The dark arts
Rosie Lesso looks through the screen into the dark and troubled mind of Douglas Gordon, and finds his art to be Superhumanatural.
Just days before Halloween, the exterior lights of the Royal Scottish Academy were switched from white to red, casting a warning beacon to the city that something dramatic and uneasy was afoot. Five huge black posters were unfurled over the façade, bearing iridescent white eyes and the monstrous title Superhumanatural below them in large red letters the name: ‘Douglas Gordon’. Yes, the much awaited retrospective of Scottish artist and former Turner prize winner Douglas Gordon has arrived, bringing with it a host of spooky visuals and mind games. The RSA hosts the bulk of the work, with the Royal Botanical Gardens providing additional tasters throughout three of their buildings.
On entering the RSA we are faced with two huge piles of TV monitors collectively titled, ‘Every Film and Video Work from About 1992 Until Now to be Seen on Monitors, Some with Headphones, Others Run Silently and All Simultaneously’, 1992-2000. The range of videos playing on the screens is exhaustive and overwhelming. In one corner a red rowing boat floats never-endingly on grey water; in another Gordon lies flat on a carpet listening to a walkman. A hand gradually colours its partner with a permanent black marker, while, elsewhere, a palm slaps the monitor as if trying to smother us. The quality of videos is variable, but taken as a whole, Gordon cunningly reveals the complex half remembered fragments which make up human memory and identity.
Bernard Herrmann’s haunting score for the Hitchcock movie Vertigo has been extracted for Gordon’s ‘Feature Film’, 1999. Here we see close ups of the conductor James Conlon’s overtly expressive hands and face, seemingly conducting an unseen orchestra, the film running simultaneously on two mirror image screens facing each other. Past memories of the music are re-contextualised, but, more appropriately, the music forms an emotive soundtrack for most of the exhibition.
‘Play Dead: Real Time’, 2003 is more accessible, and overwhelmingly visceral. Two enormous double sided screens are placed at random angles in the darkened space, each presenting a circus elephant performing tricks, including ‘playing dead’. Watching this beautiful creature heave the bulky mass of his heavy body around is absorbing, the camera pushing up close to the appealing earthiness of his crinkled skin. His context, too is provoking; the white, clinical space he wanders around and ‘plays dead’ in is incongruous with his body and creates unease, made all the more tragic as Herrmann’s music drifts by. Yet it also echoes the austerity of many modern art galleries, which Gordon seems critical of. ‘Cranach’s Tree, (provisional title)’ 2006, is similarly physical. A huge, dead tree lies on a partially broken mirror while another on the wall reflects the scene back to us. The installation is structurally based on Lucas Cranach’s pro-Christian painting, ‘Law and Grace’, 1524, which divides good and evil into two camps, though Gordon distorts the composition to dispel its simplistic religious mythology.
In Inverleith House’s ‘Pretty much every word written, spoken, heard and overheard from 1989 until now’, 2006, the walls, shutters, skirting boards and hallways are covered with randomly placed phrases resembling apologies, propositions, threats and stray thoughts. Like the RSA monitors, these are the loose wanderings of the subconscious mind. In Caledonian Hall, Gordon’s ‘Between Darkness and Light (After William Blake)’, 1997, uses simultaneous projections of Henry King’s innocent 1943 film The Song of Bernadette, and William Friedkin’s The Exorcist onto opposite sides of a translucent screen, the two films surreptitiously weaving in and out of one another, blasphemously merging good and evil and implying the two are not so very different; like Cranach’s Tree, Christian ideology is thrown into question. Despite the initial Halloween spooks, there is much greater depth here; at best, Gordon reveals his ability to combine simplicity and accessibility with complex ideas found at the root of our consciousness.
Superhumanatural - Douglas Gordon, The Royal Scottish Academy, Edinburgh and the Royal Botanical Gardens, Edinburgh until Sun 14 January