Acclaimed Scottish Artist Tackles Conflict of Identities in Israel - and That's No Coincidence

Acclaimed Scottish artist Douglas Gordon presents visions of 'Psycho,' Zidane, Monroe and rest of the world.

Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Ellie Armon Azoulay

"You never know what is going to happen," declares Scottish artist Douglas Gordon. "This could be my last exhibition."

Gordwon, whose exhibition at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art opened this weekend, explains that both in life and art, it is sometimes necessary to think that today is your last day; it's a provocation to the soul. Beyond the black humor that characterizes him and that is also evident in his work, it is possible to discern in Gordon's voice an undertone of excitement as he pauses during the intensive and complex preparations for the exhibition.

Born in 1966, Gordon has had comprehensive exhibitions at the world's major art institutions and has won important awards, including the Turner Prize and the Kathe Kollwitz Prize. He is represented by the prestigious galleries Gagosian in New York and Yvon Lambert in Paris and the prices of his works soar to hundreds of thousands of dollars. He works in a wide range of media, among them video and photography, music and sculpture.

For more than 15 years now he has been conducting a complex romance with Israel: from his participation in a show in Jerusalem in 1996, moments before his big breakthrough with his winning of the Turner Prize, through his continuing work with the Dvir Gallery in Tel Aviv since 1998, to his couple relationship with Israeli soprano Ruth Rosenfeld, the mother of his daughter Lily, with whom he now lives in Berlin. Israel, Gordon says, is very important to him. He grew up in Glasgow in a religious family of Jehovah's Witnesses, and to the best of his recollection his mother kept only two books at her bedside: the Bible and Golda Meir's biography. "That's a very strange bed to sleep in," he laughs.

The title of the exhibition at the Tel Aviv Museum (and of the book accompanying it, designed by Magen Halutz)  - "I am also ... Douglas Gordon" stresses his evident concern with identities. He is attracted to iconic figures like Marilyn Monroe and Jacqueline Kennedy as seen through artist Andy Warhol's eyes, as well as to split identities and extreme psychological situations. The new exhibition brings together these modes of expression and also bears a clear relationship to two books that deal with similar themes. The better known of these books is "The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" by Robert Louis Stevenson, the other is "The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner," by James Hogg, which describes a man's encounter with his double, who is the devil in disguise. "I assume that one of the reasons I wanted to have an exhibition in Tel Aviv is that in Israel there is a conflict of identities," says Gordon. "I thought I could have an understanding audience here." He attributes more importance to Hogg's book, which preceded Stevenson's and was a source of inspiration for it. He says Hogg's is a book based on a sinner's private memories and is closer to an identity conflict. He became aware of the book by chance, in an academic text about Stevenson's book.

'Burned Baby Grand,' 2012
'straight to hell; no way back,' 2011.
'Play Dead Real Time,' 2003.
6 of 6 |
'Burned Baby Grand,' 2012Credit: Robert McKeever
1 of 6 |
'straight to hell; no way back,' 2011.Credit: studio lost but found
2 of 6 |
'Play Dead Real Time,' 2003.Credit: studio lost but found

Hogg, relates Gordon, published the novella anonymously, but took the trouble to tell everyone he met that he had written the book. The book did not win recognition at the time, but only later, and destroyed his life. The artist identifies with the double action of maintaining anonymity and making the work public at the same time, which he says also characterizes his exhibition.

A cascade of light and text

This is one of the largest exhibitions Gordon has shown thus far. And without a doubt, it is the largest exhibition ever held in Israel for an artist of his stature.

It is surprising, then, to learn that the late Prof. Mordechai Omer, the former director of the museum and its chief curator, was the first to have offered Gordon a museum show, as Omer did not often hold exhibitions of contemporary artists. Suzanne Landau, who replaced Omer after his death, adopted the idea of an exhibition for Gordon and developed it. To a large extent this is a first step in the implementation of the vision she presented upon taking up the position. She has known Gordon for many years and says she had thought about an exhibition of his work in Israel back when she was chief curator of fine arts at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.

"It is important to give the initial credit to Mordechai Omer," says Landau, "but the concept of the current exhibition is new and different. I wanted it to have presence and power." And indeed, the exhibition not only includes a large number of works but is also displayed generously in the spaces of the museum in its two very different buildings, and to a large extent connects them. It is nourished and influenced by the architecture of the place, whether in the use of the large new spaces or in the texts installed in the 27-meter- high Light Fall.

The curator of the exhibition is Ami Barak, who was requested by Gordon himself because of their long acquaintance. Barak lives in southern France, having left Israel after the First Lebanon War. He has worked for years as an independent curator and art critic, has curated exhibitions around the world and a number of them in Israel, including Art Focus 2 in 1996, when he showed Douglas Gordon for the time in this country.

"We met by chance in Paris in 1992, when he was 'Mister Nobody,'" says Barak, adding that there was wonderful chemistry between them and Gordon invited him for a visit in Glasgow. There, says the curator, he had an extraordinary experience. The art scene in the Scottish city was very stormy in those years.

On his visit to Glasgow, Barak saw for the first time Gordon's canonical work "24 Hour Psycho," a slowed-down version of Alfred Hitchcock's 1960 film, screened at the speed of two frames per second and lasting 24 hours. "I was really floored," recalls Barak. "To my mind it was a masterpiece. And altogether I fell in love with the guy and his work."

