Douglas Gordon

The seven installations filling the seven spaces at the Kunstverein Hannover all look elegant and up-to-date in a tasteful, unpretentious way. At first glance, in fact, that’s the only thing they seem to have in common. The works were all executed differently (sometimes there’s a film, sometimes an object, sometimes a photo series, sometimes wall text), and the thematics seem no less diverse. It wouldn’t come as a surprise if the “exhibition” turned out in fact to be a group show. But of course the visitor knows from the start that this is a show featuring work by a single artist, Douglas Gordon, and immediately begins to try to figure out what unifies it all, a search that by now can seem a bit naive, or at least dated. When it comes to Gordon, though, the search is once again germane; in fact, it soon becomes clear that, for all the heterogeneity, the artist’s pursuit of a single theme borders on the monomaniacal.

Behind the work, one question constantly resurfaces: How can temporal limits be made into visual art? The totality of the world, of life, of fate inevitably changes when that magical boundary between the “not yet” and the “no longer” is crossed. Precisely because the whole modulates, the particular temporal limits remain invisible—even if the internal experience of them can be intense. If the feeling for those thresholds of time is somehow well known (now it’s too late, there’s no turning back, we’ve reached the point of no return, etc.), to make them visible as such seems impossible. In the work on view in Hannover, it was just this impossibility that Douglas Gordon confronted.

Thus, in Something between my mouth and your ear, 1994, the visitor could hear the various popular songs Gordon’s mother might have listened to when the artist was still in the womb. Like the background music that greets the traveler in the waiting areas of airports and train stations, the work thematizes a certain lingering—the lingering at a threshold between existence and nonexistence. The space itself is pregnant with music, that is, with the wait for the arrival of thevisible (besides the four blue windows in the upper part of the wall, there’s nothing to see), and as such Schopenhauer’s and Nietzsche’s attempts to recognize the image of interiority in music come to mind.

After Something between my mouth and your ear, one encounters “Three Inches (Black),” 1997, a series of photos of the artist’s hands, the index finger of one tattooed with black ink. It is impossible to miss the erotic connotations—the finger looks pretty phallic. From the accompanying text one learns that the length of the tattoo is equal to that which would reach the heart of another person if inserted through the chest cavity. We’re thereby led to imagine the temporal lapse involved in the digit’s penetration of another body. The black color symbolizes a border, the temporal limit between the life and death of the Other—the moment of inner contact, which could also be the moment of orgasm. In List of Names, 1990–, a wall text in which the name of every person Gordon has known in his life appears, what is thematized is a constantly fluctuating limit between acquaintance and nonacquaintance: the “not yet” of the future acquaintance and the “no longer” of the forgotten one. In Single Room with Bath, 1998, the water in the tub is kept at the temperature matching that at which a person sitting in the bath would die. In IOMS-1, 1994, a relatively well-known segment of film documenting the psychic traumas of World War I soldiers is shown. A man collapses and can’t get up again. The fall proves to be irreversible. But the search for exact temporal limits manifests itself most clearly in Confessions of a Justified Sinner, 1996, in which three sequences taken from Rouben Mamoulian’s 1931 film version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde are projected on two screens, in negative and positive prints. The passages depict the hero’s transformation from the good Jekyll into the evil Hyde—and back again. Through the extreme slow motion, the visitor is invited to search for the precise moment at which the transformation is accomplished. But rather than fix that border between the realms of good and evil, the slow motion in fact allows the boundary to dissolve and disappear. The entire process, which in the original film runs its course fairly quickly and thereby conveys an almost momentary event, suddenly takes on an almost unbearable duration. The search for the exact specification of a temporal limit produces the permanent image of a physically anguishing event that has no beginning and never reaches a proper conclusion.

