Up and Down
Two shows. Two Douglas Gordons. One good, one bad. One in Soho, one in Chelsea. Together they provide a chance to get a fuller view of this up and down artist, and to see which is the real Douglas Gordon.
Gordon manipulates snippets from iconic films, or bits of anonymous documentary, medical, or military footage; he creates text pieces as well. His best-known work is 24 Hour Psycho (1993), in which he slowed down Hitchcock's thriller and projected it at two frames per second so that it lasts an entire day. It's like imposing Warhol's Empire on a Hollywood feature film. Nothing since has quite measured up.
In contrast to Warhol, whose films had to be seen to be believed, Gordon's ideas are often more interesting to hear than to see. In 5 Year Drive-By (1995) he slowed down John Ford's The Searchers so that it lasts five years the time John Wayne searches for a missing child in the film. For the mathematically inclined, that's six hours of projected time for every second of the movie (if it started in 1995, you could still catch the end).
Gordon is part of a whole set of artists, schooled in the 1980s, who are taking the strategies of that decade's photo-based work into moving pictures. Only, Gordon often gets caught in some theoretical eddy between other artists. In Black and White (Babylon) (1996), he looks like Richard Prince practicing without a license. He takes a seedy 1950s stag film and slows it down ('natch), projecting one image right side up and another upside down. Where Prince's appropriations feel authentic, Gordon's feel gratuitous, as if he wanted to throw in some t&a. Gordon's supporters write that the split screens are "radically subversive," but they're not; they're derivative.
Now 33, Gordon is big on the international show circuit; he has already had several solo museum exhibitions in Europe, and is planning one for the Guggenheim in 2001. In the last three years, he hit the art world equivalent of the trifecta by winning the Turner Prize, the Primo 2000 (at the 1997 Venice Biennale), and the Hugo Boss award. But is he as good as the curators say?
The good Gordon is on view at Gagosian, where this gallery has finally gotten "on base" with a young British artist and wouldn't you know he'd be Scottish. Gordon's show follows three over-the-top, anemic extravaganzas from Damien Hirst, Dinos & Jake Chapman, and Marc Quinn. In contrast to their completely excessive production values, Gordon presents a stripped-down "dematerialized" video projection.
In a ballsy move, Gordon has appropriated one of the most memorable scenes in movies: Robert De Niro's 71-second monologue from Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver (1976), the footage that gave us the line "Are you talking to me?" A readymade in itself, this clip is the Zapruder film of American cinema. It shows a young, beautiful De Niro as the paranoid, paramilitary Travis Bickle, a Vietnam vet turned cabbie, practicing his draw while challenging an imaginary protagonist.
Bickle is filled with Biblical fury. Alone in his apartment, he begins to speak. Some of what he says is barely audible: "Yeah. Huh? Huh? Faster than you. Fuckass. Saw you coming. Fucker. Shitheel." He picks up speed: "I'm standing here. You make your move. It's your move." Then the lines "You talking to me? You talking to me? Then who the hell else are you talking to? . . . You talking to me?" At the same time he whips a .22 pistol from a contraption up his sleeve, and points it at the camera.
At Gagosian, Gordon projects this scene twice huge on opposite walls of the gallery; each image fills the wall. The two pictures are like a Richard Serra sculpture, without edges or surface, two massive slabs of imposing light. Titled through a looking glass (1999), the footage has been doctored slightly so that it gradually goes in and out of sync. Now De Niro really is having a conversation with himself. Everything he says begins to double and echo in this eerie call-and-response Möbius strip. Gordon's feedback loop supplies an aural, visual, physiological counterpart to the schizophrenia surfacing in the character. The two walls of the gallery are like the surface of a drum; everything gets amplified, while you are caught in the middle. It makes this footage scarier and stranger than ever.
Roland Barthes wrote about the punctum a fancy Latin word describing a detail that electrifies the whole. Gordon has taken a detail from a film, but the details within this detail are what make Scorsese's footage and Gordon's piece so powerful.
Bickle's barren apartment is amazing; there are newspaper clippings, notes about increased Secret Service, a sketch of the Plaza Hotel, and traveling schedules for a political candidate taped to the walls. You can make out a bottle of pills, some Wonder Bread, a box of cereal, and a can of Campbell's Soup on the shelves over the stove. Neighborhood sounds, and the fabulous drone of an airplane, creep in with the summer heat. A portrait of an assassin forms. In addition to De Niro's eyes, and the sound, the punctum, for me, is Bickle's outfit: he wears two cowboy shirts under an army jacket in order to cover his guns. Travis Bickle is a picture of American masculinity spinning out of control. Gordon must have sensed that Scorsese and De Niro had created a moving Andy Warhol painting.
Bickle is Elvis with a gun, doubled, and multiplied. He is the cowboy John Wayne, the martyr James Dean, the rebel Brando. He is every American hero run amok, and the most ironic image of America since Jasper Johns painted the American flag, symbol of inclusiveness. This Vietnam vet, put on film in that bicentennial year, is the blown-out image of Johns's 1954 painting.
Credit Gordon for selecting this footage and making it work. But every semester I ask my graduate students to bring in a three-to-five-minute movie clip, and inevitably two things turn up: this sequence from Taxi Driver, and something from Psycho. Gordon plays to our taste, one is tempted to say panders to it, by picking things we already love; essentially he's an editor. This raises the possibility that Gordon is only as good as his source material, which is confirmed at Dia, where he uses film that lacks iconic wattage.
Here, Gordon uses the entirety of Otto Preminger's Whirlpool (1949), a film most people will be unfamiliar with. As usual he splits the screen, and mirrors the images. He has also removed every other frame of the original, so that the whole 40-foot-longprojection functions like a strobe. Occasionally the split image produces some nice Rorschach-like kaleidoscopic effects, but mostly this is a dated, superficial exercise in structural filmmaking. It is formulaic, arch, and inert. Left is right and right is wrong and left is wrong and right is right, as it is called, is as boring and as mild as its title. Digestible Bruce Nauman, it erodes the weighty impression of the Gagosian work and makes you think that the up-and-down Gordon is the real one, after all.
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