Director of the Collection of Contemporary Art at the Pinakothek der Moderne in Munich
Holding on and slipping away: On the award of the 2008 Roswitha Haftmann prize to Douglas Gordon
Memories produce remarkable images, impressions both emotional and atmospheric. And yet they lack distinct outlines, focus, density and contour. Memories are mutable, but they are also curiously static, as if the past time in question had never featured movement or change in the first place. Memories only seem to be colourful at first; the more you concentrate, the paler their tinting becomes, until at last they fade to black and white, or vanish altogether. The harder you work at grasping a memory, the more it slips away from you, until you begin to doubt whether the image you have retrieved is at all consistent, or is not in fact a hybrid, assembled by your desire for the original moment to have been a certain way, and your retrospective awareness of the subsequent actual course of events. It is at this point that you realise, if you hadn’t noticed it before, that memories are a glance in the rearview mirror of time, and that they are partial and distorted, visual excerpts, images and projections, all manipulated – by you.
I found myself thinking about the idiosyncratic nature of memories while trying to recall the circumstances of my first meeting with Douglas Gordon, the very worthy recipient this evening of one of the most important prizes in the international art world. For despite the historical certainty of that first encounter, its details are vague, and their precise sequence seems to have become blurred during the intervening period. My memory takes me back to Frankfurt, to its Kunstverein and to the Schirn Kunsthalle, where the meeting in question took place, if memory serves me, exactly 15 years ago today. Among other things I recall Gordon’s Scottish accent, still strange to my ears at the time: the way his words hopped and skipped through his sentences as if they were dancing a jig. What I remember best, however, is one of his early works, a tall segment of blue wall, like the blue screens used in television productions, adorned with these sentence fragments:
Those I will never know –
Those I have forgotten and will never remember –
Those I would like to know –
Those I do not know –
Those I cannot know –
Those I would not like to know –
Those I have forgotten but will remember
What is he trying to say? Is he talking about words? About events? About people? I don’t think it really matters. The main thing is that the artist uses these lines to conjure up a world for us many times larger than the one we actually see, and which we believe on the whole to be complete; larger, indeed, than the world of our imaginings. He invokes all of our potential realities and holds them up for our inspection, without judging them or privileging one over another: all of the roads never taken, all of those moments of hesitation, those alternative, abandoned futures, those missed opportunities. It is the very picture of certainty in the face of uncertainty, of wishes and fears made actual, particularly those seated in the unconscious. A borderless world, a world without beginning and without end. The world as potential, as unlimited territory of the imagination; a world which might drive you to despair for sheer lack of orientation if its very vastness did not also, perhaps, promise freedom.
We might call Douglas Gordon a media artist, were it not for the fact that, on close inspection, the very versatility of his creative spectrum points up the poverty of such a designation. He is continuously venturing into a specific space, manipulating time, robbing his beholders of their accustomed point of view. He uses found footage from a range of places, mainly from the cinema but also from the realm of science, from pathology, for example; he also shoots films himself. His material, meanwhile, he makes use of quite deliberately, magnifying or reducing it in size, stretching, abbreviating, multiplying and mirroring, overlapping it or running it as a loop. More than anything, the resultant new images move us to contemplate our own frequently hackneyed ideas and actions, the traps set by our own perception. Gordon’s works pursue a series of imbricated reflections upon the image in general, and thus open up spaces for alternative action. In this pursuit, holding on and slipping away are mutually complementary principles, decisive leitmotifs not only in Douglas Gordon’s art, but equally in the lives led by each and every one of us. The signal laurels bestowed upon the artist this evening will thus surely tempt Gordon to do anything but rest, to attempt to hold fast amid the stream of eternity. Nevertheless, may this honour provide him with a brief moment of respite on a journey full of inspiration and surprises, a token of our hearty gratitude for what he has achieved thus far, and a spur to his coming discoveries.
