Nick Barley wrestles with the challenge of writing an introduction to the work of Douglas Gordon, this country's most successful artistic export, who gets his first retrospective in Scotland this month.
I'm sitting in front of a blank screen, worrying about writing a piece on Douglas Gordon. I'm clear what I want to say: I hope to persuade sceptics and wavering readers that Gordon is one of the most interesting artists working anywhere in the world. And I want to celebrate the fact that he's finally being cknowledged in Scotland with a big retrospective, so ambitious it spills out of the RSA Building in central Edinburgh, all the way down to Inverleith House. But I'm concerned that I might get the tone of this all wrong. The thing is, Gordon's work plays on ambiguities, on threats, on opposites. So, if you begin as I just have with an easy superlative 'Douglas is the best …' - you immediately feel the need to counter it with the opposite - 'He's the worst artist working anywhere in the world today.'
What makes it harder is the fact that Gordon and his collaborator Philippe Parreno have been all over the press this summer thanks to their film, Zidane: a 21st Century Portrait. Gordon has achieved a new notoriety outside the art world, but there has been comparatively little discussion about the artistic output of the man who won the Turner Prize in 1996 and the Hugo Boss Prize in 1998.
Read as much as you like about Gordon, you won't feel you've got the whole story, despite the fact that the publications devoted to his work have seen off several rainforests' worth of trees. Each of his books avoids telling the whole truth about him (with the notable exception of Katrina Brown's excellent DG, published by Tate Publishing). As editor of The List, my temptation was initially to go along with the 'economical with the truth' approach. Maybe I should just publish the works of fiction that appear on the following pages. But then I realised we'd be preaching to the converted, and if you've already decided what you think of Gordon's work, you're unlikely to be reading this article anyway. So I'm setting out to explain why he's really as good as large sections of the art world think he is.
DECLARING AN INTEREST
Why should you believe what I have to say about Gordon? I'm the wrong person to give a balanced view because I know the man. So you can easily discount this as a jumped up piece of hype, peddling the work of a mucker whose reputation is all based on having friends in the right places. But, if you'll set those reservations aside, let me try to explain what I think he's up to.
I met Douglas back in the mid-1990s when I lived in London and he was the most visible of a group of artists from Glasgow who were setting the art world chattering. This is not hype. He was making art that didn't come packaged together with the laddish culture of the YBAs in London, and which was both sharply intelligent and accessible. The first of Gordon's works that really had an impact on me consisted of a simple sentence:
From the moment you hear these words, until you kiss someone with blue eyes.
It was part of a work he had made for the curator Hans-Ulrich Obrist, and Gordon's stipulation was that Obrist should make internal calls to colleagues within a Parisian art museum, and speak these words down the phone without any further explanation. I imagined I'd feel a bit threatened, a bit bemused by this ambiguous statement. But I also realised that this piece of art makes manifest the dialogue between artist and 'viewer': if art works, it sets up a proposition, an idea, which lodges inside your head and changes the way you think about the world.
That piece illustrates one of the best aspects of Douglas' work: his understanding of the relationship between subject and object - between 'me' and 'you'. Fast forward to 2002, when my wife, Fiona Bradley, was organising a mid-career retrospective for Gordon at the Hayward Gallery in London. The exhibition was only a few weeks away and plenty of things still needed to be finalised: Fiona was stressed and unsure whether Douglas was receiving her messages. Then one morning, out of the blue, she received two beautifully typed letters in the post. They were part of an ongoing project in which he sends identical letters to a number of people, but they seemed particularly pertinent:
Dear Fiona, I'm closer than you think. Yours, Douglas Gordon
Dear Fiona, You're closer than you know. Yours, Douglas Gordon
Typical Gordon: both intimate and distant; brutally honest and wilfully ambiguous; and utterly manipulative.
