New York

Douglas Gordon

Gagosian Gallery (21)

Douglas Gordon’s latest video installation, in which an Indian elephant moves silently across two freestanding screens and a monitor installed in the gallery’s cavernous space, has been taken as everything from a comment on man’s relationship with nature to an unlikely instance of abstraction. But Gordon’s Play Dead; Real Time, 2003, is perhaps most effectively read as an allegory of the spectacularization of late-’60s critical practice that has marked the art of the last fifteen years.

Harking back to the earlier era’s effort to dismantle the artwork’s autonomy by refracting it across multiple registers, Gordon’s project is a filmic re-presentation of a live action. Its integration of the cinematic image into a Minimalist-derived sculptural idiom, and the resulting fusion of black box and white cube (to quote Whitney curator Chrissie Iles), is equally indebted to the art of that time. The structure of Robert Morris’s Finch College Project, 1969, for example, is remarkably close to that of Gordon’s new piece. Both are moving-image installations designed for the spaces in which the actions they depict in fact occurred. (Gordon’s elephant was trucked to the gallery from a Connecticut game farm for a shoot last May.) And, in both, there is a tasklike, agentless quality to the activities enacted for the camera. But—and this is a pretty big “but”—in Gordon’s case, the acts are undertaken not by a human actor but by an enormous circus-trained animal.

Responding to a series of inaudible off-camera prompts, the elephant walks around, backs up, lies on its side, and, most impressive, returns to its feet by rolling its unwieldy body back and forth for momentum. The performance is at once stupendous and absurd. In the context of this gallery’s spotless converted-warehouse space, it’s hard not to see the poor beast as a quasi-comic cipher for the contemporary artist, burdened to the point of collapse by the demands of overproduction. Yet Play Dead; Real Time is affecting in a way that delivers the work from either sheer cynicism or pure farce.

Gordon’s installation suspends both artwork and spectator in a zone somewhere between the literal and the virtual. The brute fact of reality is insisted on through the artist’s real-time documentation and his decision to cultivate the viewer’s phenomenological experience of the gallery space. But that reality is simultaneously fractured through mechanical reproduction and rendered numbingly distant through the use of shimmering screens and ultra-slick camera work. This strategy, widely deployed in recent film and video installation, typically comes off as formulaic, even mannerist. But here it works: It’s simply impossible not to be moved by the animal’s efforts. After an initial attempt to stand up, the elephant pauses, exhausted, one gigantic eye staring out at the viewer. Then it tries again. Something unexpected ensues: a relationship with the image that, while entirely distinct from the estrangement generated by Morris’s, and others’, anti-aesthetic, nonetheless evades the mechanisms of spectacular absorption. As with all allegories, insofar as it is melancholic and not transformative, the redemption Play Dead; Real Time offers can only be partial. But it does succeed in conjuring a moment of genuine experience in a realm from which that possibility had seemingly been banished.

Margaret Sundell