Exhibitions: The Hitchcock that fell to earth
Sunday 11 April 1999
Atlantis Gallery, London
Chris can do it, Peter can do it, even Tracey can do it - though it's not really in her nature. But Mark definitely can't do it, and nor can Gavin. And the question now is, can Douglas?
Or, to put it more clearly, can Douglas Gordon go big? All of the above mentioned Young British Artists have, in the last 18 months or so, faced the challenge of a solo outing on the British public stage. Chris Ofili, Peter Doig and Tracey Emin pulled off their shows with aplomb. But Marc Quinn and Gavin Turk came up with damp squibs. Now Douglas Gordon has been given his turn - as the recipient of the 1999 Artangel/Beck's Commission - and the result is , a museum-sized video installation currently on show in London's East End.
In this context, going "big" means various things. Can the work fill a major space? Can it be scaled up and still support its weight? Can it rise to the occasion and capture the public imagination?
When a number of Gary Hume paintings are brought together, they create a phenomenon that is more than the sum of its parts; and when Antony Gormley makes a giant version of one of his body casts and puts it on a hill in Tyneside it becomes a national icon. Douglas Gordon has recently started to go very big - he won the Turner Prize in 1996 and the Hugo Boss Prize in 1998 - but the massive space of the Atlantis Gallery would be daunting for any young artist.
To this challenge Gordon adds yet another: he has based his work on Vertigo, the 1958 film by Alfred Hitchcock that is one of the outright classics of world cinema - and a very hard act to follow. Vertigo features James Stewart as a man plagued by guilt and obsession. His guilt springs from his fear of heights, which inadvertently costs the lives of two people during the course of the film; and his obsession centres on a character luminously played by Kim Novak, whom he manages to fail not once but twice. Vertigo is a masterpiece of melodrama, a film whose success is due in no small part to its stunning score. The music is by US composer Bernard Herrmann (who went on to compose the score for Psycho) and Gordon chooses to make this score the centre of his project.
As you walk into the exhibition you are greeted by Herrmann's swelling music, and by the image of a pair of hands conducting it. These hands are shown in close-up on a huge suspended video screen, a screen that goes black whenever the room goes silent - because Gordon uses the score alone, almost entirely suppressing the rest of the soundtrack. The viewer is invited to reconstruct the film, both the moments accompanied by music and the moments in between. It's a reconstruction that can be partially tested, since an almost entirely muted version of the film is simultaneously projected at the back of the gallery.
The result is both moving and disconcerting. The conductor's hands flutter in the darkness above the viewer's head like a giant bird. They create an image of real beauty, and a symbol of power relations that relates to earlier works by Gordon (especially A Divided Self, a video in which the artist's two arms wrestle with one another - one is hairy and the other is shaved, suggesting a battle between male and female, or Jekyll and Hyde). In this respect acts as a complement to Vertigo, creating a metaphor that echoes the latter's fatalistic account of the human condition. But Douglas has a more complicated relationship to Hitchcock than this reading alone would imply.
When the music stops the illusion stops too, and the viewer's attention falls to earth, and to the copy of Vertigo playing quietly in the corner. This neutered version seems faintly ridiculous, its lush locations and costumes looking as dated as its casual misogyny (as the hero's female chum shows him a cantilevered bra which she has just designed, one suddenly realises why Vertigo became a key text for Seventies film studies and its Marxist-Feminist theories). At this level creates a critique of Vertigo, just as Gordon's famous 24 Hour Psycho - in which Hitchcock's film is slowed down and silently projected over the course of a day - makes the viewer aware of all the artifice of the master film- maker, all the tricks upon which real art depends.
Gordon has a very odd relationship to his sources - and a particularly postmodern one. It is as if he both revels in cinema's capacity to create spectacle, and shrinks from the simplifications and distortions that such spectacle implies. Like many of his contemporaries, Gordon seems to be in the shadow of the artistic greats of the 20th century, and to have a relationship to these figures that is nostalgic, tender, admiring, envious and aggressive all at once. This kind of mixed, ambivalent tone is very current, and seems to point a way forward - away from the polished and calculating art-about-art which characterises many of the YBAs, and towards something more fugitive, speculative and humane.
Nevertheless, the question remains whether Gordon's subtle art can maintain its identity as it shifts its scale. involved the re-staging of Herrmann's score at great expense, employing the best conductor, musicians and recording facilities that Paris could provide. The danger was that this work would succumb to the bombast that is an aspect of its source, or would become an empty postmodern folly like Gus Van Sant's recent remake of Psycho. Thankfully, neither is the case. Even though Gordon's appropriation of Hitchcock is a more familiar gesture this time around, the artist manages to maintain his characteristic ambivalence - even in relation to bigness itself.
`': The Atlantis Gallery, EC2 (0171 336 6803) to 3 May.
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