I got out the exhibition catalogue from 1993 and read over the text Douglas Gordon had contributed to that publication. I can still remember being struck by the cheek of the young artist – he was only 27 at the time – whose piece seemed to have nothing to do with the work on show, and certainly provided no direct information about his intentions in creating it. Rather, Gordon offers readers his impressions on first visiting Frankfurt, as an artist invited to take part in an exhibition. It’s a peculiar text, frankly bad-tempered, actually quite rude, one in which all relevant actors in the experience are taken to task: the city of Frankfurt, the artist’s host, curator Peter Weiermair, the modest hotel in which the artist was put up, the local cuisine, the very weather. Everything is cast in a seedy, unfavourable light. As if recounting a nightmare, Gordon raises the events up from the dead without, however, providing any context or causality; they lack focus and slip away, bled of their colour. All that remains is a strange sensation – the trace of an unpleasant memory. And yet it is also without a doubt more colourful and more detailed than the reality could have been.
Douglas Gordon enters this limbo of perception in many of his pieces, a space between finality and open-endedness, between memory and invention, between probability and impossibility. ‘List of Names’ is such a work. In that piece, Gordon lists the names of all of the people he has met since 1990, regardless of whether the encounters were meaningful or not – and goes on listing them, since the work is to be terminated only by the artist’s demise. Gordon has organised thousands of people, thousands of names into columns: not alphabetically, like the victims of a disaster, or according to any other system, but simply as they were presented to him by life, or rather by memory; these are the people he can still recall, sometimes well, sometimes less well. Not ‘in order of appearance’, as in the credits of a film, but rather ‘in order of memory’.
“My work is about perception – or the mechanisms of perception,” Gordon once told an interviewer, and added that his chief interest in this regard was the irregularity and dysfunction of human perception, including the extreme cases in which perception falters, breaks off, ceases altogether. It is just such realms of human sensation and cognition which give rise to innovation and revolution, those areas of perception that can only be discovered through misunderstanding, false information, prejudice, impairment of vision, gaps in memory, and the like.
Thus Gordon’s list of names of the people he has met is only ostensibly a statistical tool, for in fact it cannot function as such, leading as it does to anything but quantitative conclusions. What is the meaning of acquaintance, and how long does recognition last? Does ‘List of Names’ in fact contain all encounters within Gordon’s memory, or have some people been left out, deliberately and consciously? Perhaps the artist has omitted some people because the very intimacy of their relationship has blinded him to them. What does a name connote, what story does a group of celebrated names suggest? What are the connections between the artist and the people listed? How are they connected to the people reading the list? Whatever the case may be, reading through the names takes time, plenty of time, and may actually be undertaken in vain, since at first blush reading seems to lead nowhere. This is another of those works in which Gordon’s true aim is elsewhere: it is an attempt to hold onto something which cannot be kept; it is an object lesson in the impossibility of precise historiography, in the fact that history continues to sediment in the brain of each and every individual until it has found its own shape. And, regardless of the pure and ultimately arid summation of letters, Gordon’s list conjures up a unique image, one that has an utterly different reference than its abstract signs may at first suggest.
With his work in writing and the imagined spaces he has produced since the early 1990s, Gordon forges a link to the conceptual art of the 1980s, to Lawrence Weiner, Dan Graham, or On Kawara. And yet Gordon’s work is unmistakably that of a member of a younger generation come of age among the new media and their various parallel levels, especially television, as cinema’s doppelganger. His is a generation of artists for whom a remake is not simply a repeat performance, who use digital visual technology and combine it quite naturally with older media, with photography, with 8-mm, 16-mm and 35-mm film, and with video. Gordon’s work is thus paradigmatic of artistic thought in the age of media, spanning the late 20th and early 21st centuries.
I want now to show you a motif you probably already know quite well. It is the image of what is the most beautiful skyscraper in the world, the Empire State Building, constructed almost 80 years ago and since mutated into the national architectural symbol of the United States, reproduced on countless postcards and billboards and showcased in holiday snapshots and Hollywood movies. You may also have seen this particular view of the building before, since the excerpt cites a camera angle used by Andy Warhol in his legendary 16-mm, black-and-white underground classic ‘Empire’, made in 1964. In that film, Warhol keeps his camera trained on the top of the building for eight hours, and the only change discernible to the eye throughout its entire length is the gradual passage of daylight. It is striking that Warhol used the dynamic medium of film for this piece, in which plot and action are lacking, rather than photography. In fact he could not do otherwise, given that he was interested in the way an object is embodied by its image, an intention which is contained in the very way the camera’s gaze suggestively conjures up the observer, indeed, identifies itself with that observer’s own regard. While the silent film initially resembles a documentary consciously resisting every possible illusion, it is precisely its reduced visibility that allows it to broaden the significance of a monument deeply anchored in the American self-image. The building as statue corresponds to the process of viewing; it becomes an abstract form, a metaphor standing at once for timelessness and for the transitory nature of life, and as such imbued with a veritably sacred aura.
