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There Is Strong Shadow Where There Is Much Light: Douglas Gordon’s “In My Shadow” at ARoS – Aarhus Kunstmuseum

by Chiara Moioli

 

“I have a little shadow that goes in and out with me,
And what can be the use of him is more than I can see.”
.
—Robert Louis Stevenson, My Shadow (1885)

 

Conceived as an attempt to distance himself from spectacle and notoriety, In My Shadow at ARoS – Aarhus Kunstmuseum, one of Douglas Gordon’s largest survey shows in Europe to date (curated by Lise Pennington), features works that manifest a certain wish to debunk various aspects of the artist’s most delicate, gentle productions—those susceptible to being overshadowed by Gordon’s own blazing spotlight.1 Upon first noting the exhibition’s title, I couldn’t help but link it, in an ascending parabola, to Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard (1950), as it sounds like a hymn to second acts, a celebration of “pictures that got small.”2 Yet when confronted with Gordon’s works—even the most tender ones—one might (rightfully) still wonder: Does devastation hit harder at volume or through a whisper?

 

“To be in one’s own shadow” evokes a gothic sympathy for the dark and murky side of human nature, stressing recurrent themes in Gordon’s work. A bit of a devil, kind of a master of disguise, he centers his efforts on mirroring and displacement, reflections, contradictions, doppelgängers, personality disorders, the divine and the demonic, truth and fiction, light and darkness, and an urgent and somewhat wicked interest in the duplicity inherent in humanity. Duality and bifurcations of Borgesian descent underlie his practice both as subjects and as means he grapples with in making and displaying his work.

“The crow wish’d everything was black, the owl that everything was white,” wrote William Blake in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1793).3 Blake’s theory of contraries was not a belief in opposites so much as an acceptance that progression in life is unattainable without them. Gordon spent years delving deep into arcane dichotomies in works such as A Divided Self I and II* (1996), Between Darkness and Light (After William Blake) (1997), and Through a Looking Glass* (1999). For Gordon has an eye out for the cursed, the sinners, the jaded souls withstanding heavy emotional weather, those who find themselves on the brink of mania, meltdown, possession, or delusion, and he manifests a keen proclivity to hunt, full swing, into the shambolic umbrella of the “distressed feelings department.”

Through a Looking Glass exemplifies this. Two screens show the ill-famed “You talkin’ to me?” monologue from Martin Scorsese’s iconic Taxi Driver (1976) in which Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) is falling apart, his mind de-routing. The two screens are on opposite walls, turned toward each other, and one shows the scene reversed as if in a mirror. Looped for just over seventy seconds, two Travis Bickles ask themselves who the hell they think they’re talking to until one screen gradually lags behind, falling out of sync. Bickle’s experience of seeing a stranger in the mirror is echoed by that of us viewers, who find ourselves in between images mirroring a split personality. Every feature of the original flick is multiplied, mischievously replicated and yet displaced.

Gordon came of age just after a generation of artists—filed under the label “Pictures Generation”—outlined postmodernism in art, gaining recognition for embracing practices of appropriation. This cultural milieu, grounded upon the usage of preexisting materials and the introduction of technology like the VCR, inevitably influenced and altered Gordon’s way of seeing and approaching the moving image. Specifically, the artist recalls, “The VCR completely revolutionized the way I would look at films. Back and forth, back and forth, back and forth and forth and back.”4 When Gordon started “abducting” other people’s footage, he shared some premises and approaches to image (re)making that sprang from both the Pictures Generation and the newly available technologies. In those very same years, forms of sampling and remixing emerged in the music scene with the advent of dub, giving rise to such genres as rap, hip-hop, DJing, EDM, and house. “When sampling entered the realm of music you would hear the same thing again twenty seconds later… When I was at school at Glasgow, still a teenager, I started to buy hip-hop, because I was interested in this back and forth.”5

Music had a significant role in shaping the artist’s working methodologies, and it has been a prominent, evolving element bonding his production throughout the years. It first materialized as an intimist trope in early works, for instance Something Between My Mouth and Your Ear* (1994), a sound installation playing a selection of thirty songs released from January to September 1966, when Gordon was in his mother’s womb, and the video Douglas Gordon Sings the Best of Lou Reed & The Velvet Underground (for Bas Jan Ader) (1994). This progressed to span the contemporary scope—Gordon collaborated with post-rock band Mogwai for the soundtrack of Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait* (with Philippe Parreno, 2006) and with Rufus Wainwright for Phantom* (2011)—and the classical realm—k.364* (2011) features Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante for Violin, Viola and Orchestra (1779), and in tears become…streams become… (2014), classical pianist Hélène Grimaud performs an eight-piece program that includes water-themed scores by Franz Liszt, Gabriel Fauré, Maurice Ravel, Leoš Janáček, and Claude Debussy. Gordon’s relationship to music (especially singing, of which he’s very fond) sounds like a long-term, blissful marriage.6

The same attitude stemming from art and music’s responses to the introduction of the possibilities of sampling—thus, collaboration—is likewise applied by the artist in terms of conceiving works that are never finished. It is known that Gordon continues to alter his pieces in what could be interpreted as an endless reworking, an unfathomable chain of appropriation and versioning.7 One root of his attitude toward memory and retention certainly traces back to his dialogues with artist Susan Hiller, his mentor during his postgraduate years at the Slade in London. Yet this bias must also, it seems, have something to do with a certain longing to defeat mortality, and to fly in the face of the idea that identity and artistry are fixed. 

