Twenty-four Hour Psycho (1993) made Douglas Gordon famous. Like Martin Creed’s lights going on and off or Tate’s 1976 acquisition of Carl Andre’s ‘pile of bricks’, the film ignited the British tabloids’ finest writers. Each of these three works contributed, in part, towards London’s huge audience for contemporary art; the things that baffle and irritate seem to accrue column inches and clog gallery turnstiles. Gordon’s next work to gain major press attention was Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait (2006, with Philippe Parreno), in which 17 cameras simultaneously tracked the gifted French footballer around the pitch for a full 90 minutes. Once again Gordon was behind a film that genuinely fascinated the public (even if it does appear to be an ‘update’ of the 1970 Hellmuth Costard film which used eight cameras to follow George Best).
K.364 (2011), Gordon’s new work and the main piece in his exhibition at Gagosian, isn’t likely to ignite controversy. Nor are the two other works that accompany it, Burnt Scores, partially burnt leaves of sheet music affixed to mirrors, and Straight To Hell; No Way Back (both 2011), a personal collection of visual sources and research material, clippings, photos and self-portraits which Gordon has amassed over the years. The key subject of the two-screen video installation K.364 is a piece of music: Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante in E Flat (1779) also known as K.364. Just like Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) or Zinedine Zidane, the piece doesn’t need Gordon to get by; its been doing fine on its own for years. But the way Gordon hopes to transform it – to nuance Mozart or to reset our coordinates for the music’s reception – is complicated and not entirely successful. In the productive piggybacking of the two earlier works, Gordon asks us to look again, adding something to what’s already known to be wonderful. The conceptual frame underneath is also tight: 24-hour Psycho; 90-minutes Zidane. These works punch with specificity.
In K.364 Gordon adds a back story: the film follows Avri Levitan and Roi Shiloah, two Israeli musicians of Polish descent, as they travel by train from Berlin through Poland, en route to play at the Warsaw Philharmonic concert hall. This constitutes the work’s unifying frisson – had their families not fled the Nazis the sublimely gifted pair would not be on screen playing for us now. One can field traces of Gordon’s allegory here: the musicians are journeying through their history towards music; whatever human beings do, great art soars up over them, offering redemption, something beyond individuals.
K.364 is refracted through a fabulously designed video installation, with judiciously placed mirrors shattering it into staged reflecting shards. Initially, it’s so disorientating it’s hard to even cross the threshold. As an audience we look, immerse ourselves and enjoy the space and the grandeur of the music. But there is no strong sense that the artist has any real purchase on what is being achieved exactly. What has Gordon done here and what belongs to him? (Annoyingly, these are just the sort of criticisms that the tabloids levelled at 24 Hour Psycho, though still I found myself thinking them, preparing to write reprimands and notes-to-self later.) Fatally, Gordon seems to have forgotten he is making an installation: his conception of K.364 is that of a ‘film’ or more accurately a ‘film portrait’ (Zidane’s subtitle, ‘21st Century Portrait’, could equally apply to K.364). Of course, we live in a world where no one would be surprised to see a movie or a TV show screened as an installation but to work the viewers would have to know it well. Here this isn’t the case. We are invited to watch the installation but it is only in watching the single-screen version – shown on a monitor in a side room, with a sofa but no screening times – that we start to understand the heart of the work. The story-line of the two musicians crossing Poland’s emotional terrain is something the viewer absolutely requires if K.364 is to achieve any distinction but, unless you catch the beginning and stay 55 minutes, presented as an installation it’s simply not likely to happen. The work lacks Gordon’s usually tight conceptual gambit; what he wants us to experience is drowned and drowned out, the form muddled.
A recurring criticism of Gordon’s earlier works was that they were based on overly simplistic organizing principles. Between Darkness and Light (1997), for example, stages a ‘fight’ between two films, The Song of Bernadette (1943) and The Exorcist (1973): shown simultaneously on either side of a single screen, one represents Good (the Virgin Mary) and the other Bad (the Devil). K.364 suggests a more layered, mature strategy, in which a nuanced and complex conceit is evolved. And in that quest Gordon has a right to mix up genres, to hedge his bets, but it’s more risky and likely to be obscure sometimes. His convincing touch on the works of others, like the Queen conferring a knighthood with a sword, seems faltering this time.
George Barber is an artist who lives and works in London, UK. In 2015, he had solo shows at Chapter Arts, Cardiff, UK; YOUNG PROJECTS, Los Angeles, USA; and Waterside Contemporary, London.
First published in Issue 139