But of course what I am showing you here is not the Warhol film. It is instead an installation photo from 17 June 2007, the date on which Gordon’s brand-new film ‘New Colour Empire’ was first screened on the roof of the Julia Stoschek Collection in Düsseldorf. Gordon remakes the Warhol film in colour and shows it together with the original, slightly staggered and superimposed. The double skyscraper allows Gordon to cite not only Warhol’s film, but another of the late artist’s significant methods: Warhol too multiplied his motifs, his Jackie Kennedys and his Marilyns, his electric chairs and his cans of Coca-Cola, and by means of this process of reproduction made his art as omnipresent and unlimitedly available as the mass-media image. By these lights, Gordon himself is only secondarily interested in the renowned skyscraper: his primary concern is the structure’s symbolic significance, and the phenomenon of its reproduction. In this sense ‘New Colour Empire’ is above all an image of an image, out of which in turn a further image emerges: something ‘new’, something ‘colour’, and – something doubled. Like a revenant, the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center, destroyed in 2001, seem to rise up before us in outline. In Warhol’s day the Empire State Building was the tallest building in New York, a status it regained in late 2001. Is ‘New Colour Empire’ therefore meant as a defiant response, as a provocation and a token of resistance? Or is it perhaps the expression of phantom limb pain, as the psychosis born of fever, as a fata morgana?
It has become a commonplace to observe that 11 September 2001 presented its western witnesses with the reality they had so often enjoyed as Hollywood spectacle; and it does indeed seem as if the images of the actual catastrophe moved us the way they did precisely because they constituted an iconic déjà vu. They had apparently been seared into our collective visual memory before being over-written, as it were, by reality – like a heartless update.
For me, Gordon’s ‘New Colour Empire’ is among the most intelligent artistic treatments of 9/11, a trauma arising not so much from the factual events it comprises, whose pre-history, background and consequences have not gained much in comprehensibility over the last seven years. Rather, the trauma of 9/11 lies in the fact that it was a defeat using the victim’s own weapons. The western world was struck by the power of the aesthetics it had relied upon for its own self-image, blinded by a monstrous inflection of its own vocabulary, by the sight of its own face transformed into a hideously grimacing death mask.
In this grotesque funhouse mirror, basic dichotomies such as good and evil, true and false, real and staged are revealed as pure fiction. While they do of course very much exist as abstract conceptual systems and compass points, their semantic boundaries are increasingly being erased. What was once the exclusive, unmediated property of the individual – reality – is now confronted with the infinitely more powerful images produced by television, the newspapers, the internet and, though for a limited time only, film; these media are busy colonising our imagination, our dreams, our nightmares and our memories rather too zealously for comfort, and with graver consequences than we can at present predict. Gordon is a member of the first generation of artists to take on the fundamental shifts in consciousness still just looming on the horizon of our civilisation. Gordon’s work routinely stages a confrontation between reality as personally experienced and interpreted, and its mediated form, its adopted version, as it were. This struggle is given particular significance in his video installation ‘Between Darkness and Light (After William Blake)’, in which two feature films are projected onto one screen from different angles, simultaneously and in their entirety: Henry King’s ‘Song of Bernadette’, from 1943, and William Friedkin’s ‘The Exorcist’, made thirty years later, each about a girl undergoing a supernatural experience. King recounts an episode in the early life of Bernadette, who would go on to become a nun and, eventually, a saint, and who as a young woman is said to have seen the Virgin Mary. Bernadette’s mysterious visions cause an uproar in her village, where a rift develops between believers and unbelievers. Friedkin’s movie, meanwhile, is a tale of exorcism, one in which a young woman is similarly seen in the thrall of a transcendent power. In the case of ‘The Exorcist’, of course, this latter is a demonic spirit, whose existence constitutes proof of the existence of God – and thus a serious problem for the enlightened Jesuit priest and psychologist who is called upon to deal with it. Projected simultaneously onto the same translucent screen, the two films are overlaid, and thus commingle the conflicting aspects of their comparable narratives almost indistinguishably: faith, superstition, the occult and the enlightenment all contend for the aesthetic upper hand; and yet the images remain locked in a conflict that proves to be undecidable. Incidentally, the installation was created in 1997 for ‘Skulptur Projekte Münster’, an art show held in Münster, a city in Germany known in the 16th century as the ‘New Jerusalem’ of the Anabaptists. Gordon created his contribution to the show in full awareness of its location, once itself the site of struggles between religious extremists.