Gordon's work is about much more than just pretty phrases. It almost always deals with dualities such as light and dark; life and death; good and evil. The title of his forthcoming Edinburgh show, Superhumanatural, plays with this, eliding both the distinct ideas of 'superhuman' and 'supernatural', and also the opposites of 'human' and 'natural'. He often works with ideas which encourage the swapping over of opposites, so that, for example, when he uses mirrors in his work, left becomes right and right becomes wrong.
Gordon took part in an exhibition in Munster in 1997 (which contributed greatly to his international reputation) with a piece called 'Between Darkness and Light', in which he projected The Exorcist on one side of a translucent screen and The Song of Bernadette on the other. Both movies essentially tell the same story, but in violently opposing ways, and seeing their stories unfold on the same screen gave both movies an added air of the sinister, as the viewers were forced to create some kind of narrative middle path: a story all their own.
And then there's the tattoo that Douglas had on his arm. It says, simply, 'Trust me'. Why exactly would someone choose a tattoo saying that?
Most of all, Gordon's fascination with dualities seems to hook into his interest in the fabled Scottish psyche, made famous by Jekyll and Hyde, and James Hogg's Confessions of a Justified Sinner. Just look at his self-portraits, such as 'Monster', in which he transforms his pretty young face using sellotape, or the recent gender-bending photographs, 'Staying Home, Going Out'.
Two of my favourite works by Douglas Gordon are partly about death. Once, as a kid in Glasgow, his mother told him that police were confiscating certain metal handled combs, because their handles were three inches long, and sharp enough to be used as a weapon to pierce a victim's heart. Gordon turned this memory into an art project by persuading a man to have his forefinger tattooed all over, as if he'd dipped it in three inches of black ink. It's just enough to show what it would take to touch someone's heart. Read that as literally or as metaphorically as you like.
There's another piece which, I think, brings together all of Douglas' ideas, his skilful manipulation of the viewer, and his interest in the duality of life and death. It's a wall text called '30 Second Text' and it reports the true story of an experiment in which a doctor attempted to communicate with the decapitated head of a man immediately after his execution by guillotine. It is morbid, fascinating, and if you time it right, the simple dénouement transports you all the way to the guillotine.
To paraphrase the classic football chant, Douglas Gordon till I die.
RSA Buildings, Edinburgh, from Wed 1 Nov
Confessions of Douglas Gordon
A number of works of fiction have been written to coincide with Gordon's exhibitions. We reproduce extracts from short stories by two leading authors.
Instead of an introductory essay in the catalogue to accompany Douglas Gordon's show in Edinburgh this winter, Ian Rankin has written a short story, entitled Sinner: Justified. Here, we reproduce an extract.
Gordon lived in Dean Village, next to the Water of Leith. His walks along the river had always seemed enchanted, the city hovering somewhere above him. But by nightfall it had become a place of shadows and assignations, and he would no longer walk there unless accompanied by his tour-party. Edinburgh had always seemed two cities to him – New Town and Old; East End and West; Hibs and Hearts; town and gown; haves and have-nots. The thesis he was supposed to be writing had as its theme the aftershock of Culloden. But his tutor had made the mistake of mentioning 'the Caledonian antisyzygy', leading him down a side-road where he started to explore the Scottish psyche, that apparent need to be 'where extremes meet'. As a young man, the novelist Stevenson would sneak out of his stuffy middle-class home in the New Town and head for the stews on the other side of Princes Street, where he could rub shoulders with cut-throats, drunks and whores. Later, the figure of Jekyll would reflect his creator. Scratch the veneer, and the face of Hyde began to emerge.
Edinburgh: city of night. So douce and proper in daytime …
Superhumanatural is published by the National Galleries of Scotland. Ian Rankin's new Rebus novel, The Naming of the Dead, is out now.
In the catalogue for Gordon's Hayward Gallery exhibition in 2002, an anonymous story was published, entitled Ghost: The Private Confessions of Douglas Gordon. The true author was O'Hagan. Here is an extract.
