Stumbling upon Scottish artist Douglas Gordon’s eponymous Hirshhorn exhibition in 2004 remains one of the single most satisfying and genuinely surprising moments of my life. The exhibit was Gordon’s first North American solo show (and maybe the last? he’s remained relatively under-the-radar in the States compared to his notoriety and success abroad) and featured a generous number of his large-scale video installations, photographs, video stills and textual art all in a rambling labyrinth that spanned the entire top floor of the museum.
Gordon is preoccupied with the intertwined ideas of time and nostalgia: in Play Dead, Real Time (2003) he plays back a 19 minute video of a circus elephant in the New York City Gagosian Gallery responding to the commands to play dead and then get back up again. It is unsettling, especially played back on multiple larger-than-life video screens. Circus elephants remind us of childhood and happy memories with families but watching this hulking elephant in the middle of an empty, white art gallery struggle to lay down and get back up again makes you want to cry. He’s stripping away the innocence in this subversive, dark way.
He continues his meditation on the time/nostalgia theme with 24 Hour Pyscho,
this time deconstructing the beloved classic Hitchcock film so that it spans the length of an entire day, each scene agonizingly drawn out to an almost comedic degree. The viewer is at once bored and riveted. It’s one of the greatest suspense stories ever told and Gordon deftly strips it of its power by shattering its momentum.
While Gordon’s work can lean macabre there is playfulness to a lot of his work as well. In through a looking glass (1999), he positions two video screens on opposite sides of a room, facing each other in mirror image. The installation plays the infamous scene from Taxi Driver where Robert De Niro repeatedly asks his reflection in the mirror “you talkin to me?” during a psychotic break. While the scene begins at the same moment on both screens, they begin to fall out of sync with each other so that De Niro begins doubly talking to himself; both in the movie and the installation. The piece goes from humorous to sinister as the viewer goes from feeling like a mere spectator to a bystander caught in a crossfire.
Gordon’s work, especially when viewed in the setting of a large-scale exhibition is loud, enthralling and overwhelming. His work is meant to elicit emotion from his viewer on an immediate level.