The oeuvre of virtually every well-known artist contains one pivotal work, the ‘hit’ that brought that artist irreversible renown. It is no different for Gordon, for whom celebrity arrived in the wake of ‘24 Hours Psycho’, his own idiosyncratic adaptation of Hitchcock’s classic thriller, with its 109-minute length stretched to a full 24 hours. The result is a gigantic epic, more than 12 times the length of the original, in which individual takes no longer flow one into the other, but instead make visible each frame as it marches by, two per second – as opposed to 24 per second ordinarily. Thus every detail, every facial expression, every gesture is ceremoniously showcased, displayed with disproportionate clarity. And yet at the same time, the film is also sapped of all motion, and thus of the very tension that had constituted the original’s chief appeal. The narrative becomes incoherent, the familiar becomes incomprehensible, the uncanny is freshly alienated – in part because the soundtrack is completely absent, ceding instead to a creepy silence. The tension, however, declines in inverse proportion to a mounting sense of physical jeopardy, since the film’s new form competes directly with the rhythms of real life.
And at the same time the installation bursts the frame of real time, indeed, goes far beyond it. The title itself makes this painfully clear, gesturing at the basic inferiority of film as temporal medium. In contrast to life, film remains forever an illusion, provides a merely simulated sense of real time. Every individual cinematic product struggles to overcome this discrepancy, combining, compressing and overlaying tempo, editing and sound to the point of senselessness, taking the audience hostage, drugging it and forcing it to accept fabulation as ‘reality’. Gordon wakes his viewers from this drugged sleep – although the operation is still very much underway. The title of his piece recalls those shops and restaurants which boast that they are Open 24 Hours – and unmasks life itself as a thriller from which none of us can escape, and in which ‘Psycho’, the horror, is available at all times, always ready. Not a particularly comforting thought. So it was no accident that ‘24 Hours Psycho’ was to become a video icon of the 1990s.
Let me return, finally, to one of Douglas Gordon’s basic principles, formulated in his own words: “I am interested in the way perception is structured, and how it comes apart again... We think it is something natural, and yet we also know how fragile it is.” Gordon’s installation ‘Play Dead, Real Time’ seems to confirm this view by analogy. In ‘Play Dead, Real Time’ Gordon has a circus elephant brought to his New York gallery, where he films it doing a trick it has learned: dropping to the floor, lying there a moment, and then getting to its feet again. What would ordinarily be a simple animal-trainer’s number is here granted a refined and unusual presentation. On two gigantic free-standing screens and one monitor, Gordon simultaneously displays the colossal beast turning in circles, sinking to the floor, and lying there in a great, primeval heap, second after second, without betraying itself by means of so much as a twitch in its trunk. There is no doubt but that the animal is rehearsing its own death. The observer, meanwhile, continuously circles the two large screens, whose projected images similarly turn in circles, since the cameras themselves circle the elephant unceasingly, one counterclockwise, the other clockwise. The result is a spiraling force it is difficult to resist. The elephant’s inevitable cycle of sinking, lying motionless on the floor, rising clumsily to its feet, and sinking again becomes a metaphor: for life, for its permanent round of ups and downs, its constant alternation of sleeping and waking, doing and dying. Shown in this loop format, the elephant’s massive body is lent a certain floating quality: its great benevolent head and heavy legs seem positively light as feathers. With its furrowed hide, the monumental beast looks as if it has just emerged from prehistory, as if it were possessed of an unstoppable originary power. And still the creature follows the rules imposed upon it from without. The whole becomes a studied re-enactment of our actual restlessness, our constant motion, this ritual we call life.
Once again, it is the medium of film which alters all of the conventional parameters of our perception, our ideas of mass and material, of space and time. And once again, Gordon takes his viewers into an interim realm of possibilities, offers them an opportunity to see the world differently: as a game of opposing forces, as a compulsory visual reality in which voluntary and involuntary movements, clumsiness and grace, hope and despair become indistinguishable.