Generation: Douglas Gordon (Review)
Douglas Gordon – Pretty Much Every Video Work from 1992 until now
Gallery of Modern Art, Glasgow
“…he knew no other pleasure but what consisted in opposition.”
James Hogg’s 19th Century novel, The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner was described by Scottish artist Douglas Gordon as being, “more or less my bible”. The story of a pious young man’s descent into depravity and madness, possessed or manipulated by a diabolical companion, holds many of the key themes of Gordon’s work.
The novel was a strong influence on another epochal Scottish work of literature, Robert L Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Through that novel Edinburgh became associated with the duality of good and evil, and the split personality, but Glasgow – birthplace of Douglas Gordon and the site where his latest retrospective exhibition is held – presents its dualities and tensions more readily around every street corner.
Pretty much every film and video work from 1992 until now, is showing at GoMA as part of Generation: 25 years of contemporary art in Scotland. It is not the first time the work has been shown in this format, having been previously exhibited in Warsaw, Berlin, London, Tel Aviv and San Francisco. The exhibition consists of over 100 television screens screening over 80 of Gordon’s works.
Douglas Gordon was raised a Scottish Calvinist until his mother’s converted to a Jehovah’s Witness. The stark, dogmatic good versus evil perceptions of the world heralded by the religions not only fuelled Gordon’s fascination with opposites, but also have engendered an enjoyable perverse fascination with religion and the body. This connection - the sacred and the profane, the shadow and the self, ritual and synchronicity - recall much of the psychologist Carl Jung’s theories. As a child, Jung had dreamt of God defecating onto a Cathedral and its worshippers inside. It is this access to the dark, absurd nature of the subconscious in response to iconography colours much of Gordon’s earlier artworks. In fact, other tenets of Jung’s theorietical writings - the collective unconscious and archetypes - prevail in this exhibition.
Gordon’s most famous piece, 24-hour Psycho, sees the Hitchcock classic slowed down to just under 2 frames per second, to stretch out over the course of a day. The resulting deconstruction of a film, removes it from its narrative structure and reduces each gesture to one of studied importance. As Gordon has said previously, it exposes the ‘subconscious of the film’. That Psycho, as a renowned cinematic work, is used is important – it dwells within a collective cultural memory. Not only does Psycho contain many archetypes and conventions (the self, the shadow, the anima, for example), it has itself arguably become a cinematic archetype. It hardly matters if you have seen the film or not – more or less everyone knows key elements of it. This foreknowledge expands the present moment in the film and changes the way the spectator relates to it. Without narrative and time - the filmmaker’s manipulative tools - space for the viewer to interpret and analyse opens up.
According to previous interviews, Gordon actively avoided the video art class during his time at art school. The structuralist analysis learned during this time provided too much distance for him to be able to perceive films as they were intended.
Something new emerges in the images through the process of deconstruction which changes the relationship between the viewer, the object framed and the frame itself, allowing for new meanings, interpretations and associations to be made. It is not only a literal reframing of something familiar, but also a conceptual and figurative one.
Gordon’s work also experiments with traditional ideas of portraiture to produce interesting effects. The portraits can be reflexive – playing with the subject’s awareness of the presence of the spectator, and how that affects perception and behaviour. The part title of a recent retrospective at London’s Gagosian Gallery was ‘Self-portrait of you and me’, and indeed the choice of film as a medium is particular to psychological processes of projection and identification. Video works like The Left Hand doesn’t know care what the Right Hand is doing and Divided Self I + II, amongst allow Gordon’s limbs, disembodied in the frame, to be personified – they paradoxically become embodied with lives of their own.
Gordon’s love of cinema as a medium is linked to his dislike of the direct transmission of information to the viewer. He prefers the filter of a third hand process, as with the projection of light through celluloid onto a screen. This important element is incorporated this into much of his video work through the use of reflection, repetition and presentation within the space.
Reflection as a device is central to the works – the use of mirroring allows for identification and projection of an ideal and a shadow self. To step beyond the looking glass is to enter a darker world. The stranger that looks back at us is at once familiar and uncanny. The two differing, slightly asymmetrical perspectives that are offered to us in a reflection are played with repeatedly in much of Gordon’s work.
This perspective shift is evident in his other portraits of performers and animals. Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait is absent here, but other works echo this – taking a figure, and bodily movements out of a context and presenting them differently, for example Feature Film and k364. Thus the usually contextualised existence of these individuals receives a new perspective and alters the way the subjects are observed.
The exhibition expands this principle into a sculptural portrait of the inside of Douglas’ head, his fascinations and influences, and invites the formation of new associations through this presentation of the works, allowing them to blend, connect and clash together – fragments of personal and collective memory.
What emerges strongly in these collected works is the simplicity, effectiveness and particular aesthetic of Gordon’s earlier works. The use of media such as older films, and in particular archive footage of medical experiments in works such as 10MS -1, lends an authenticity and anti-aesthetic quality which seems much more in keeping with his approach than the glossier, digital later works. While these may be more reflective of our current times, what is lost is the exposing of the murky subconscious and the tension between the self and the shadow – two mutually existent states within us all. What is missing is the darkness – the Sinister to Dexter, the Hyde to Jekyll.
Catch the exhibition at the GoMA between the 27th of June to 28th September
Monday to Thursday:
10am - 5pm (8pm Thursday)
Friday to Sunday:
11am - 5pm
To find out more visit: generationartscotland.org
Review by Steve Williams