New York

Douglas Gordon

MoMA - The Museum of Modern Art

In 1993, twenty-six-year-old Douglas Gordon had the bright idea of assembling a quartet of components: an ordinary, commercially recorded VHS tape; a double-sided translucent screen; time; and a collective cultural memory of noir pleasure/terror. The result was 24 Hour Psycho, still his most famous work. Given pride of place in a midcareer retrospective at MoMA, the daylong video—which plays Hitchcock’s film in extreme slow motion—establishes a suite of themes pursued with precise, if not obsessive, regularity in the other twelve works on show. In a sense, if you’ve seen (a part of) Gordon’s open-all-hours appropriation, you know all you need to about his oeuvre. The rest is mirroring, inversion, and a spatialization of the compulsion to repeat.

Considering the career arc implied by a retrospective, is this repetition a good thing—a revealingly recursive, sculptural study of film’s distanced and fragmented obsession with continuous experience? Or is it a bad thing—stimulating a creeping sense of stultification, a hint that an artist like Gordon is interesting in exact proportion to his savvy in borrowing from interesting forebears like Hitchcock (or Bruce Nauman or Vito Acconci or Dara Birnbaum)? Granted, “good or bad?” is a reductive question. But it’s apt here for two reasons.

The first is that the boring and derivative aspects of the Scottish artist’s work are also integral to its success—Gordon presents not a “good or bad” option but a “good and bad” synergy. M: FUTILE FEAR, 2006, for example, is a wall-projected triptych that focuses on conductor James Conlon’s hands as he conducts a command performance of the sound track to Vertigo (1958). The work relies on our disappointment at being given only these suggestive, disembodied gestures, rather than Kim Novak’s uncanny blondness. The same thing happens in left is right and right is wrong and left is wrong and right is right, 1999, a split-screen projection of Otto Preminger’s Whirlpool (1949), in which alternating frames are placed adjacent in a Rorschach flip, making the whole film stutter. And again in Between Darkness and Light (After William Blake), 1997, where Gordon’s see-through screen superimposes The Song of Bernadette (1943) on The Exorcist (1973). In each case, what we really want is just to watch the movie. The elegant installations function to obstruct that desire, bouncing us back into our bodies as we walk around the screen hoping for a stretch of unimpeded narrative, or strain to hear the dialogue, or lapse into reverie, or wander away. It’s a weirdly peaceful kind of frustration, allowing us an amused pleasure in our own impatience.

The second rationale for “good or bad?” is Gordon’s obsession with Manichaean pairings. Divine (Bernadette/Jennifer Jones) syncs with demonic (Regan/Linda Blair). Black backs white and merges into gray (there is very little color in the exhibition); life cycles into death (the elephant collapsing and getting up in Play Dead; Real Time, 2003; communication from a severed head in 30 seconds text, 1996). Male echoes female, and self stands in for other (Gordon’s hands fondling, penetrating, and encircling in Blue, 1998). Freestanding screens play against wall projections and floor monitors, and the thresholds between galleries are lined with vertical mirrors, reflecting images into adjoining spaces. There’s a libidinal charge to all this, as the drive to possess a complete picture or voyeuristically master a dramatic denouement is repeatedly excited then deferred. Everyone in a Gordon situation—subjects, auteurs, viewers—acts under compulsion, in a glacially attenuated pageant of urgency. He turns the body—live or photographic—into a screen upon which language—visual and verbal—flickers. People blur into actions; actions freeze into objects; time coagulates as physical pressure. It’s a hypnotic, looping sensation, and we like to feel it again and again.

Frances Richard