The first sound one heard upon entering Douglas Gordon’s retrospective at the Museum für Moderne Kunst was that of a man groaning in pain, emanating from a vertically stacked, two-sided video projection entitled Henry Rebel (2011), which depicts a man in a prison-like room. The upper screen shows him flailing about in underpants, whilst the lower screen shows him writhing on the floor in jeans. The work’s sinister and corporeal soundtrack echoed around MMK, immediately setting the viewer’s nerves on edge.
The character in Henry Rebel is played by Henry Hopper, whose famous father Dennis adopted the cinematic archetype of the rebel almost as a way of life. In this work, Gordon highlights the homoerotic connotations of the male rebel, focusing fetishistically on this partially clad figure. In a nearby space, burnt portraits of James Dean, from Gordon’s series ‘Self Portrait of You + Me’ (2011–ongoing), reiterated the actor’s depiction of rebelliousness as a pointlessly heroic drive towards physical transcendence. In some of these works, blue skies were exposed through burnt-out holes, while others show the act of burning, or simply a residue of ash. Like the entire retrospective, the rebel trope was imbued with Gordon’s now-recognizable brand of romantic pessimism.
Born in Glasgow in 1966, and gaining widespread recognition in the early 1990s with the emergence of the YBA generation, Gordon’s career should be considered in relation to the changes invoked by video art’s ascendancy in the last 20 years. His practice centres on the viewer dynamics foregrounded by the medium’s dark and immersive gallery spaces – aligning this experience with the cinematic. His most famous work, 24 Hour Psycho (1993), helped propel the idea that post-1990s art focuses attention more on the viewer’s own narrative fantasies than the artist’s critical agenda. Although the work was conspicuously absent from this exhibition, which favoured pieces produced after 2000, it still makes a convincing case for Gordon’s crucial role in contemporary video art’s foregrounding of the self-determination of meaning.
Gordon’s interest in phenomenological experience is made explicit in his frequent use of mirrors. Like the James Dean portraits, the installation Self Portrait of You + Me (Four Andy’s) (2008) featured burnt reproductions, but this time the damaged remnants of Andy Warhol’s iconic screenprints of Elvis Presley, Jackie Kennedy and Marilyn Monroe were attached to mirrors of the same format. Nearby, a mirror-image text work, open the door and let me in, was painted directly onto a wall, while another text work, open the door and let yourself in, was etched into the other side of that wall. As a hypothetical dialogue between Warhol and Gordon, the installation captured the paradoxical self-sufficiency of Warhol’s apparent mirror-like openness against Gordon’s attempt to reflect the darker aspects of the collective unconscious.
Although the exhibition featured overt references to Warhol, and alluded to Gordon’s similar compulsion towards celebrity, it quickly became clear that the artist who laid the foundation for the reception of Gordon’s work is Bruce Nauman. Gordon re-invigorates Nauman’s coupling of existentialist motifs with explorations of spatiality, and both artists demonstrate how video art can be equally self-reflexive and emotive. Gordon’s Play Dead; Real Time (2003) comprised two large, semi-transparent video screens placed perpendicularly, along with a small TV monitor on the floor in the corner, each of them depicting an elephant ‘playing dead’ – lying down and then simply, yet remarkably, standing up. The silent work, which was filmed by a camera moving elliptically over the floor of Gagosian Gallery in New York, explores scale and human physicality in relation to aesthetic experience, portraying architectural space and mortality as the ‘elephants in the room’.
Less characteristic amid the retrospective were two newer works, Proposal for a Revolution (2011) – a collaborative work with Gregor Schneider that adapted Schneider’s permanent installation at the MMK – and K.364 (2010), an immersive video installation concerning German-Polish relations during World War II. Both works felt as if Gordon had allowed the portrayal of specific historical concerns to overshadow his normally nuanced aesthetic. In the video installation K.364, Gordon filmed two Israeli musicians of Polish descent on a train from Poland to Berlin, shown on two double-sided projections with mirrors reflecting them. The work attempted to evoke the musicians’ thoughts on the unresolved history of World War II, and concluded with their performance of Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante (K.364) at the Warsaw Philharmonic concert hall.
A highlight of the exhibition was the new, re-edited version of Gordon’s collaboration with Philippe Parreno, the much-lauded Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait (2006). Although I’ve seen the work as a projection twice before, here it was installed across about 20 monitors on the floor. Footage of Zidane in action appeared and disappeared on different monitors intermittently, the arrangement itself evoking scattered football players on a scaled-down pitch. Somewhat surprisingly, this installation induced a much more natural feeling of becoming a spectator than previous projected versions of the work.
Providing a fresh look at this now older, and sometimes critically underrated, young British artist, the MMK retrospective was a lively and astutely curated survey that – unsurprisingly, yet successfully – highlighted Gordon’s preoccupation with the human body. In a large, purpose-built installation serving as a visual exegesis for the entire retrospective, framed images and seemingly random artefacts – including a suitcase, children’s drawings, photos taken from the sidelines of football matches and portraits of artists such as Rudolf Nureyev, Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Francis Bacon – attempted to provide further insight into the incidental influences that bear upon Gordon’s practice. On closer inspection, the display, like the exhibition, revealed an obsession with the human body, and with artists for whom it is a central subject. Complex questions associated with the synchronization of human bodies to internal or external forces were morbidly and repeatedly posed by this impressive presentation of Gordon’s work.