2 November 2006–14 January 2007, Royal Scottish Academy Building, Edinburgh
superhumanatural could never be seen simply as a large scale retrospective of Douglas Gordon’s work. If a hint was needed, the immense tree stump with exposed roots certainly reminded visitors that this artist’s work was being shown on home ground. Indeed, much of this large body of work was being seen in Scotland for the first time. Gordon, though, didn’t dwell on the ironies of that fact but chose, instead, to construct a series of installations that quietly emphasised the Scottish dimensions of his practice. The complete exhibition stretched from the Royal Scottish Academy Building to Inverleith House, The Wash House and (in theory at least) Caledonian Hall. In the broadest sense, the exhibition was site specific, focusing on Edinburgh as the divided and schizophrenic city that has been home to so many of the ghosts that bedevil Douglas Gordon. Ian Rankin’s specially commissioned story ‘Sinner: Justified’ enumerates them including Jean Brodie, Jekyll and Hyde, Burke and Hare, Long John Silver, Robert Wringham, Deacon Brodie, David Balfour, Guy Mannering et al in a tale where the fictional researcher Douglas Gordon confronts many of them in an hallucinatory episode in the haunted pub, The Last Drop.
In the introductory pages of the exhibition catalogue, Gordon reproduces a map of the city that starkly underlines the meandering density of old Edinburgh and the rational grids of the New Town. This line of thought continues with the division of the exhibition into a body of text works in Inverleith House and the ‘visual’ works in the RSA Building, ostensibly a separation of word and image. Within the RSA Building itself, this process of splitting intensifies as Gordon highlights the forked directions of the rooms within the edifice and its various symmetries. Even his new work, ‘Cranach’s Tree’, highlights his use of a woodcut borrowed from the National Gallery of Scotland course is a 16th century image itself divided in half by a tree. In a sense, all of Gordon’s works are subsumed into a larger point by this installation, a fractal-like image of splitting that can be found from the macroscopic level of city planning down to the smallest detail of each work and beyond.
This ability of the installation to comment on the art itself has been a feature of Douglas Gordon’s exhibitions for some time now but perhaps never with so much relevance as in Edinburgh. Echoing with native resonances, the work has an opportunity to operate on an extra level. In his recent exhibition at Deutsche Guggenheim in Berlin, The Vanity of Allegory, 2005, Gordon focused on the artistic self-portrait, drawing on a wide variety of works from contemporary art from Marcel Duchamp to Roni Horn. There was a strong sense in that exhibition of the artist considering his own mortality. In Edinburgh, however, the driving force is that of an artist weighing the value of his own work. Often too, in its darkest moments, this self-assessment is paralleled by a rich seam of black humour from the gothic splendour of a room filled with blind stars to the admonition SILENCE IN THE MUSEUM (and the endnote ‘I forgive you’).
For the audience, too, the careful layout of the exhibition allows for discovery and analysis. ‘Feature Film’, for instance, has never had such impact and its core relationship between sound and image gains new meaning in this exhibition. It gains too from the emergence of a second full-length Zidane feature that gives us a new measure of the first and emphasises just how important and underrated sound is in Douglas Gordon’s work. Gordon and Philippe Parreno’s portrait of Zidane, their choice of a footballer as meaningful in terms of race and politics as in sport, is also an attempt to confront the layers of history around an individual. It is through sound in particular that those layers are examined in Zidane: a 21st Century Portrait—superhumanatural allows us to explore just how this process has its roots in the earlier ‘Feature Film’. The focus on history in Zidane is also paralleled by a growing interest in art history within Gordon’s own practice. He has, of course, always displayed a deep knowledge of contemporary art history and there have been references to Blake and early woodcuts. Increasingly, though, he has been reaching back further in time to more specific works. ‘The Vanity of Allegory’ was partly based around a commissioned copy of a Perugino and in Edinburgh both Lucas Cranach the Elder and Plato provide the template for new pieces that bind Gordon more tightly to the long history of Western representation. Given the prominence of memory in his practice this development opens the way to a much larger consideration of history and historical memory. It is a significant advance for an artist of this stature, providing broader scope at a point of personal maturity. Just as importantly, the humour lurking in this exhibition and the presence of the female band Chicks on Speed ensure that a lightness of touch has not deserted him.
Francis McKee is a writer and curator based in Glasgow