Born in Elizabeth, New Jersey
Resides in Clayville, New York
Daniel Buckingham’s mixed media sculpture “White Wash” consists of a sheet of corrugated steel with a modern brass chandelier affixed to its upper right corner, a metal plate with Persian letters tacked to the top just off center, and the word “sway” glowing in neon along the bottom edge. Incongruous with this assemblage of industrial objects is a taxidermized opossum perched on a log in the upper left, grinning down at the viewer.
Taxidermy is the consummate art of the uncanny; The viewer can only marvel at the animal’s lifelike quality if they also recognize it’s dead. Thus, the taxidermist’s craft holds you in a moment of contradictory revelations and arrests time’s advancement toward decay in order to conjure the creature’s past. Buckingham’s work holds the viewer in a similar space. They are enchanted by the jewel-like neon script evoking the motion of “sway” affixed to the unmoving face of steel. Or, in “Childhood Adventure,” time folds in on itself as tricycles and hobbyhorses float like embryos in a glowing bag—memory’s past gesturing toward the future of being born.
These arrangements create what political theorist Jane Bennett describes as an “aesthetic- affective openness to material vitality” or a recognition that matter is “intrinsically lively.” This is most obvious in Buckingham’s use of light, a material that takes on a life of its own as it reacts to the surfaces that surround it. More specifically he works with neon, which uses an infrastructure resembling the cell of a living organism and depends on the constant motion of molecules interacting with each other. But this “material vitality” is also found in the arrangement of objects that seem to orbit around an often unspecified center. His sculptures aren’t an arrangement of still objects as much as they are objects arrested in motion: a hobbyhorse rears up, knitting needles are caught mid-stitch, a rocking chair lifts from the ground.
Bennett explains her methodology as considering the concepts of life and matter until they become strange. She writes that in “the space created by estrangement; a vital materiality can take shape.” Buckingham creates space by estranging objects from their original context and arranging these seemingly disparate objects as if they are in their proper context. In the space he creates, the viewer is free to work through a novel structure of signification: possum to chandelier, Persian script to its translation in the nearby artist’s statement, and down to the sandbags that hold the entire contraption up. His work can feel like a sentence diagram drawn from objects but the unfolding into an understandable sentence with fixed meaning feels beyond the point.
While his material suggests the contemporary, Buckingham is tapping into ancient impulses. For “Memoryscape,” he drew inspiration from Werner Herzog’s 2013 documentary Cave of Forgotten Dreams, which takes viewers into Chauvet Cave in Southern France. Chauvet contains some of the oldest painted images discovered, including ones 32,000 years old. Archeologists have speculated that these layered images were a means of community support, a way to conjure the beasts that served as food supply. This same communal impulse is echoed in pieces like “Community Fire” and “Communion,” two works that beckon viewers into a space for social gathering. Other historians have suggested that these early artists were seeing shapes in the cave walls and simply drawing out the animals within, as if they were midwives to the creature trapped in the stone. In that view, they were pre-figuring Bennet’s vibrancy of matter, seeing living things moving through the rocks.
This material vibrancy infuses the “Memoryscape” sculptures in which objects float in embryonic light beneath a turtle shell casing. Buckingham adds neon nouns to the bottom of each piece, suggesting a signature—we are made of and by light, of and by skin. We are also made by the seemingly inanimate objects around us that, with their vibrant materiality, form the shifting and ever changing realm of memory.
Elizabeth Hoover is a poet and essayist based in Milwaukee. Her poetry has appeared in Prairie Schooner, Epoch, and The Crab Orchard Review and her art writing and cultural criticism has appeared in Paper, the Washington Post, and the Boston Review. You can see more of her work at www.ehooverink.com.