• Superhumanatural: Douglas Gordon
  • Feature Film (1999), Douglas Gordon

  • Superhumanatural: Douglas Gordon
  • 24 Hour Psycho (1993), Douglas Gordon

Interview with the vampire

Douglas Gordon is no longer a human. The Glasgow born, New York residing artist is now a vampire feeding from the memory of artists, actors, composers, soccer players, and filmmakers: Andy Warhol and his powder puff glamour-wig portraits; Marcel Duchamp and the prints of his female alter ego Rrose Selavy: from the memory of Robert de Niro’s iconic sequence in Paul Schrader’s Taxi Driver as Travis Bickle threatens himself in a mirror announcing the indication of progression towards explosively violent conclusions; from Alfred Hitchcock in Psycho and Vertigo, the twin peaks of degradation and salvation in popular 50s and 60s cinema; from Hollywood portraits of stars like Marlene Dietrich, Bette Davis, Marlon Brando et al but in Gordon’s installation of superstardom 100 Blind Stars (2002) their eyes are obliterated and the prints are burned in a challenge to desire itself; or from the memory of the American filmmaker William Friedkin as he directs Max von Sydow and Jason Miller as they battle for the soul of Linda Blair from the command of Mercedes McCambridge’s Satan in The Exorcist (1973). Gordon even feeds from the memory of an elephant, in the elegantly considered, beautifully shot three-screen installation Play Dead; Real Time (2003), where we witness the elephant acting out its circus-trained trick of playing dead. A smaller monitor at the side of the gallery shows a detail of the animal’s eye, while gigantic screens show it revolving gradually to the floor, collapsing in slow, meticulous movements and achieving its fictionalized “death”. Here Gordon feeds on its fabled memory: that an elephant never forgets. Neither does Gordon, he appears to remember everything.

Gordon’s memory puncture and consumption is seen on an assembly of monitors in the gallery showing rock concerts, Star Trek episodes, Dr Jekyll’s transformation to Mr Hyde in Confessions of a Justified Sinner (1995), horror movies, his own video archive that shows among other things Gordon listening to a Walkman, kicking a video camera around his studio, and transforming himself from normal man to hideous monster with the assistance of Cellotape, a fly in close-up twitching in looped, perpetual death throes (a tiny, insignificant death opera), striptease porno 8mm films, documentation of men with shellshock — post-traumatic stress disorder — unable to stand upright, a grainy copy of Andy Warhol’s Empire (1964), twitching red theater curtains, just waiting for the anticipated moment of entrance and entertainment (and gape and satisfaction), his own hand and arm being shaved ritualistically in preparation for something unspeakable, the same arm and hand on another monitor clad in a rubber glove, a preparation to some other kind of ritual, a suggestion of a more sadistic bodily penetration.

This video installation, almost all of Gordon’s video work seen together, works as a kind of collective statement about his work and his place in the world. It’s a mini-retrospective within a major one, more on that later. It’s Gordon at a glance and a kind of statement about how everything becomes merely television eventually, even art. This video bank is called Pretty Much Every Film and Video Work From About 1992 Until Now (2006) and tucked away in a corner; on a tiny monitor it screens Gordon best work, Fog (2002). In this wonderful work the camera circles around a solitary, motionless figure, surrounded by mist, which then dissipates. The images are seen on both sides of a translucent screen, with the projections playing out of sync, so that one becomes an echo of the other. The figure and his doppelgänger intersect, become one, and separate, endlessly. Here, this duality is expressed through the shifting views of the double protagonist, who may be seen as a surrogate for the artist. It’s disappointing that this work is not given more space, because it is a revelation, it is certainly a more engaging work than Feature Film (1999), which focuses on the hands, face and arms of a man conducting an orchestra playing Bernard Herrmann’s score for Vertigo (1958), which is screened at this show not once, but twice.

If Gordon is a vampire then he certainly never shies away from mirrors. The imposing, immense, ornate Royal Scottish Academy building in Edinburgh that houses the majority of this retrospective is clad in mirrors. They are installed everywhere, allowing glimpses of work between the extensive number of galleries that are presenting Gordon’s videos and installations. Its purpose-built gallery spaces are expansive, high, gorgeous, ancient and Gordon’s work fills them all. The experience is a mesh of disorientating flickers and shadows, while cinematic sounds, voices and soundtracks modulate and reverberate in constant murmurs, crescendos and silences. The walls of the galleries are resolutely black. It’s a veneer of the charnel house, punctuated with mirrors, reflecting back the work, the memories, the audience, and all the while reminding of you of where you are and what you will become. In Gordon’s world he suggests mirrors are death.  We even see a mirror as 24 Hour Psycho (1993) plays out on its screen. The frame per second version of Hitchcock’s masterpiece is currently showing Janet Leigh/Marion Crane standing in front of a mirror in a restroom as she draws cash from her plunder to buy a new automobile. We already know she’s dead, character and actor, the mirror represents our knowledge of the character Marion’s impending murder and of the late Janet Leigh’s passing and absence: we see Leigh/Crane leave the restroom to meet her fate, as she leaves we see the mirror reflect back nothing but the empty room. Longevity and absence play out in tandem here. It’s what Gordon seeks in slowing the work down to its 24-hour duration and what he fears most—the fundamental inevitability of death.

