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Issue 229

Douglas Gordon’s Return to Scotland 

At Dundee Contemporary Arts, the first UK institutional presentation of the film k.364 ruminates on ancestral trauma, travel and music

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BY Helen Charman in Exhibition Reviews , UK Reviews | 30 MAY 22

In one sense, the presentation of Douglas Gordon’s k.364 (2010) at Dundee Contemporary – its first showing at a UK public institution – marks a homecoming for the influential Scottish artist. This seems appropriate for a film that centres on personal and artistic return: what does it mean to go back? How can the story of such a journey be represented?

Douglas Gordon
Douglas Gordon, k.364, installation view. Courtesy: the artist, Gagosian, London, and Kamel Meenour Gallery, Paris; photograph: Ruth Clark

k.364 consists of two films that follow two Israeli musicians of Polish-Jewish heritage – violist Avri Levitan and violinist Roi Shiloah – on a train journey from Berlin to Warsaw, crossing what the exhibition text describes as ‘a desolate landscape in a country whose tragic and violent history is barely resolved for them’. Both Levitan’s and Shiloah’s grandparents fled Poland for Israel in the 1930s, and their discussion of the inherited trauma they associate with these European landscapes is excerpted in snatches that play during the film’s first half. The purpose of the journey is to perform Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante in E-flat Major (1779) – also known by its catalogue number k.364 – at the National Philharmonic in Warsaw; footage of this performance makes up the second half of the film.

The first gallery houses Dark Burnt Scores (2011), a series of 32 black frames containing the charred fragments of Mozart scores – grey smears against the glass. In several frames, fire has altered the paper to the extent that it appears to take on the plasticized texture of fake vegetation. Dominating the space, however, are the cacophonous sounds – music, screeching trains, the men’s muffled voices – emanating from the adjacent gallery in which the two films play simultaneously.

Douglas Gordon
Douglas Gordon, ‘k.364’, installation view. Courtesy: the artist, Gagosian, London, and Kamel Meenour Gallery, Paris; photograph: Ruth Clark

This visual and aural fragmentation is also present in the film in a more concentrated form, mimicking common representations of memory: images flash onto and off the screen before reappearing again in a new context. In the footage of the performance itself, Gordon prioritizes extended close-ups of Levitan and Shiloah, the intensity of musical interpretation writ large on their faces. Mirrors placed in the room’s corners refract snatches of the films at uncanny angles. A conductor’s head, barely glimpsed behind Levitan, looms large in the reflection and, momentarily, dominates the room. In a swimming pool in Poznań that, until 1939, was a synagogue, legs and feet emerge from the water, removed from the context of their bodies, interspersed with the blinking red and green lights of the night train.

There is profundity here, albeit significantly reliant on Shiloah’s attempts to verbalize the inherent difficulty of articulation that lies at the heart of inherited trauma. ‘They’re only trees,’ he says, as he describes how the sight of them surfaces generational memories. ‘Music has no future and no past,’ he declares, as the film emphasizes the historical significance of these particular musicians playing in this particular venue. Yet, these fragments of conversation are frustratingly brief, especially compared to the full transcript of the exchange, which is reproduced in Gagosian’s Douglas Gordon: k.364 (2011).

Douglas Gordon
Douglas Gordon, ‘k.364’, installation view. Courtesy: the artist, Gagosian, London, and Kamel Meenour Gallery, Paris; photograph: Ruth Clark

k.364 offers little clarity on the specific and, at times, contradictory relationships between its disparate elements: music, historical trauma, memory, reclamation and European border crossings. There is a general sense that, for Gordon, simply the invocation of history is enough. Ultimately, this work feels adjacent to the more significant questions it invokes. Perhaps this adjacency is the point: maybe the sheer weight of its central theme necessitates a peripheral approach. I wonder what additional depth would have been gained by a more sustained consideration. Perhaps then the charred scores, rather than an embodied truism (art is fragile, destruction awaits), might have become a different kind of notation, documenting violence and its remains.

Douglas Gordon ‘k364’ is on view at Dundee Contemporary Arts until 07 August 

Main image: Douglas Gordon, ‘k.364’, installation view. Courtesy: the artist, Gagosian, London, and Kamel Meenour Gallery, Paris; photograph: Ruth Clark

Helen Charman is writing a PhD about maternity at the University of Cambridge. She teaches English Literature to undergraduates, creative writing at the Poetry School, and primary school literacy in Hackney. Her poetry can be found in Carcanet’s New Poetries VII and her pamphlet, Support, support, came out with Offord Road Books in 2018. Her critical writing can be found in The White Review, The Baffler, King's Review and the LRB blog.

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