In his poem ‘Sweeney Agonistes’, TS Eliot reduces human life to the physical events: ‘Birth, copulation, and Death.’ Life condensed into a purely visceral experience appears deceptively simple: reading Eliot’s short proclamation we easily acquiesce to the inevitable. However, Eliot’s simple physical truth is easily muddied and contorted by the mind; and the physical is easily overpowered by the metaphysical; Douglas Gordon’s show is loaded with similarly vertiginous complexity.
Eliot’s final event, Death, is frequently subjected to extension and experiment. His ‘30 seconds text’, 1996, is an illumination of a text describing an early-20th-century experiment to ascertain the finality of death. The text is lit for periods of 30 seconds, mirroring the findings within it—a beheaded criminal seems to respond to his name up to 30 seconds after his head has been severed from his body.
‘Play Dead; Real Time’, 2003, meanwhile, serves as a counterpoint to ‘30 seconds text’. This piece is also inspired by actual events—the electrocution in 1903 of an elephant that had killed three people which was transformed from a dubious act of justice to a sensational spectacle by the Edison Manufacturing Company’s minute-long film of its death. Here, Gordon’s elephant performs the facile trick of playing dead: dying, an elephant’s instinctively private act, is once again an induced public spectacle. On the two monitors that flank the central projection, the camera is fixed on the elephant’s eye, perhaps searching for the same trace of recognition as Dr Baurieux claimed to find in the eyes of the criminal’s severed head.
Gordon’s celebrated ‘24 Hour Psycho’, 1993, draws out Hitchcock’s thriller for a Warholian 24 hours, subjecting the scenes to empirical scrutiny. But the light shone on what you see at a microscopic pace casts a dark shadow on what you miss; the rest of the film is transformed into fleeting, ephemeral memories on the periphery of visual experience.
A small entomological note in Gordon’s cabinet of curiosities, ‘B Movie’, 1995, captures a fly struggling on its back. Barely an inch wide, the image creates a sense of scientific scrutiny. Gordon’s more obvious fascination with the study of insects is sparsely represented; there are only a couple of text pieces, notably the wistful and romantic ‘Letter No 9 (Unremembered)’, 2006, in other words: ‘You remember more than I know.’
A space on a separate floor of the museum houses ‘Between Darkness and Light (after William Blake)’, 1997, in which the films The Exorcist and The Song of Bernadette are simultaneously projected onto the same screen, vying for dominance in the light and shadow of each other.
The experiencing of Timeline is akin to falling down Alice’s rabbit hole: curiouser and curiouser. Empirical and moral truths are uncovered and discredited; science and religion are at odds; man plays God, but is unable to gain control of his own destiny. We have travelled far from Eliot’s succinct, modernist logic to find ourselves in a fascinating amalgamation of enlightenment struggles and postmodern contortions.
Victoria Miguel is a writer living in New York