Gordon’s undead status is assured: this is a major retrospective in his homeland following from a catalog of successes an artist who had sold his soul to the devil would envy. This year alone he has had a major show at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, the presentation of his and French artist Phillippe Parreno’s feature film Zidane: A 21st Centrury Portrait (2005) at the Cannes Film Festival with international mainstream distribution and its subsequent representation in a gallery format (to be seen later during this show) and the publication of a major book Timeline. This is in addition to a resume that includes the retrospective What Have I Done? (2003) at London’s Hayward Gallery at the South Bank Centre, representation at the British Art Show  (1995), nomination for and winning Britain’s most coveted art award The Turner Prize (1996) at the Tate in London, the Premio 2000 at the Venice Biennale and the Hugo Boss prize. In 2005 he put together an exhibition at the Deutsche Guggenheim Berlin called The Vanity of Allegory, elsewhere his work has been presented at the highest international level, with no major gallery or museum unturned by Gordon’s vampirism.

That he returns to Scotland for a mid-career retrospective highlights his origins and questions how he has been shaped by a cultural steeped in morbid religious obsession, gothic severity, political and social engineering based on Calvinism and Presbyterianism and its associated self-hatred and self-denial, by a culture of alcoholic poets and poverty, literary Robert Burns, James Hogg and Robert Louis Stevenson-inspired attitudes and inspirations, of ghost stories of grave robbery and kidnapping, of the devil himself manifesting to the common man, of science itself turning to evil in pursuit of progress. That Gordon comes from a background of Jehovah’s Witnesses comes as no surprise. But what is under contention is the relevance of any of this: in the midst of the tensions of stories, warnings and fireside fables of witchcraft, good and evil, heaven and hell, god and the devil is the Gordon that is conspicuously international, conspicuously migrant, conspicuously free. The question is whether he can shake off his obsession with Scottish darkness, Scottish doom. But perhaps it’s too late; Gordon’s fascination with Scottish codes of split personality, identity at crisis, personality, perception and self in flux rendered at 24 frames per second is his stimulation and motivation. It may also be the thing that reduces his work to that of a moralizing, didactic zealot. And so the mirror beings to crack…

In the second half of this retrospective shown at the Inverleith House gallery, sited within the Royal Botanic Garden, Gordon presents an archive of solely text-based works. Inverleith House is a majestic townhouse centrally located in broad and rich public gardens. Its spaces are dreamy, elegant, organic with views over sensitively organized flower beds, tree-lined walkways and long lawns. The two floors that represent the gallery are filled with wall-mounted vinyl lettering, interspersed with occasionally handwritten phrases and one or two texts rendered like graffiti in sliver spray paint. And it’s a betrayal. The texts here are a retrospective of past text works taken out of their original context, some site-specific, some intimate for a single reader, some uniquely centered toward a specific space. Here they are represented in busy unison, weakening their power, confusing their sentiments, reducing their potency. Phrases, suggestions, and accusations fill the gallery walls, some spilling pointlessly onto the floor, some on the windows: We Are Evil. I Believe in Miracles. The Sun is God. I Know What You Have Done. I Remember More Than You Know. From Someone Lost To Someone Found. It’s Over. I’m Not Crying. I’m Laughing. It’s Coming. Mute. A Million Miles. Silence in the Museum. The texts cram the spaces, some are attributed to Ludwig Wittgenstein, some are the stuff of horror movie scripts. It begins to feel like Douglas Gordon wallpaper. It’s too difficult to read coherently. Some of his brilliant texts here seem like afterthoughts. The work here is Gordon’s attempt at making “a house into a book” and like all books it needs an editor. Some of Gordon’s texts vocalize the trauma surrounding the end of intimate relationships and how people approach the end of love affairs. One break-up is seen as a text work, a list of excuses and denials: “It’s not you, it’s me, I’m not ready, I love you, but I’m not in love with you” etc. We even get to hear the texts as a voiceover delivered by telephone. It’s Gordon feeding again, this time on the memory of trauma, the memory of misery, played out nonstop. Gordon even feeds on his own memory and those who surround him. His ongoing project to document everyone he remembers can be seen, permanently at the Gallery of Modern Art in Edinburgh. List of Names (1990-present) reads like a war memorial or census. These lists and lists of names fill a gigantic wall like a document of a life in progress. It’s been in progress since its debut in 1990 at the show Self Conscious State at Third Eye Center, Glasgow and has shown progressively internationally ever since. I wish this had been re-installed at Inverleith House in isolation. It would have been a magical, commanding, astonishing remembrance of Gordon’s victims.

Superhumanatural, the title of this retrospective, perfectly suggests where Gordon is as an artist; the transgressions of the human, the human identity as represented in nature and artifice, the supernatural and scientific in unanimity, the transcending and manipulation of perception and time permitted by cinema, film, and video, the fragility of the individual against state, church, economy, religion, morality, the never-ending battle for the soul between good and evil. It perfectly reflects his newfound condition as vampire of memory, culture, personality and perception. The title, the work, the experience, the glamour, the Hollywood of it all made me reconsider him to be a modern day Dracula. A role that Bela Lugosi claimed he would never be allowed to shake off. Ultimately I adored this show; nevertheless it made me want to seek out the break of day, the morning sunshine.

Superhumanatural: Douglas Gordon
National Galleries of Scotland, Royal Botanic Garden, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh, Scotland
2 November 2006 — 14 January 2007


— Alex Hetherington is an artist and writer living in Glasgow.