Throughout history, the colour black has most often been associated with negative events and emotions, bad luck and the unknown. Mourners wear black at funerals, tragic days are labelled black days, black moods are bad, black magic is evil. However, in other situations or times the colour black is considered positive. Black clothes make you look slim, black cats are unlucky, ‘the new black’ introduces seasonal trends in fashion, being ‘in the black’ means you are free from debt. Black, then, is an appropriate colour for the pages of this substantial book.
On the front cover of Timeline is an image of a hand marked with a black spot. ‘Hand with Spot’, 2001 is a detail drawn from a series of works in which Gordon references Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel Treasure Island, 1883). In the classic adventure tale the black spot is a symbol of the imminent and unavoidable death of the marked. Gordon often appropriates familiar literary and cinematic content in his work, re-using well known films and referencing works of fiction in order to trigger our personal recollections or memories of them.
What is clear from the beginning is that Timeline is not just another monograph of the artist’s work. As Klaus Biesenbach explains in his insightful introductory essay ‘Sympathy for the Devil’, this is a carefully constructed ‘montage of observations, descriptions, memories and ideas’. Cleverly titled and beautifully printed, the book brings together two separate timelines: Gordon’s personal biography, and a series of images from our shared history. As you would expect from a catalogue published to coincide with a mid-career retrospective, the book contains images of a selection of Gordon’s work to date, ranging from film-stills of his now seminal video piece ‘24 Hour Psycho’, 1993 to ‘Studies for New Colour Empire’, 2005, photographs which illustrate a new work made for the exhibition at Museum of Modern Art in New York that pays homage to Andy Warhol’s film Empire, 1964.
The second set of images in the book are more unexpected. Starting with a copy of Gordon’s birth certificate from 1966 they go on to depict some of the most significant world events of the past 40 years. Ninety-seven images, culled from news archives, illustrate some of the world’s worst atrocities–infamous serial killers, assassinations, war, terrorist attacks, genocide, earthquakes, hurricanes, murder, humiliation and torture.
These silent images, removed from their familiar accompanying soundtracks—children crying, gunshots, explosions, mothers grieving their dead, screaming, the monotone voice of the news presenter, the specifically selected background music— confront the viewer head-on.
Like Gordon’s often silent films they create space for our memories and remind us of the indelible impression such events leave on our collective consciousness.
Anne-Marie Watson is a curator at DCA