Mirror Images
Source:Artintern Author:Douglas Gordon and Jean Wainwright Date: 2008-08-15 Size:
Jean Wainwright: I'd like to begin by talking about your reinstallation of 24 Hour Psycho, 1993, at the Hayward Gallery in exactly the same position as it occupied in 'Spellbound' in 1996.

 Exhibition site (photo courtesy of Doart Beijing)

Douglas Gordon interviewed by Jean Wainwright at the time of his exhibition at the Hayward Gallery, London

Jean Wainwright: I'd like to begin by talking about your reinstallation of 24 Hour Psycho, 1993, at the Hayward Gallery in exactly the same position as it occupied in 'Spellbound' in 1996.

Douglas Gordon: This is the first time I have had the opportunity to do this, to revisit a space — to reinstall something, playing with the idea not entirely of an instant recall but some kind of a recollection. Often when artists come into a space like this they have to almost think of it as some kind of a battle to be able to take it on. My idea was that 24 Hour Psycho has always been here, it just so happened that maybe it had to move out of the way but only temporarily — this is the permanent thing. There is definitely something tongue-in-cheek going on here — but if people didn't see the work six years ago that doesn't really matter. The people who did maybe will get the humour and conceit of it — but again it's changed — because of this huge mirrored wall so that just as you begin to think 'I've seen this before' the rug is pulled from under you. It makes it difficult to orient yourself around the space — just by including a mirror or two. It will be interesting to see how the viewer will look at the work — whether through the mirror — or the real thing and what is the difference between that anyway? For myself when I walk down the other mirrored corridor I find it easier to look at Between Darkness and Light (After William Blake), 1997, in the mirror because it seems to be safer than looking at the real thing — because I am terrified of that piece. I have never watched The Exorcist in my life, it's a lot for me to take. Also to me a lot of work seems to be very high-tech these days which is not something that I am very interested in. I started off my practice — or the practice that is known — with 24 Hour Psycho which is very DIY. My original idea was that somebody could go down to Virgin or Tower video and buy Psycho and watch it that way — they didn't have to have my authorisation for it.

JW: What first triggered your interest in the mirror image?

DG: Maybe a lot to do with fear and a mixture of superstition which probably grew into teenage voyeurism which probably evolved into a middle-aged sadism or something — wanting to see but also not wanting to necessarily get involved. There is an implication of some kind of trauma all through the exhibition. If you take the idea of your memory of a traumatic event it often happens in slow motion which leads you back to something like Psycho. The text on the mirror, 'I've changed, You've changed', relentlessly repeated, could be used in real life as an excuse or a comfort, it's almost like a mantra. Everybody has heard it and everybody has probably used it and when you look in the mirror you probably don't know the difference between the 'I' and the 'You' anymore.

JW: Can we talk about curiosity, your experimentation with slowing time to see what happens.

DG: A lot of this comes out of the performance work that I used to do as a student when I was very influenced by Alastair MacLennan. I remember at the Riverside doing the National Review of Live Art where I performed with two friends from Glasgow and we were upstairs moving very slowly and Alastair was downstairs moving even slower. The great thing was that very simple dual speed thing — which I was more conscious of when viewing his work than when I was performing. Most films attempt to represent the speed at which we live — and we all live in relative speed to one another unless one is in a narcotic state where that doesn't happen, which is equally interesting. With Alastair's performance you became very conscious of the difference between the two speeds and the way that is going to affect your cognitive process, your physical interaction with objects. I think this is one of the things that probably was behind 24 Hour Psycho, the way people behave in space with an image that is moving that fast.

JW: If we talk about Between Darkness and Light (After William Blake) you have edited and combined two films The Exorcist on one side of the screen and The Song of Bernadette on the other. Each has its distinctive sound track combined with a forceful struggle between good and evil.

DG: Again that has been an interesting thing in this installation which hasn't happened in other places. The soundtrack of Between Darkness and Light … becomes the soundtrack for a lot of other pieces in the show and makes you interested in the fact that Fog, the hand pieces, the text works and 24 Hour Psycho are all resolutely silent. So for me this was interesting and genuinely experimental. I didn't know what would happen once we let the sound penetrate.


JW: With your installation Something between your mouth and my ear, 1994, sound is also very important.

DG: The genesis of the work was that I started to rethink the idea of reading — that maybe reading was more about hearing and that related to Umberto Eco and Gianni Celati and when you read a word off the page you hear a voice in your head. I started to think that the first things I read might have been the first things I heard — and the first things I heard might have been the things my mother heard.

JW: Quite Lacanian.

DG: I never checked this out with my mother; I wanted to get close but not too close …

JW: It might have been a disturbing experience.