Another way to challenge these assumptions is by means of language, words, and narratives, and indeed, many of Gordon’s works taking the form of installations revolve around semantics. List of Names, begun in 1990, is an ever-expanding inventory of people’s names the artist recalls having encountered, pasted onto gallery walls. Pretty much every word written, spoken, heard, overheard from 1989…* (2006) is comprised of an assortment of common sayings, biblical verses, bits and pieces of found poetry, and other texts scattered across ARoS’s architecture: “WE ARE EVIL.” “it’s not you it’s me.” “never again, for the last time.” “i’ve changed.” Like in an open labyrinth, a garden of forking paths, words insist on coming together through the act of reading, reminding us that between the self and nothing/anything/everything lies only memory.

This attraction to wording and anecdotes also trespasses into the realm of tattoos (of which Gordon has plenty). In the photographic series Three Inches (Black)* (1997), the artist riffs on the story, overheard as a child, that the Scottish police would confiscate any knife or sharp object three inches or longer, as that measurement corresponds to the distance that could make a fatal wound in one’s vital organs, particularly the heart. “I had an idea that I would like to make a tattoo in relation to this idea of fatal penetration. I wanted someone to have an index finger tattooed completely black… I liked the idea that the tattoo would be a sign for the distance between the outside world and the vital organs in the body… I liked the idea that people might ask this person what had happened to his finger. I like to think of all the possible conversations he will have when other people ask him ‘why?,’ ‘what does it mean?’”8 The inclusion of this piece at ARoS testifies to how, in Gordon’s hands, even an apparently harmless, however exotic, “black finger” dramatically awakens our ancestral fears—in this case, the dread of death. 

For when the sun sets and darkness falls, we are left alone to divine this occult life—one in which, Gordon assures us with a cheeky smile, like a kid who’s just done something very, very bad, there is strong shadow only where there is much light.

 

 

[1] In this text, the works presented at ARoS are indicated with an asterisk. In My Shadow includes the installations Reverb (2019); pretty much every word written, spoken, heard, overheard from 1989… (2006); Untitled (This Isn’t Working) (1997); 30 seconds text. (1996); Something Between My Mouth and Your Ear (1994); and Life Afterlife (letter from 1894). The video installations are I Had Nowhere to Go (2016); k.364 (2011); Phantom (with Rufus Wainwright, 2011); Îles flottantes (If Monet Met Cézanne, in Montfavet) (2008); Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait (with Philippe Parreno, 2006); Play Dead; Real Time (2003); Through a Looking Glass (1999); Feature Film (1999); A Divided Self I (1996); and A Divided Self II (1996). The photographs are All my own work (1) (2007); All my own work (2) (2007); Hand with Spot B, C, D, E, F, H, I, J, L (2001); and Three Inches (Black) (1997).
[2] This quote is taken from a scene in Sunset Boulevard in which Joe Gillis (William Holden) fiercely confronts the delusional Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) by reminding her, “You used to be in silent pictures. You used to be big!” to which she vehemently replies, “I am big! It’s the pictures that got small.”
[3] William Blake, “Proverbs of Hell,” in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (Milan: SE, 2016), 26.
[4] “Douglas Gordon—In My Shadow. A Conversation between Artist Douglas Gordon and Lise Pennington,” in Douglas Gordon, In My Shadow (Aarhus, Denmark: ARoS – Aarhus Kunstmuseum, 2019), 31.
[5] “Douglas Gordon—In My Shadow. A Conversation between Artist Douglas Gordon & Lise Pennington,” 31.
[6] “I sing a lot. The singing is incredibly important to me. I always say to people when they ask me what the most important thing I learned at art school was: singing… I started singing with my classmates, I started to do performance art. The music was an alibi for me to do what I really wanted to do.” “Douglas Gordon – In My Shadow. A Conversation between Artist Douglas Gordon & Lise Pennington,” 33–35.
[7] As noted by Anders Troelsen: “Douglas Gordon does not seem to put much store in works of art as completed, fully finished entities… The porous, crumbling boundaries between his own works and those of others is echoed in Douglas Gordon’s relationship with his own past creations; he continues to work on them to such an extent that we may almost speak of a re-appropriation, adding a third stage to his chain of appropriation.” Anders Troelsen, “Deflected Reflections. Contrast, Symmetry and Time in the Video Art of Douglas Gordon,” in Gordon, In My Shadow, 55.
[8] Extract from a letter published in Le point d’ironie, October 6, 1997, and reprinted in Gordon, In My Shadow, 276.

 

Douglas Gordon (b. 1966, Glasgow, Scotland) lives and works in Berlin, Paris, and Glasgow. A pioneer of modern video art, he emerged in the 1990s and became one of the most important artists on the international art scene. In 1996 he received the prestigious Turner Prize, in 1997 he was awarded the Premio 2000 at the Venice Biennale, and in 1998 he received the Guggenheim Hugo Boss Prize. His work has been exhibited globally, in major solo exhibitions at institutions including the Neue Nationalgalerie, Berlin (1999); Tate Liverpool, UK (2000); MOCA, Los Angeles (2001, 2012); Hayward Gallery, London (2002); National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh (2006); the Museum of Modern Art, New York (2006); Tate Britain, London (2010); the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, Israel (2013); Musée d’Art moderne de la Ville de Paris (2014); Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh (2017); and Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen K20, Düsseldorf, Germany (2018). Gordon’s film works have been invited to the Festival de Cannes, the Toronto International Film Festival, the Venice Film Festival, the Edinburgh International Film Festival, the BFI London Film Festival, Festival del Film Locarno, and the New York Film Festival, among many others. In 2019 he opened exhibitions at Marinarezza at the Arsenale, Venice; the South Tank at Tate Modern, London; kamel mennour, Paris; and Eva Presenhuber, New York.

 

at ARoS – Aarhus Kunstmuseum
until 16 February 2020

 

 

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