Walking into Scottish artist Douglas Gordon’s exhibition at MOCA‘s Geffen Contemporary is a little like walking into an abandoned multiplex. It’s a sparse installation, scattered through with about a dozen screens playing altered fragments of old film footage. Some of the screens are mounted on walls or hanging from the ceiling; others are just propped up in the middle of the floor as though left behind on moving day. Each room feels as cavernous, quiet and impersonal as a theater. But while the space within a theater tends to collapse and dissipate once the spectator has been swept into a film‘s narrative, here there are no engrossing narratives — or comfortable seats, for that matter — and the space never disappears. It just looms ominously around the screens. The result is a nagging feeling of emptiness that reminds one of just how spectral and ephemeral are the pleasures of the moving image. If the electricity were to go off, half the show would disappear, and the viewer would be left adrift in the Geffen’s cold landscape of concrete and plaster.
This issue of space — or more specifically, the sheer discomfort of grappling with space — can be a problem with video art and is, I suspect, at the core of the current backlash against it. Museums are traditionally designed to ensure a mobile viewer smooth passage through an assortment of static objects that he or she can more or less encompass in a glance, but a video compels the viewer to stop moving, settle into the room and wait for the work to present itself at its own pace. Museums facilitate the experience of looking, but video demands to be watched.
It‘s a conflict that Douglas Gordon seems more than happy to confront, even embellish. He encourages the contemporary onlooker’s propensity for watching by using footage from Hollywood classics such as Psycho, Taxi Driver and The Exorcist — footage that is both alluring by design and accessible in its familiarity. Who can help but be enthralled by a double projection — positioned on two opposing walls in a small room — of a young, exquisitely volatile Robert De Niro holding a gun to his own mirrored image and demanding: “You talkin‘ to me? You talkin’ to me?” At the same time, Gordon‘s altering of the footage — looping, slowing the speed, overlapping images — pointedly frustrates the very expectations that its presence arouses, of narrative, character identification, emotional release, and the temporary displacement of personal identity that comes with the moviegoing experience. This is not a theater, Gordon seems to maintain, but a big, empty room in which to crack these films open and see what’s really inside. When all is said and done and the films are laid out in pieces around the floor, he calls on the viewer to stop watching and take a good look.
In the De Niro piece, titled Through a Looking Glass (1999), Gordon‘s tight cutting, maniacal repetitions and mirrored projection of Travis Bickle’s famous monologue from Taxi Driver serve to literally split the distorted character in two and shove us into the crossfire of his own internal reckoning, obliging us to re-evaluate our own understanding of the film from this interior perspective. In 24 Hour Psycho (1993), Gordon plays with time, stretching the scant 109 minutes of Hitchcock‘s classic to cover the expanse of a day. Projected on a hanging screen that one can view from both sides, the soundless imagery moves at a maddening but vaguely sensual crawl that drains the film of suspense to reveal Hitchcock’s fetishistic tendencies in greater relief. Though Gordon‘s film-based works account for less than a third of the exhibition, their presence is like that of a few movie stars in a room full of unknowns: more recognizable and memorable than the others despite any qualitative differences in character. The remaining works — photographs and original videos, mostly — are drier than the film installations but also perhaps clearer in purpose, as they avoid the risk of being subsumed by the independent qualities of any source material.
Central to all the work is the concept of duality, usually manifest in overt Jekyll-and-Hyde motifs. In a video installation titled A Divided Self I and II (1996), we see two arms — one covered in black hair, one bare (at a glance they seem, respectively, male and female, although both actually belong to Gordon himself) — struggling violently on a crumpled white sheet. The hairy arm dominates on one video monitor, the bare arm on another. A photographic self-portrait aptly titled Monster (1996-97) presents two versions of Gordon standing side by side. In one, he appears normal, passive and pleasant-looking; in the other, his facial features have been stretched and grotesquely distorted with strips of Scotch tape. Another self-portrait poses Gordon as a hitchhiker holding a sign reading “psycho.” All but the last of these subjects is set against a clinical white background and lit with dry, flat light as though they were specimens for observation, and although their visual blandness is disappointing after the rich imagery of the film-based work, their straightforward manner is persuasively unnerving. Each is an earnest attempt to capture on film a glimpse of that monster that lurks within, and if there’s an echo of adolescence in their simplicity — they do seem to stem from that particular vein of creativity that animates boys in the back row of boring algebra classes — it is probably appropriate, considering the unique understanding that one has, as a teenager, of monstrousness.
Not all of Gordon‘s doubles are so straightforward. One of the most captivating images in the exhibition demonstrates how the 19th-century concept of the double has tumbled into multiplicity in the modern media age. Titled Selfportrait as Kurt Cobain, as Andy Warhol, as Myra Hindley, as Marilyn Monroe (1996), it depicts a 5-o’clock-shadowed Gordon staring at the viewer with dull, smoky eyes from beneath a peroxide-blond wig. Another work — a passage of text describing the interaction between a French doctor and the blinking head of a criminal in the 30 seconds immediately following his decapitation in 1905, printed on the wall in a small room that is lit only at 30-second intervals — explores the unbreachable duality between the living and the dead.
Perhaps the most curious expression of the double theme — and the most seemingly anachronistic of all the works in the show — is a series of large color photographs depicting babies grasping, twisting and gnawing on their own feet. Shot at a very close range from a tumbling assortment of angles, they are fleshy, intimate, delicately lit images that present the infant as a complete, undivided unit, like the mythical image of the snake swallowing its own tail, a symbol of eternity. Titled Croque-Morts (2000) — which, according to my French-English dictionary, means “undertaker‘s assistant” — they suggest, with some hope but no sentimentality, the sublimation of self and other, birth and death, monster and saint.
Though it is proudly billed as the first major exhibition of Gordon’s work to appear in the United States, the show ultimately errs on the side of understatement. Many of the pieces discussed in the catalog are inexplicably absent from the show (whether this is the result of curatorial mandate or logistical mishap is unclear), and the handful of random, untitled wall paintings — which seem to have been thrown up in a last-minute attempt to hold the space together — are a poor substitute. Meanwhile, a scattering of large mirrors, clearly installed to echo Gordon‘s “double” theme, defeats the purpose of the wall paintings by extending the illusion of space far beyond the limits of the walls. It is fortunate that the work itself — dry, refined, and flexible in its nature — is so completely at ease in such spaciousness.