The elephant’s name is Minnie. She is four years old, lives in Connecticut, and is originally from India (more on her later). The artist’s name is Douglas Gordon. He is 37 years old, lives here and in Glasgow, and is originally from Scotland. She’s a ponderous giant; so, in some ways, is he.
Gordon is an international art star, a patron saint of the flourishing Glasgow art scene, the winner of both the Turner and Hugo Boss prizes, and a very uneven, often sketchy artist. You never know which Gordon you’re going to see—the good, the bad, or the iffy. When he’s good he’s mesmerizing. His 1999 Gagosian outing, which consisted of a huge double projection of Robert De Niro’s can’t-miss “You talking to me?” scene from Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, was terrific. For the Hugo Boss prize show, he effectively utilized silent, turn-of-the-century medical films depicting a shell-shocked soldier and a woman having a fit of hysteria. Also impressive, although sophomoric, was a 1995 projection he made of a dying fly. Gordon can be dry, as he often is in his still photographs, and dull, as he was for almost a whole year, a couple of seasons back at Dia, where he presented a double projection of a boring Otto Preminger film.
For his fourth New York solo show, the good, rigorous, simple Gordon has shown up. He seems to have pulled out of his Dia stall, dipped into his bag of tricks, and combined several old ideas in a persuasive new way.
Last May, Gordon arranged to have Minnie brought into the Gagosian Gallery’s empty, cavernous space on West 24th Street. There, her trainer commanded her to stand still, back up, walk around, lie down, or get up, while a cameraman, who appears to have stood quite close, recorded her movements. The exquisitely edited silent footage is presented here on two elephant-sized, freestanding screens placed perpendicular to one another in the otherwise empty and darkened gallery (a monitor resting on the floor nearby plays similar footage). The resulting installation, Play Dead; Real Time, is hypnotic, multi-leveled, and much more moving than it has any right to be.
Maybe a giraffe would have worked just as well. (Yukinori Yanagi once made a tape of himself following an ant around and it worked.) But there’s something about an elephant here, now, that seems just right. This self-reflexive aspect (what the theoretically minded call “institutional critique”) of Play Dead could have fallen flat or come off moralistic. But Gordon’s elegant neutrality and flawless editing make Play Dead pointed without being preachy, soothing and contemplative but not scolding or contemptuous. Staging a circus-like event in this conspicuously circus-like environment can’t help but make you think of alpha males like Richard Serra, Anselm Kiefer, Damien Hirst, and Julian Schnabel, all of whom have thrown their weight around this same space. This charges the atmosphere with something caustic.
The air is also filled with art-historical ghosts. There’s Bruce Nauman walking in funny ways around his studio or filming marauding mice there; Dan Graham’s circling cameramen shooting one another; William Wegman and Joan Jonas putting their dogs through their paces on camera; Joseph Beuys sitting in a gallery with a coyote; Jannis Kounellis exhibiting live horses in a museum; and Maurizio Cattelan hanging a stuffed mule from a gallery ceiling—the perfect metaphor for what it must feel like to have your work on display. Gordon seems to have channeled all these acts and actions, and filtered them through a sensibility that is part Animal Planet, part Godard, and part Siegfried & Roy.
As simple and spare as Play Dead is, it’s also riveting. The tape, which is a series of circling shots, has been edited so that there are regular fades to black. Each time the scene resumes, Minnie is lying down (the monitor’s segments always start with a close-up of her eye). This gives Play Dead a rhythm and an unconscious storyline. Minnie lies down and we wait for her, pull for her, to get up. This rising turns out to be a fairly remarkable, freaky sight. Once she’s up, the camera resumes circling her like some classically trained hyena. When the viewer circles the screens, the whole scene turns slightly vertiginous.
Without prompting, you realize the space in the film is Gagosian’s. The tape is silent, but muffled sounds wafting in from outdoors give Play Dead a wonderful, ethereal live soundtrack (perhaps it’s psychosomatic, but a couple of people I know swear they can also smell the elephant). Seeing this huge animal so out of place, yet so close, and in real scale gives you a thrill and makes you feel sad the way you do in zoos.
Gordon has relied so heavily in the past on surefire “readymade” footage and film clips (e.g., Psycho, The Searchers, the medical footage) that I’ve always suspected he was only as good as his borrowed material. The Dia piece confirmed these thoughts. I still think this may be true. However, in Play Dead, not only has Gordon shot his own footage, he’s gone back to the freestanding screens he used for the medical pieces, and combined this with the otherworldly intensity of the dying fly film. All this suggests there’s more to the good Gordon than he or we realize.