Douglas Gordon is a Scottish artist who creates work that questions the complexities of memory and perception. Gordon works across a wide range of media including film, photography, text, and audio. Born in Glasgow in 1966, Gordon studied at Glasgow School of Art from 1984 to 1988 and continued his studies at Slade School of Art in London, graduating in 1990. He currently works and lives between Glasgow, Berlin and New York.
According to Gordon the purpose of art is to initiate conversation. As a graduate of Sculpture and Environmental Art at Glasgow School of Art, Gordon and his peers were encouraged to make art for places outside the traditional gallery setting, and to think of context as being 50 per cent of the work. Led by writer and lecturer David Harding, the course allowed a freedom from traditional artistic mediums such as painting and sculpture. As Gordon saw it, ‘It was as if a bunch of kids had been given an empty house for four years – we had to define ourselves’ (Laura Barnett, ‘Portrait of the Artist: Douglas Gordon’ the Guardian, 17 May 2010 ) After graduating Gordon left Glasgow to undertake a two-year postgraduate course at Slade School of Art in London. During this time he developed a particular interest in cinema and film. This would become a key aspect of his work.
In the years following art school Gordon became involved with the artist-led gallery Transmission in Glasgow. This is an experimental space where the programme involves both emerging local artists and more established international artists. Gordon said ‘Transmission was super important. It was where I learnt about situationism, when I realised that performance art was a valid and important part of what was possible as a young artist’ (Laura Barnett, ‘Portrait of the Artist: Douglas Gordon’ the Guardian, 17 May 2010).
Gordon has had solo exhibitions at Gagosian Gallery, Geneva (2016), Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, Melbourne (2014), Tate Britain, London (2010), Museum of Modern Art, New York (2006) and the National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh (2006) among others. He has received prestigious prizes including the Turner Prize (1996), the Hugo Boss Prize (1998) and Commander of the French Order of Arts and Letters (2012/2017).
Gordon had his first solo exhibition in 1993 at Tramway,, a contemporary gallery in Glasgow. Thinking of how to fill the huge gallery space, the artist worked for two years to develop one of his most significant works, 24 Hour Psycho 1993. For this work Gordon slowed down Alfred Hitchcock’s seminal movie ‘Psycho’ 1960, stretching the original 110 minutes to 24 hours. The film was displayed on a large screen, suspended in the middle of the darkened space. People could walk around the screen which played the film moving forward on one side, and backwards on the reverse.
By slowing down the speed and disrupting the momentum, the narrative of ‘Psycho’ becomes less clear. The film plays at two frames per second, and feels so deliberate and slow that we forget what will happen next even if we have seen the film before. In this early work Gordon became interested in the idea of mirroring. By displaying the work on the two sides of the screen the viewer is confronted with two versions of the film: one side works towards the famous murder scene and the other works away from it. The viewer is left with a compulsion to figure out which is the ‘right’ side and which is the ‘wrong’ side.
In 2002, Gordon displayed 24 Hour Psycho at the Hayward Gallery London, and included a vast mirrored wall on one side of the gallery. The mirror enabled the viewer to see the work from the other side of the screen, while allowing them to watch other visitors looking at the work. By adding a physical mirror to the installation the artist doubled up on the voyeurism of the film itself.
Gordon has used mirrors in various other film works including Through a Looking Glass 1999 which takes Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver 1976 as its starting point. The notorious ‘you talkin’ to me?’ monologue by the film’s protagonist Travis Bickle (played by Robert De Niro) is displayed on two screens which are positioned together at an angle. One screen flips the images from left to right, mirroring the original clip which is played alongside it. As the 71 second section progresses, the projections lose their synchronisation which echoes the emotional breakdown of the character. With the protagonist talking to himself in a mirror and the screens mirroring each other, Gordon takes a layered approach to this method of doubling. As curator Keith Hartley notes, ‘He is fascinated by the idea of truth and is a seeker after truth, but central to that search is the belief that truth is ultimately unattainable. One truth always contains its opposite. One image always has its mirror image’ (Hartley 2006, p.41).
The use of mirrors and the mirroring technique extends beyond the artist's film works and into other mediums. In 2014 Gordon added 180 mirrors to the gallery walls at the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art alongside 180 photographic works which hung in the space. This created a labyrinth of reflections upon reflections of his work, the visitor, and the gallery space.
Tattooed bodies occur throughout Gordon’s work: the photographed bodies of other people or the artist himself. Tattoo (for reflection) 1997 shows the back of writer Oscar van den Boogaard with ‘GUILTY’ tattooed near his upper left shoulder. Standing with his back to a mirror, his body is reflected back. Looking at the reflection in the mirror we notice that the word is spelled correctly, meaning that the tattooed word is spelled backwards on the man’s body. Dr Katrina Brown notes that this apparently simple work conjures up complex questions, 'the alienation and tension between self and other is powerfully felt - the reflected self almost seemingly the more true as the lettering is ‘correct’ in this version' (Brown 2004, p.82).
The world Gordon creates through his art is full of opposites; good and bad, light and dark, positive and negative. This fascination with opposites has been attributed, in part, to Gordon’s native Scotland. The birthplace of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, a critical tale of opposites that exist in the human character, Scotland has a literary history of examining the tension between light and dark. Gregory Smith, critic and literary historian, coined the term ‘Caledonian antisyzygy’ in Scottish literature and psyche which means a tendency and desire to combine opposites; a theme which is prevalent in Gordon’s work.
