All museums confront their visitors with the basic question: 'who am I?' By reacting to objects or to works of art, we learn about ourselves, what moves us, what interests us. This is especially true in a portrait gallery where images and their narratives, from the past or the present, prompt us to reflect on issues of identity and invite us to think about our own position in the wider world. As Douglas Gordon’s self-portrait suggests, there may not be simple answers to the questions we might pose about ourselves. In a challenging way, he shows himself wearing an ill-fitting, floppy blonde wig and associates this portrait with a range of iconic images of heroes and villains. It is an ambiguous homage to bleached hair; natural, tinted with peroxide or, in the case of Warhol, also bewigged.
Not all of us would feel comfortable with the artist’s choice of adopted personalities but we can surely all relate to the idea of layered or complex identities. As we prepare for the reopening of the Portrait Gallery, it seems clear that there has never been a greater need for an institution in Scotland that can offer layered narratives and critical perspectives on our history and identity. It is part of the role for the new Portrait Gallery to demonstrate the fluidity of boundaries, the unreliability of icons and the danger of labels. There is no single, simple story about what it means to be Scottish, to be British, to be European in a modern global society, but we can help the public to plot their own complex relationship to their world. In that sense, this witty and provocative image by Douglas Gordon could almost stand as a manifesto for the new Scottish National Portrait Gallery.