I think I have been here before. The great verbs of the sea come down the Clyde in a swell of memory, and now we are together, dark and placid, travelling over the last great sounds of the night, under the bridges, over the salmon-abandoned water, the river deepened by Enlightened men, dockyards frozen, the river Clyde in the black watch of this evening tender and wordless and slow, and out there, beyond the banks and the ring roads, yellow sodium burns at the heart of loneliness.
We move up the river in an open barge, sending torchlight over the black rivulets and inspecting the currents, looking out for the dead. Even at this hour smoke billows from the Polmadie furnace - there is always work to be done in a city of work and be done - but otherwise the Clyde is a universe of half-forgotten experience: the ghosts of former happiness crowd in their holiday guise at the Broomielaw, waiting for steamers long departed; leaving Central Station, trains scrape and squeal over the bridge with empty carriages and no drivers; and there, past Govan, past Ibrox, sirens blare over the empty yards, and all together forty thousand sharp intakes of breath pass over the vacant football field, a pure mental roar, a memory of life blown over the houses and settling now over the dark Clyde water that carries us forward to all the truth and rewards of time.
'In the middle of life, we're in death,' said the man. The dog sniffed at the edges of the barge and poked its snout in the river. The man's bald head glistened under the moon and the city slept at his back.
'I see,' I said, 'we are floating here on quotation. Is this all the art we can muster tonight? Are you taking me to a bad place?'
'No,' he said, 'there are no bad places in the world, only the bad places in men's hearts.'
'And who are you?'
'I'm the sayer of new things.'
'Not likely. We are on a metaphorical river. We are bound by the already-said, are we not? Is this a bloody game? Are any of these words our own?'
'Douglas,' he said. 'This is not a metaphorical river. This is the river Clyde.'
* * *
The barge passed under the Erskine Bridge and blue light could be seen glowering from the tops of the towerblocks. The man rolled a cigarette and when he licked the paper his tongue was red and his teeth crooked. He puffed the cigarette and put a cold hand on my shoulder. 'You have done well,' he said, 'but I fear now for the protection of your criminal mentality. You have operated with cunning since this river ran to a small port – you remember your first appearance? You brought St Mungo's chapel to the ground.'
'I don't remember anything.'
'You may not. You have been ill-apparent, even to yourself.'
'Where are my friends?'
'You have no friends. Illusion is your friend.'
The man lifted his heavy-seeming arm and pointed out towards the bank of the river; his finger was long and the nail black. The dog leaned over the edge of the barge and barked at the shore. 'You see,' said the man, 'you see you are being watched from the bank.'
I saw him immediately. Jimbo Park. Fucken no. I felt none of my former affection for the young man on the bank with his camera raised: in the moonlight his dark hair had all the lustre of life about it, he bared his white teeth with concentration. I looked into the bald man's dreadful eyes. 'He has been following me all my life,' I said.
'No,' said the man.
'It is the truth,' I said, and I believed it was so. 'He was always around me when I was a child.'
'But you were never a child.'
'I was a child like him,' I said, and I felt all the exasperation of the hour as I looked at the bald man.
'No, Jimbo,' he said.
The Clyde's frozen depths seemed to rise in that instant and embrace me. 'My name is Douglas Gordon,' I said.
'Do not mourn overmuch,' said the man. 'you are fucken dead and I am content to bring you into the dark with me.'
I looked at the city and saw it then as a glimmering phantasm - all I had known about it melted into the night and only the water under the barge seemed dependable and willing as we moved. 'I had a life,' I said.
'A life of sorts,' he said, 'and we have encouraged you in this game of love and chance. But you are dead, Jimbo Park.'
'He is Jimbo Park,' I said, reaching for breath. 'He is Jimbo, and he has followed me in my life, and he has filmed me.'
'It is not so,' the man said, 'the young man on the bank is called Douglas Gordon.'
