It’s funny, it’s clever, and Douglas Gordon’s work makes spooky sense in Edinburgh’s gothic heart, says Waldemar Januszczak
Frankly, if I had realised earlier that a basic knowledge of Edinburgh’s duality could lead quickly to a better and deeper understanding of Gordon’s work, I might have enjoyed more of his exhibitions in the past. As it is, I’ve had him down as the clever product of excessive film-school studies and found myself respecting his clever video art without liking it much.
Consider his best-known piece, 24-Hour Psycho, a radically slowed-down version of Hitchcock’s masterpiece that lasts a full day. The Greek philosopher Heraclitus famously pointed out that a man can never step into the same river twice, and I feel much the same way about 24-Hour Psycho. I must have encountered the extra-long display of cinematic hesitation half a dozen times since it was made in 1993, but every time I come across it, I find myself confronting a different bit.
This time, I parked myself in front of the inaction just as Janet Leigh was driving in the rain towards the Bates Motel with the stolen $40,000 in her suitcase. Her windscreen wipers were grinding backward and forward at the pace of a snail in a coma. And a decision had begun formulating on her troubled and beautiful face. Should she stop? Or should she go on? For God’s sake, keep driving, you scream to yourself, at normal speed, as the frozen Leigh ponders her choices for a filmic eternity. But she can’t hear. She’s going to go in there. Eventually.
Not that it matters a jot what she does.
At one frame every two seconds, 24-Hour Psycho is no longer dependent on the plot for its impact. What counts now is the creepy and nightmarish endlessness of it all, the looming drama of every second of the film, the bleak beauty of the photography and, above all, that frustratingly noirish sense that you, too, cannot get to the fast- forward button. It isn’t only Leigh who is trapped in 24-Hour Psycho.
What the softening-up by Rebus implanted in me this time was an awareness that we are, of course, watching the consequence of a bad moral choice. Leigh is on the run because she has stolen $40,000. If she hadn’t stolen the money, she wouldn’t be driving to California in the rain. And if she weren’t driving, she wouldn’t need to stop at the Bates Motel.
This Hitchcock dilemma without end is playing at the centre of Gordon’s big deal of a show at the Royal Scottish Academy, under the castle in Edinburgh. The selection of mainly old works, topped off with a few new ones, has been billed as Gordon’s “first Scottish retrospective”, as if several more are expected in the future. He has already had a big retrospective at the Hayward a few years ago. In 1996, he won the Turner prize. And a rumour circulating fiercely in the art world just now insists that the Tate wanted him to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale next year, and not Tracey Emin. This is the CV of a substantial achiever.
Yet, as I’ve admitted already, this is the first arrangement of Gordon’s work that I have truly enjoyed. What this event boasts, you see, and what other displays at the Tate and elsewhere have lacked, is true atmosphere: proper Scottish spookiness. From the moment you enter the posh portico of the Royal Scottish Academy and pass the death masks of the notorious grave-robbers Burke and Hare, presented on either side of the entrance stair in niches usually reserved for busts of Plato and Socrates, you are plunged into an evocative Edinburgh twilight that allows for a weirder and better understanding of Gordon’s intentions.
While 24-Hour Psycho is fated to remain his signature piece, I was even more taken by an exceedingly unlikely video work featuring a life-size elephant. Viewed from different angles on two huge screens, the elephant appears to be strolling across a dancefloor when, suddenly, it falls over as if shot. You imagine it to be dead. But a smaller projection in the corner that focuses only on the great beast’s eye shows the eye to be open. And a moment later, the elephant gets up again. It has been faking its own death in a piece called Play Dead: Real Time. The fact that it has obviously been trained to do so at a circus or wherever gives the work a huge shot of poignancy. Few things are quite as sad as a big, sad elephant.
So, Gordon has range. He does funny. He does smart. The cheeky elephant piece was made in 2003 and marks a departure from the cinema-obsessed game-playing of his usual terrain. A more typical work, Through a Looking Glass, from 1999, samples that famous scene in Taxi Driver in which Robert De Niro practises being ruthless in front of the mirror while repeatedly mouthing the words “You talkin’ to me?”. Gordon has placed mirror images of the sequence opposite each other in a dark room, and plays them slightly out of sync, so that one De Niro keeps asking the other De Niro if he’s talking to him, and the second De Niro keeps replying in kind. The result is an edgy but funny pas de deux of endless accusation.
And Gordon clearly has a binary mind. Dualities and opposites are his default mode. A large and casual arrangement of television screens, entitled Pretty Much Every Film and Video Work from About 1992 Until Now, shows exactly this, and includes piece after piece in which opposites confront each other. A hairy hand struggles with a shaved hand. A white hand paints a black glove. A stripper the right way up shares a screen with a stripper the wrong way up. It’s obvious that the single most impactful thing he ever did was to read The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, and to allow the basic dualities of Stevenson’s understanding of human nature to soak indelibly into his art. Edinburgh is perfect for this show because the tussle between clever Enlightenment ideas and spooky gothic fears is precisely the duality that has shaped the city.
The show doesn’t stop at the Royal Scottish Academy, either. Gordon’s art has been invited into several other buildings scattered about the Royal Botanic Garden, where once again a stern granite architecture provides a surprisingly effective setting for the endless argy-bargy between dualities. A famous piece called Between Darkness and Light, inspired by William Blake, combines the showing of that nice old film about a little girl who thinks she has seen the Virgin Mary, The Song of Bernadette, with The Exorcist, which is playing simultaneously and overwhelmingly on the other side of the same screen. When it comes to possession, there is no innocence.
At Inverleith House, a no-nonsense slab of Enlightenment Scottish architecture, a highly effective retrospective of Gordon’s word pieces fills the sensible-looking mansion with tortuous soliloquies and mad arguments that twist this way and that, backward and forward, like the noises in the head of a man possessed by the voice of his dead mother. So we’re back at the Psycho house. And there was me thinking it was in California.