Sculpting In Time

Douglas Gordon’s material manipulations

The literature surrounding the Douglas Gordon retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art emphasizes time and sociology, while I prefer to think of the work as sculpture; this makes the catalog, which is full of mass-media images, seem beside the point.

In Gordon’s masterpiece, “24 Hour Psycho” (1993), the artist slowed down the Alfred Hitchcock film so the movie runs for 24 hours. According to the curator Klaus Biesenbach, it “perfectly evokes the shared knowledge of movie plots and media images that have replaced history and religion to become the source of contemporary civilizations leading narratives.” I just don’t think that Gordon is all that interested in our common culture, no matter what he or the curator says.

Wayne Koestenbaum has written that Andy Warhol’s films were about the eroticism of passing time. Gordon’s films also luxuriate in time and are dependent upon it, but beyond this time is not his primary subject. Warhol said that his film “Empire,” his eight hour shot of the Empire State building, was like “a big hard on.” Warhol discovered that slow films monumentalize—they arrest narrative and the flow of imagery and they create huge interior spaces or solidify into facades.

Gordon’s manipulations bring out the material quality of film—how it is a piece of transparent petroleum product with light shining through it. This also heightens our awareness of the objects that have been crafted in studios to be photographed under intense light. In the old movies that Gordon likes to use—and in all commercial movies—the actors are powdered then polished by light so they read like an idealized version of what we look like, which is what traditional figurative sculpture does.

My impression of another piece, a mirror image black and white film, “left is right and right is wrong and left is wrong and right is right” (1999), was that the doubling negated the illusionistic space in the film so it became a kind of bas-relief. Elsewhere, among the films where Gordon was the original author, such as “Play Dead, Real Time” (2003) that recorded a large elephant lolling on its back in a gallery space, or even the videos of his hands miming fucking in “B-Movie” (1995) or beckoning in “Scratch Hither” (2002), one gets the impression of sculptural studies executed in another medium. Much contemporary sculpture—Koons, Hirst, Pondick, Smith—has borrowed from the cinema’s ability to create memorable images. This may have conversely lead artists such as Gordon to perceive film as a medium adaptable to such sculptural concerns as mass, texture, scale, gesture, and materiality.

Gordon has an interesting, adventurous mind. His challenging and elegant work has a wonderful clarity. There is also something dark about his vision that should not be made overly palatable or seemingly useful to society. It’s good enough that it can stand up to any number of interpretations.