absolutely pops with ideas and bristles with ambition. Jackson is an artist to watch closely.

So, too, is Duncan Campbell, an Irish-born, Glasgow-based artist who works in the medium of film but whose work is shown mainly in art galleries. Campbell's 37-minute film "Bernadette" is screening in the second gallery at the List, and it's riveting.

The film is a very unusual portrait of Bernadette Devlin McAliskey, an extraordinary figure in Northern Irish politics who was a founding member of the People's Democracy Party. At the age of 21, she became the youngest person ever elected to the British Parliament. Always concerned more with class injustice than with religious divides, she nevertheless became a passionate advocate on behalf of Roman Catholics in Northern Ireland - a genuine firebrand politician of astonishing self-confidence.

Campbell's film stitches together a great deal of archival footage, most of it showing McAliskey making speeches or public statements before the press. They show a gap-toothed young woman with a capacity for mixing indignation with real venom. In her statements on behalf of her constituents and against the British government, she occasionally struggles to contain a smirk of self-satisfaction - or perhaps it is nervous elation as her mind plays back what she has just said.

Campbell's editing plays up this kind of disjuncture, subtly at first. He blanks the screen for seconds at a time, maintaining only the sound; he shows abandoned outtakes from interviews, or a newscaster prerecording questions with McAliskey in absentia.

Finally, just as the sense builds that McAliskey is no longer a young woman but rather a political icon, a lightning rod for the Northern Irish Troubles, a media sensation, strange things start to happen. Campbell switches to much more intimate footage of McAliskey, some of it blurred and fragmented, and we hear a voice-over that feels only marginally connected to what we are seeing.

The words are poetic and musical, occasionally abrasive. Some of them are taken from McAliskey's autobiography; others are simply invented by Campbell himself.

There seems to be little logic to what is said, and the uncoupling of narrative and imagery suggests some kind of mental breakdown reminiscent of Ingmar Bergman's "Persona."

In fact, McAliskey did not suffer a mental breakdown, although she and her husband were shot by Ulster Freedom Fighters in 1982. So what is going on?

Rather than indicating anything that literally happened to McAliskey, Campbell seems to be using such techniques to question the limits of what can be known about historical truth through recorded footage.

More than that, though, he is using his filmmaker's license to evoke something about McAliskey in a more poetic fashion. Watching this remarkable film, which leaves so much unsaid, I had a strong sense of the divide between personal life and political conviction. I admired McAliskey's courage enormously, but I felt suspicious of every word she uttered. The only thing I trusted was that infantile, irresponsible, adorable, semi-concealed smirk.

Sebastian Smee can be reached at

MATTHEW DAY JACKSON: The Immeasurable Distance

and DUNCAN CAMPBELL: Bernadette

At: MIT List Visual Arts Center, through July 12. 617-253-4680,

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