Flash Art Int. (1999 - 2001) Anno 32 Numero 207 Summer 1999
Are You Looking at Him?
The following is taken from an e-mail interview dialogue between Douglas Gordon and myself, conducted whilst Douglas was pumped full of painkillers as a result of a football injury. Through the pain, we discuss Feature Film, his most recent work (shown at Atlantis in London and at the Cologne Kunstverein) and Through the Looking Glass, installed earlier this year at Gagosian gallery, New York, and to be included in the Venice Biennale. Feature Film is Gordon's first film as a director, and shows James Conlon conducting Bernard Herrmann's soundtrack to Hitchcock's Vertigo (1958); in the London version, the Hitchcock film was projected alongside. Through the Looking Glass draws on the famous scene in Scorsese's Taxi Driver (1976) in which Robert de Niro addresses himself in the mirror, as if pulling guns on an opponent.
Claire Bishop: Let's start first with Feature Film. Installed in London, I loved the way that the entrance was pushed right to the top of the building, giving the visitor their own vertiginous glance down the stairwell. Was this just a fortuitous accident?
Douglas Gordon: There were two possible ways to get into the room we used at Atlantis, and I insisted that we make people go right to the top, so it was no accident. Even the green gels on the lights at the top of the stairs were specifically chosen. Also, the curtains on the windows at the mezzanine level were open at night and the view across east London rooftops and towards the city echoed the opening scene from Hitchcock's Vertigo. These details, not exactly part of "the work," were very important to me. They act as a subliminal influence or unconscious register for people who visit the space. Maybe not everyone is aware of the influence of these details, but they remain a critical thing for me. On arriving in the space, Vertigo was only the glow of an image, reflected on the side wall. This was important - in that it implies Vertigo as a footnote, or a marginal reference for Feature Film. Art making and installation can be thought of along the same lines as the way we read texts: there is a "main text" and "footnotes."
CB: Have you installed it the same way in Cologne?
DG: The installation at Cologne was radically different to that in London. The London film is also a different edit to the Cologne version - it runs almost exactly parallel to the Hitchcock film, and they stay more-or-less in sync. The Cologne edit, however, is not intended to play alongside anything else. I projected the same film - twice - on wall about 35 metres apart - opposite one another. One image is a perfect mirror of the other. It's very disconcerting. It's difficult when you are standing in the space, to realise that a left hand has become a right hand, and vice versa.
CB: Did you enjoy directing a film for once, rather than appropriating others' work?
DG: I was very conscious of stepping into the world of "the director." I was not sure how I would feel, and was very wary of presenting this piece - both in terms of risking the "purity" of the readymade/interventions that I had made before and simply that the whole thing might fuck up - since the only footage I had shot before this was hand held video.
CB: James Conlon has a very beautiful, bleak, melancholic face - he looks the romantic film hero in every way. His eyes in particular are magnetic - black and wet. Did you "cast" him or "create" him?
DG: Well, out of the hundreds of images I looked at, of conductors, he was by far the most interesting in terms of physiognomy and an intensity of movement and gaze. I wanted someone who needn't necessarily "pass" as looking like a conductor - that's why he was cast in black pullover and not formal theatrical attire. Also, he doesn't use a baton when rehearsing, so that allowed a little bit more ambiguity to enter the frame. Is he a conductor? Is he an actor? Where are the orchestra, if indeed there ever was one?
CB: How did you film him? Was the orchestra there throughout?
DG: We filmed him over two days, one weekend in September 1998. He conducts the orchestra for the whole score. There are clearly, though, a few shots that were done after the orchestra left the auditorium - these "wild" shots were close ups of his eyes, and a few panning shots down his forehead. The rest of the material was shot "live." The lenses were good, long zoom lenses and this allowed the cameras to be 30-35 feet away from Conlon while giving the impression of close range shooting. The cinematographers were brilliant, as you could see.
CB: Do you see James Conlon as a conduit (for the music, or a certain spirit of the film, or your interpretation) - in the same way that in Vertigo Scottie is a set up for other people's schemes, as well as a conduit for the vertigo itself, a neurosis that seems to act through or upon him, against his will?
DG: Absolutely. The atmosphere of the film, I think, reflects the neurosis of the original, and also the tension of the music score.
CB: Would this then form a link between your earlier work (the shorter film pieces that deal with Freudian themes: repetition compulsion, hysteria, split personalities)? Or do you prefer not to force such connections?
DG: I don't think that this is forcing an issue at all. There are clear links, and evident preoccupations.