The psychological field in which Gordon toils involves personal histories, emotional experiences, and private obsessions, but happily, he bypasses what has become almost unavoidable in our century: the direct reference to the realm of the unconscious. Rather, Gordon’s psychological terrain is reminiscent of those existential novels by Sartre or Camus in which the hero must consciously choose between the great antitheses: existence and nonexistence, good and evil, freedom and necessity. Such a field is actually less psychological than dialectic, and for that reason the Russian director Sergei Eisenstein comes immediately to mind. In various essays, the filmmaker and theorist of the dialectical montage writes that the pathos of cinema is produced by the depiction of the passage from one specific condition into its opposite. At the moment of such a transition, the totality of the world (famously known to consist of oppositions) is said to reveal itself. By experiencing such a moment of transition in the cinema, we experience true ecstasy, because the image of the whole, however fleetingly, is conveyed. If one believes Eisenstein, then all of Gordon’s works—especially his film installations—present themselves as images of pathos and of ecstasy, as they all attempt to render visible the point at which some thing becomes its opposite.

Eisenstein, however, also suggested that ecstasy results only when the moment of passage remains extremely brief, so that the spectator is able to hold both moments simultaneously in the imagination. This emphasis on the instantaneous is found in the existential novel as well; the hero chooses between opposites instantaneously in order to experience the ecstasy of the choice. In this sense, one might think that by slowing the depiction of the transition to a near halt, Gordon neutralizes the production of ecstasy. But to me it seems that his work (particularly the installations that involve film) deals with another temporal limit, and one that is much more important for the artist—the limit of time that the potential observer is prepared to devote his or her attention to the artwork.

At the movie theater, as far as temporality is concerned, the observer is at the mercy of the director: The latter dictates the temporal terms of the film and the rhythm of observation. Transposed to an art gallery, film finds itself in an entirely different temporal economy, one in which the viewer is accustomed to calling the shots, breaking off the contemplation of an image in order to return to it later. But of course, as far as film or video go, doing so runs the risk of missing something important. Suddenly something happens to us in the museum that also occurs in life—we must miss the most important thing, that is, the transformation of the whole.

Gordon reacts to this new situation for film by expanding the moment of transformation, of metamorphosis, and thus allowing the instance to become an almost stable, lasting image. A new, precarious balance is struck between theunmoving and moving image whereby the museum visitor’s habits of vision are harmonized with those of the moviegoer. Even if the pathos cools off a bit, it becomes possible to turn away from and return to the image. The particular film image that Gordon offers is not altered in essence, since it still only concerns the change, the transition. Andy Warhol was probably the first to try to produce cinematic images for the traditional art space, and it’s no coincidence that Gordon cites the artist’s efforts in his Bootleg Empire, 1998 (recently on view at the Kölnischer Kunstverein in the framework of the exhibition “h:min:sec”). Bootlegging Warhol’s Empire as the 1964 work played in a movie theater, Gordon thereby transported the film into the space of art.

Gordon’s wit and persistence in investigating temporal limits are impressive. Still, one wonders whether he hasn’t in the process overlooked another important limit or boundary—that between visual form and the narrative side, content. In Hannover, an accompanying text describing the narrative plot of the installations revealed the dramaturgy and complexity of the work. The status of this information, however, remains unclear: Did it originate with the artist and reflect his own perspective? Or was this the Kunstverein’s idea and as such alien to the works? One has the impression that Gordon is somehow ashamed of the narrative side of his own works—and therefore conveys the content only indirectly because he thinks his art should “speak for itself.” But with Gordon’s installations, this simply isn’t the case, for here the narrative content is integral—and not just a type of metalevel explanation that could leave the autonomy of the work in question. The artist’s awareness of the problem might provide the rationale for his Reading Room, 1998, the seventh installation in Hannover, in which he endeavors to thematize the literary and cultural sphere of his work by making available reading copies of, say, Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. But such a general, propaedeutic aid is insufficient, because the information one receives in this way is not specific enough. What the observer really needs is knowledge of the narrative content of the individual works—not their context. Gordon shouldn’t be ashamed of “the narrative.” What’s best about his work, after all, is its singular combination of a clear, precise, aphoristic form and existential pathos. But this combination inevitably poses again and in all urgency the question of how to balance the relationship between form and content inside the artwork itself—a question that has for a long time now seemed relegated to the premodern past.

Boris Groys is a Cologne-based writer who contributes frequently to Artforum.

Translated from German by Diana Reese.