Epiphany at Teddy Stadium

In 1996 Ami Barak showed Gordon's shocking work "10ms" in Jerusalem. This is the projection onto a screen of a video made up of segments of a medical film from World War I documenting the attempts of a soldier suffering from post-traumatic shock to get up and walk. "You can understand why I wanted to show this work in Israel," says the curator. According to Barak, Gordon's experiences on that visit were complex but also positive: "He went to the American Colony (Hotel in East Jerusalem ) and was very enthusiastic. He was impressed by the girl soldiers carrying weapons."

Gordon, however, described the experience somewhat differently in a past interview, in which he said that after that visit to Jerusalem he didn't think he would return to Israel - the atmosphere was very harsh in that period. However, according to both the curator and the artist, it was on that visit that one of Gordon's most important and famous works was born; it too is in the Tel Aviv exhibition in a museum screening. This is "Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait," which was made in collaboration with French-Algerian artist Philippe Parreno. The exhibition in Jerusalem in 1996 was held adjacent to Teddy Stadium. After they finished setting it up, Gordon, Parreno and Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson went to buy a ball and started playing on the grass in the stadium. Then an idea began to come together: a work of 90 minutes documenting a soccer game in Spain between Real Madrid, soccer legend Zinedine Zidane's team, and Villareal. It was filmed simultaneously by 17 cameras of differing quality from different angles.

Henry's youthful rebellion

Also in the exhibition is "30 Seconds Text" from 1993, a key work of he artist's. In it a white text appears on a black wall and a light bulb operated by a timer illuminates it for the duration of 30 seconds, so it is possible to read the text but not all of it. This eerie work is described as an experiment carried out by a French doctor at the start of the 20th century, in which he tried to communicate with the head of a condemned criminal immediately after it had been chopped off by the guillotine. For 25 to 30 seconds, reported the doctor, the severed head continued to respond by blinking when the criminal's name was read, and that is how long the work lasts. In the same hall where "24 Hour Psycho" is shown, are also the captivating and clever works "Play Dead Real Time" (2003 ) and "Henry Rebel," starring actor Henry Hopper. The latter work, which is projected onto two screens, is based on scenes that were never filmed for Nicholas Ray's film "Rebel Without a Cause," in which Dennis Hopper, Henry's father, appeared alongside James Dean.

In the same room is also "The End of Civilization" from 2012 - a video of three screenings, accompanied by sound, depicting a grand piano burning and disintegrating on the backdrop of landscapes in Cumbria on the border between England and Scotland. Far more personal materials are also in the exhibition, which reveal not only the artist's life but also his thinking processes, the sources of his works and his instinct for collecting and hoarding. Thus, for example, in the work "I Am Also Hyde," from 2011, 360 framed photographs are displayed together, some of them staged and some not, showing the artist's intimate life in a kind of diary covering a number of years and several countries.

Among the works in the exhibit are two retrospectives; one is the text installation titled "Pretty much every word written, spoken, heard, overheard from 1989." The installation presented in the museum's Light Fall is a kind of anthology of some 100 texts from various years. The second, "Pretty Much Every Film and Video Work From About 1992 Until Now" is a kind of retrospective of his work. Considering the way the exhibit follows Gordon's interest in and use of television and film over the years, we asked him what he thought the differences are among these types of media, and what use he made of each.

Gordon replied that he grew up in a culture of mixing and remixing and sampling from television and making audiovisual collages, when all these forms were in their infancy. Before this, he would travel to archives and spend whole days looking for something. In his mid-20s, the Internet started and there was an inundation of such media, which today, he says, is a bit too much. His work "Pretty Much" on videos became a historical work that shows how culture itself, his culture, changed since his first effort, "Star Trek."

Longing for anonymity

Even now, after he moved to Berlin with his family, Gordon continues to travel extensively. When he photographed "Zidane," for example, he was away from home for almost a year. He still says he doesn't know where home is, suggesting that he's at home in New York, Tel Aviv, Berlin, Paris and Glasgow. He also says that to his mind, the map of the ideal city would begin at Rothschild Boulevard, continue through the streets of Glasgow and from there to Lafayette Street in Paris and the streets of New York. When asked what he loves about Berlin, Gordon said it satisfies his longing for anonymity. New York, he adds, satisfied this longing for a while, but then, due to his exhibits, he lost it. He also notes that he fell in love with an Israeli woman in Berlin, and the vastness of this love allowed him to disappear into her. Another thing he loves about Berlin is that it is full of ghosts.

What does Gordon think it is that makes some of his works canonic, like "Zidane" and "24 Hour Psycho"? He replies that this is not something under his control, and that to some extent his works are like children; sometimes the naughty child is very important. It is like a text with footnotes. The footnotes need the text to exist, and vice versa. As an example, he says "24 Hour Psycho" could not exist without "Star Trek." Neither one could exist, he says, if he had not done performance works during his studies in Glasgow, and it is likely he would not have done performance without growing up in a family of Jehovah's Witnesses.

From 'Play Dead Real Time' (2003): Artist Douglas Gordon’s mother kept two books by her bedside: the Bible and Golda Meir’s biography.Credit: Yanai Yehiel