CB: Which are continued in Through the Looking Glass. I have a feeling that the sequence from Taxi Driver you have used incarnates something absolutely fundamental to the male psyche - going by the number of friends and boyfriends I have heard quoting this passage at least. Did you choose it because it had a similarly compelling effect on you?
DG: Yes, yes, and yes.
CB: Can you tell me about how it evolved, as a piece?
DG: I had heard about Taxi Driver for many many years before I saw the film. I had heard the famous monologue many more times than that. I had heard students quoting it in late night parties. I had heard it spoken, more honestly, in any of Glasgow's bars or clubs - between one guy who saw another guy look at him "the wrong way." It's easy to look at someone "the wrong way." Then they ask you "who the fuck do you think you're looking at?" Eventually I just started watching that scene over and over again. I read an article somewhere which said that the monologue was improvised by De Niro. So I bought the screenplay and checked it out. True enough. So for me, the monologue had already "detached" itself from the film as a whole. Around this time I was also listening to film music every day. It was Bernard Herrmann who interested me more than the others. The Taxi Driver soundtrack included our monologue - so I listened to it over and over, sometimes unconsciously, and it clearly made an impression on me. The next step was to watch the clip in the same way that I had heard the music. I was intrigued by the fact that it is a "mirror" scene, yet we never see the mirror. So, the director knows, and we assume, that everyone else imagines that it's a mirror, despite knowing that it's a camera. This means the scene already works in suspending the viewer's disbelief. Then I started to watch the scene as a mirror of itself. The length of the sequence used from Taxi Driver is about 70 seconds. The two projections start together, in sync. Then one image starts to move away from the other. First it happens almost unnoticeably, by one video frame, ie. 25th of a second. The next time it moves away by two frames, then 4 frames, then 8, 16, 32, 64 etc. When it reaches 512 it starts to move back into sync - having doubled itself away from its reflection. It takes another 30 minutes for it to move back into sync with its reflection - so the length of the whole thing is about an hour. Of course all this is secondary to the main interest of the idea, which is that the violence in the scene is less to do with the gun, and much more to do with the monologue between two parts of a divided self. All soliloquies are addressed to someone. There's always an audience, even if you end up playing for/with yourself.
CB: There is a lot (as you probably know) in Lacanian psychoanalysis about the "mirror stage," a moment of non-coincidence between your sense of your own body and the image of yourself in the mirror. Is this important to Looking Glass? The subjective split is clearly what A Divided Self and Confessions of a Justified Sinner were also about - is the same theme continued this new piece?
DG: It's a similar theme, but there is something different going on because of the physical form of this piece. Whereas the "mirroring" in the other works were oblique or side-by-side arrangements of images and screens, this time the viewer in inside the mirror. In a way, you have to stand somewhere between the silver surface of a mirror, and the glass surface - hence the title referring to Alice and Lewis Carroll.
CB: There's an often quoted passage about your recollection as a child, wanting to see what was behind the cinema screen. The way you install your screens - allowing viewer movement around all sides - is something that marks out your work as unique among artists who work with video.
DG: That comment pretty much sums up the attitude I have. I wanted to install screens in a sculptural way - and reveal the mechanism of how we look. In a sense this is an attempt to simultaneously deconstruct the magic of the cinema yet allow the aura to remain. It may not be the magic that we fantasised about as children, but it still casts some kind of spell.
CB: Is a knowledge of certain key films important for the viewer to "get" the most out of your work? (You can be as elitist as you like here!)
DG: I try to use films as a common denominator. Usually what I'm trying to do is not make a comment on the specific film itself. 24 Hour Psycho was not a thesis on Hitchcock, and neither is Feature Film, nor Through a Looking Glass on Taxi Driver, and so on. The choice of film is critical, but this is only in so far as the choice represents "call" film. It's about looking, remembering, thinking, forgetting, suppressing, elevating, focussing, blurring. This can happen on a real and metaphorical level. Therefore, the films I choose are only stand-ins for other films. On one hand. The contrary statement to this is that these films I use are absolutely appropriate for appropriation because they have a status in the world that allows one person to talk to another about their experience. They are the icons of a common currency (paradox intended!).
CB: Are you as influenced by artists as you are by films?
DG: Without a doubt. But the influence of artist is only as important as that of teachers, writers, rockers, chefs, footballers, d.j.'s, poets, singers, politicians, historians, economists, doctors, nurses, philosophers, deities, psychiatrists, mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, lovers, ex-lovers, future lovers, and so on and not in any particular order. Too many people to name - although I could give you 1500 and then you wouldn't have to write anything else!