BY Angela Kingston in Reviews | 06 MAR 95
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Issue 21

Douglas Gordon

BY Angela Kingston in Reviews | 06 MAR 95

Of the four works by Douglas Gordon 10ms-1 (1994) is without doubt the most engaging. Archive film of a badly shell-shocked First World War soldier is projected in slow motion onto a screen propped up against a pole in the centre of the darkened gallery. Wearing only identity tags and regulation underwear, the emaciated soldier is compelling to watch. Mustering all his concentration, he tries to take a step forwards but lurches backwards instead, staggering and falling to the floor. His attempts to get to his feet are painful failures. The sequence is repeated again and again; there is no sound.

The looping of the film and the slow pace at which it is shown are the means by which 10ms-1 functions as art; as something which singles out small, perplexing observations in a society travelling at a devastatingly fast pace. On watching it repeatedly, questions emerge not only about the experiences which have led to the soldier's condition, but also relating to the making of the film. In his state of mind, and given the regime he was in, did the soldier willingly agree to being filmed? Who was behind the camera, eager to consign his condition to film? The silence of the gallery is filled - in the imagination at least - with the bullying instructions of an irritated medic.

While watching the soldier, divested of his uniform but not yet returned to civilian life, thoughts surface about how he could possibly have gone on to cope with life after the war if, indeed, he survived. How could he continue to function as a friend or lover, or as a husband and father? What is almost certain is that he would have been urged to 'get back to normal' quickly and without a fuss. Yet, precisely because everything was so rapidly suppressed in the post-war return to 'normality', we may never have been able to acknowledge the far reaching effects of the wars which preceded us and shaped our present. In the quiet of the gallery, it is possible to sense how close this is to us, as descendants of First and Second World War veterans; as people from the future for which such soldiers were assured they were fighting. We share the same space, literally: the screen rests on the ground, rather than being suspended above it, and floor on which we stand is visually continuous with the space in which the soldier struggles to regain his balance. As a lament for dead and brutalised relatives, and for a century which has been structured around war and the nuclear threat of the Cold War, 10ms-1 draws on the residue of undigested, irreconcilable 20th century experience, offering itself as a means of catharsis.

There is, however, a more shocking side to the work. Incongruities in the soldier's behaviour can be detected: at a certain moment, the soldier turns knowingly towards the camera - notice the theatricality of his dive to the ground, see him look imploringly for stage directions. Suddenly, it seems his actions are all for the camera, a sensational side show. There is pleasure in seeing the soldier fall; in much the same way there is enjoyment in seeing a skater slip up on television. We are sent crashing from the moral high ground to become sadistic voyeurs relishing a spectacle of suffering. There is a need, in this sudden abandonment of compassion, to hedge our bets and we look to our capacity to intellectualise as way of avoiding any discomfort. If the soldier's shell-shock is a last ditch attempt to manage his distress, then he presents an hysterical, unfathomable representation of his subjectivity. Out of reach of anyone, we are not abusing him with our interest. Anyway, surely the idea of having access to anything real and true in a series of images was dispensed with years ago? In the adjacent room, Gordon has suspended a practice tightrope just two or three feet from the ground, as if to say, 'C'mon, this is art, the stakes aren't that high'.

Yet, we are unprepared for the work's emotional impact and, unable to rationalise the experience convincingly enough, we find ourselves completely overloaded. While the soldier contends painfully with gravity (10ms-1 is scientific notation for the pull of the earth), we fight to maintain our own psychological equilibrium. In this extreme emotional and behavioural territory, the last resort is to switch to an aggressive stance, in self-defence, in an attempt to distance ourselves from the capacity to feel. This, ultimately, is the subject of 10ms-1. Gordon's minimal means keep him at a distance, but he invites us - without pronouncing judgement or offering any form of consolation - to plunge into some of the most difficult and distressing areas of the human psyche.