Never Never 2000 is a series of four photographs of the artist’s arm which features a tattoo that says ‘forever.’ The inside of his forearm is tattooed with the word in black, while his other forearm has the same word tattooed in white. The images are displayed alongside their opposite counterpoint; ‘forever’ in white appears backwards displayed beside the image of ‘forever’ in black which reads correctly. The second pair of images shows the same but in reverse. This work appears quite simple visually, but is actually quite complex. What is the true version of the tattoos? Which images are right and which are wrong? By displaying the opposites alongside one other the artist recalls the oppositional tensions that exist in the body both internally and externally; our bodies are symmetrical but our arms and limbs are actually the opposite of each other. Forever is a common word used in tattoos and is normally related to a loved one. Although the ink is indeed forever, Gordon’s use and manipulation of this word creates a sense that it is not fixed, but that it is in flux. This word adds to the layers of opposites present in this work; ‘this simple word can be interpreted as positive or negative, comforting or threatening.’ (Brown 2004, p.103).
Throughout his film-based work Gordon is intrigued by narratives that explore polarising themes, particularly of good and evil, light and dark. Often using established, iconic films, the artist has created installations which highlight oppositional themes in movies to make us think about polar opposites in a new way. Between Darkness and Light (After William Blake) 1997 consists of a translucent screen with two different movies projected onto opposite sides of the screen at the same time. The films used are The Exorcist 1973 and The Song of Bernadette 1943. Both films centre round an adolescent girl driven by external, spiritual forces. In The Exorcist the protagonist is possessed by the devil, while The Song of Bernadette depicts a young woman turning to God. The films are played concurrently at their actual speeds and with their original soundtracks. This simultaneous presentation of evil emerging on one hand and good coming through on the other creates a strong push and pull of opposites with neither seeming to win out, but rather remaining in a perpetual state of conflict and moments of compromise. Even the technical aspects of the films present opposites; one is in colour and the other is in black and white. Although clashing and oppositional, the installation makes for eerie, and at times beautiful, watching.
Memory and perception
Memory is a central idea in Gordon’s work and is evident very early in his career. One of the artist’s earliest memories is lying in bed with his parents watching ‘Psycho’. When making 24 Hour Psycho 1993 Gordon was drawn in by the idea of how memories, and our perceived memories, are malleable. You might have seen ‘Psycho’ many times but when it is slowed down to two frames per second, your memory of the narrative and the scenes shift and suddenly you can’t recall where the film is going. Gordon creates this tension between memory and the altered version of reality he presents.
List of Names 1990 (ongoing) is a feat of memory. Gordon has written a list of everyone he remembers ever meeting which is then displayed on a gallery wall. The list of names began in 1990 and is an ongoing work. It is on permanent display in the stairway of the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art. On first impression the list reads like an index of donors which are often displayed in galleries, but as you take in the expanse of the work it becomes apparent that this list, not displayed in any particular order, is something else altogether. Gordon sees this as a conceptual work with the idea taking precedent; a simple idea which curator Michael Darling says Gordon makes ‘unbearable’ (cited in Ferguson 2001, p.73). The list is full of mistakes and forgotten names, but this adds to its accuracy and honesty. It is a direct and simple exercise in memory which is manifested into a large scale work.
Memory exists in Gordon’s work as something that is ‘always moving backwards and forwards, playing out sequences of repetition and desire that promise wholeness even as they flirt with fragmentation and death’ (Fergusson 2001, p.15). This notion of repetition and the unattainable promise of ‘wholeness’ exist in Feature Film 1999, the first full-length feature film made by Gordon. Although it takes the original score from Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘Vertigo’ 1958, it is one of the first works for which the artist conceived his own visuals rather than appropriating existing film. The artist hired James Conlon, director general of music for the City of Cologne and principal conductor of the Opera National de Paris, to perform Bernard Herrmann’s score for ‘Vertigo’ with a 98-strong ensemble of the Paris Opera. The performance was filmed on three cameras which focus solely on Conlon, not taking in the orchestra. The film was cut to the original 122 minutes and 55 seconds of the film ‘Vertigo’ and was displayed in a large dark room with two floor to ceiling projections which mirror each other. The conductor is captured through gestures and details; a full view of him is never presented, instead we see close-ups of his hands, face, and eyes.
'I wanted to strike a line between pure documentary and pure narrative...since you never see the orchestra, and Conlon is not dressed formally and has no baton, there is the possibility that there is no orchestra and no conductor. Anyone who knows the music world will recognise Conlon, but most people won’t get it. They’ll just see a great screen presence’ (Gordon, quoted in Hartley 2006, p.78).
An intriguing aspect of Feature Film is that although it is a departure from using visuals from famous feature films, by using the recognisable score of Hitchcock’s ‘Vertigo’ the audience project their own memories of the film onto the work. The artist noted that viewers have said that they saw slippages of the original film on the screen which is not the case, but illustrates how the power of one sense, in this case aural, can cause the viewer to recall and project memories. In Gordon’s work the line between what we see, what we perceive and what is right or wrong is blurred, inverted and likely reflected back on us.
Russell Ferguson Douglas Gordon, exhibition catalogue, Museum of Contemporary Art Los Angeles 2001
Katrina Brown Douglas Gordon, Tate Publishing London, 2004
Keith Hartley (ed) Douglas Gordon: Superhumanatural, exhibition catalogue, National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh 2006