* * *
I stared at my hand and could feel the chill of the moon and the airless moment. A notion of my soul's salvation screamed out to the dark of the river – there was silence. I shouted out his name, my name, and the dog's dead eyes stared at the water. 'Jimbo!', I shouted; 'Douglas!', I shouted; but nothing changed, the river's oil stirred black and remorseless as the boat moved on. I recalled the faces of people in buildings screaming for life and falling, falling, falling. My own voice met the image of itself in the blind terror of a nightmare; I opened my mouth to scream, and saw no reflection in the river.
There was silence.
I jumped into the Clyde and felt the slime of ages - dead salmon, ship fuel, the vomit of suicides, rusted chains and rotting hulls, asbestos flakes - slip over my arms and the very last light of Glasgow seemed to pass like diamond dust through the infernal gloom of the old river …
Be Near Me by Andrew O'Hagan is out now.
Glasgow's transcendental rock outfit Mogwai provided the mesmeric soundtrack to Douglas Gordon's film Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait. The band's Stuart Braithwaite explains their take on the collaboration.
'I knew Douglas before; he was actually supposed to design the cover of our Rock Action album, but as is the case with these things, it never happened. He basically ran past us what they had done with the Zidane film and it just sounded bizarre. To be totally honest, I didn't get it until we watched it. They had actually used some of our music in it and we were all really blown away. It just seemed like such an extreme project, such an over the top idea that we totally bought right into it. Straight away, we wanted to do it.
'We just squeezed it in amongst all the touring. I'm actually kind of astonished by how well it turned out, especially along with the film. I was really pleased that they showed it at the Edinburgh Film Festival.
'I think a lot of what both Douglas does and what we're trying to do in Mogwai are quite similar. I think our music has a really detached feeling to it and that, to me, is the theme of the film. It really is about how someone can appear so lonely when there's like 100,000 people watching them do something they're amazing at. I think our music has an element of that to it as well.
'There wasn't really any kind of dialogue or brief from Douglas, he just let us get on with it. The only real discussion was when he still wanted to use some of the old music and we didn't. People always disagree when they're working together, but Douglas came around in the end. I think they did a really great job.
'There was a different process (compared to recording our other albums) because we had to do it a lot quicker. A lot more of it was played live and we didn't have an awful lot of time to refine and rework what we'd written. When it's an actual record on its own then that's what it is. As a soundtrack is a kind of accompaniment to something as opposed to standing alone, we deliberately left a lot more of the music in than we would normally have in our songs.
'I definitely think the Zidane project is an amazingly accomplished thing for both him and us.'
Douglas Gordon in a nutshell
- 1966 Born in Glasgow
- 1984-88 Glasgow School of Art
- 1988-90 Slade School of Art, London
- 1993 24 Hour Psycho, one of Gordon's best-known works, made for Tramway.
- 1994 First solo show in London, at Lisson Gallery
- 1996 Wins Turner Prize at Tate, London
- 1997 Awarded Premio 2000 at the Venice Biennale
Work included in Munster Sculpture Projects, showing in an underpass which had famously been used once before for an art project by Joseph Beuys
- 1998 Wins Hugo Boss Prize at Guggenheim, New York
- 2000 Shows in a double-header alongside paintings by JMW Turner at Tate Liverpool
Makes first major film, Feature Film, in which he films the hands of conductor James Conlon, conducting the soundtrack to Hitchcock's Vertigo
- 2001 Major retrospective at Geffen Contemporary, Los Angeles, which tours to Vancouver, Mexico City and Washington
- 2002 Major retrospective at Hayward Gallery, London
- 2006 Major retrospective at MoMA New York
Major retrospective in Barcelona
Feature film, Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait shown to widespread acclaim in Cannes. The film is distributed widely in cinemas across Britain, by Paramount Major retrospective in Edinburgh.
Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait is out now on PIAS. See next issue for our review.