Conversations with the Collection | Staff Insights on Douglas Gordon

Being so close to the artworks every day, our Security and Visitor Services team have a unique relationship with our collection. Colleagues from this team have written creative responses to an artwork or artist of their choosing from this display. These personal pieces aim to open up different ways of seeing our collection. This blog was written by Eileen on Scottish artist Douglas Gordon.

Douglas Gordon: Challenging attitudes and perceptions through playfulness

Douglas Gordon is essentially a very playful artist whilst dealing with serious subject matter in his work. For example, in List of Names (Random) (1990 – ongoing) situated in the stairwell of the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art (Modern One), Edinburgh, Scotland, he plays with perceptions of life and death. The piece takes the form of a randomly generated list of the names of everyone the artist can remember meeting. Although many of the people featured are still alive, it could be regarded as a memorial.

Similarly, in Monster Reborn (1996/2002), Gordon plays with and questions ideas of beauty and ‘normality’, good and evil. By placing tape over his face to distort his features he situates this ‘Frankenstein’s monster’ next to an unadulterated self-portrait. He therefore juxtaposes these two images if not to shock, then at least to challenge his viewer.

Douglas Gordon Monster 1996/7 © Studio lost but found / Douglas Gordon. VG-Bildkunst, Bonn and DACS, London 2023. Reproduced courtesy of the artist.
Douglas Gordon Monster Reborn 1996/2002 © Studio lost but found / Douglas Gordon. VG-Bildkunst, Berlin and DACS, London 2023 and Philippe Parreno

The double self-portrait in Monster Reborn depicts the same pair of images used by the artist in an earlier work, titled Monster (1996/97). The pieces are mirror images of each other with the positioning of the ‘clean’ and distorted figures reversed. They thereby pose the question of which face represents the ‘monster’ – is it the unconventional, ‘unbeautiful’ face, or the transformed figure next to it, who could be in a police mugshot photograph? A true representation versus an alter ego, much like the literary characters Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. But which one is which? The viewer’s notions of good and evil are thus brought into question as they examine their own attitudes to being confronted with a monster (whichever one they believe to be so).

Viewers are also encouraged to consider what they believe to be normal and/or beautiful. The work’s very title, Monster Reborn, suggests a subversion of perceptions as to what constitutes a monster in a society in which many people have a morbid curiosity about crime. This is what Gordon plays with in both Monster and Monster Reborn, along with the idea that ‘normality’ is not monstrous in the minds of most viewers. He also explores the idea that people tend to be afraid of what is not ‘normal’ and judge by appearances. Gordon is playing with perceptions and the stereotypes of good and evil. Mirroring and the dichotomies of human existence are major, recurring themes in his work.

Similar themes are explored in other works by Gordon including Self-Portrait as Kurt Cobain, as Andy Warhol, as Myra Hindley, as Marilyn Monroe (1996). In this piece Gordon poses in a cheap, ill-fitting blonde wig which could represent any of the individuals listed in its title. All of these figures existed outside ‘normal’ society and Gordon employs incredibly dark humour to challenge us to examine our attitudes to murder and suicide, not usual subjects for light-heartedness.

Douglas Gordon does not shy away from tackling big themes in his works: abnormality/normality, good/evil, life/death, but his approach is essentially playful as he asks serious questions of his viewers.

By Eileen Taylor, 18 November 2022