DG: It may have been more of Sandy Shaw than I would have liked to have admitted to. Because of the nature of the space it's difficult to see where people might end up; having gone through so many bleak and anxiety-inducing installations in this exhibition you end up in what is apparently a welcoming situation with what could be seen to be quite a warm conceptual work. It is the only space where filtered daylight penetrates so it is as dark as it is outside — take that as a metaphor if you like. The implication of course — and these works are all models for other things — is that if these are things that I may have heard, I may have heard others too and therefore not just me but everybody else. So even the most welcoming work in the show should manage to twist itself round in someone's head and become something a bit more ambiguous.

JW: Two of your other self-portraits also have a twist. Self Portrait (Kissing with Scopolamine), 1994, where you kiss your negative image in the mirror and Kissing with Sodium Pentothal, 1994, your multi-slide projection; did the people you were kissing in that work know you were drugged?

DG: Some of them knew: the idea was that I told some of them and not others. Pentothal is a so-called truth drug, you know how in some B-movies where they are trying to beat a confession out of someone they'll inject them with sodium pentothal.

JW: When you see the piece it is detached and silent so all the things you might have said are left hanging.

DG: I suppose the missing part of that is what you can only imagine, but there are missing parts in everything, even the text pieces which seem to be finite. In the list of fears in From God to Nothing, 1996, there are for sure some that are missing.

JW: You wrote down 147 fears in the form of a stream of consciousness?

DG: It was a stream of consciousness over a period of days. Some of it came out of homeopathy which I grew up with. Part of the idea is a self-diagnosis — so you would respond to prompts from the manual — a lot of it was to do with looking at your fears so that you could help yourself. I see From God to Nothing as a very positive piece, it's not paranoid at all. I think by listing your fears you recognise what they are. Usually the work is installed horizontally so that it is difficult to find a beginning or an end, but here it is vertical so there is an implied hierarchy because of the physical situation.

JW: Narrative is important to you, your two works Fog, 2002, and Black Star, 2002, both relate to the James Hogg novel The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, 1824. Can we talk about the way that these two works relate to each other?

DG: Black Star is in an absolutely pitch-black space. You have the black light which people associate with a club or disco with all its positive/negative ideas and heightened I think because obviously in a club there are a lot of surfaces that that light can reflect off, but here there is nothing apart from the person. It almost gets to the point where you feel you are being x-rayed — not a real situation but the metaphor. Part of the work is my narration of Hogg's book. The first idea was to mirror what was happening in the novel. Even though the novel has a very straightforward narrative, when you are actually inside it the simplicity disappears. In Black Star you are standing inside a very simple shape ie a star but it is actually incredibly difficult to see what the shape is. The other reason for a star is a much more populist idea that Satan is supposed to be conjured up in the middle of one. The trick or joke for me is that people could be standing in the middle of it without realising, because I believe that is what happens in life anyway. There is also a lot going on in Hogg's text — you don't know if it is a fake, it is close enough to the truth but not quite, you don't know whether the manifestations of evil or the excuses are in Robert Wringhim's head or whether they actually happened, so there is doubt. My voice could be a comfort to people but then when you start listening it is not telling you exactly what you wanted to hear which is always good.

JW: What is Black Star's relationship to Fog?

DG: Fog, I really should stress, is based on, not an illustration of, the scene with the protagonist's brother. For people who know the book they may get the idea that you are watching someone who is about to die, but for people who don't it shouldn't really make that much difference. What I tried to do in terms of the editing — and this projection could be seen to be a universal idea of someone trying to think outside of themselves — was to induce the fear that someone has of losing their own shadow, of having two shadows or of sharing a shadow with someone else. It plays on all the mythology of vampirism and the usual satanic stuff. The guy who played the role is the godfather to my kid, which I think is a nice bit of mythology to hang around the work. It doesn't have to be stated but in time that might become a more interesting idea. Just as an aside to this we shot Fog in New York on a sound stage which turned out to be the same stage used for Fatal Attraction — the fight scene between Glenn Close and Michael Douglas — which I thought was kind of great — the idea that when the fog comes down we will see the other set.

JW: As well as references to Hitchcock stylistically you also reference Andy Warhol.

DG: I did a version of Empire, which was called Bootleg Empire, it is almost like the amateur version of the auteur masterpiece — it's very shakily done. I lived in Berlin for a while and I went to see Warhol's Empire and I thought 'I may never get to see this again', so I filmed it for an hour went to the pub and then came back and filmed it for the last hour. So mine only lasts for two hours — so it's like 'the best of' or something. But quite often my version is seen with his films in exhibitions, which is kind of funny as mine is slightly more dramatic as it is shaky and there are shadows of people walking in front of the camera. But equally Barnett Newman was a very big influence on making the cinematic pieces. When I was 16 I came down to London from Glasgow and went to the Tate Gallery where I saw one of Newman's paintings. I had never seen anything of that size before and rather than look at it I timed how long it would take to walk from one end to the other. This was my first realisation that time and art had a very close connection. The fact is that you can't ignore it and it takes you ten seconds to walk the length — I just thought that was incredible. But I think I was also overwhelmed by the physical fact that if your eyes are being drenched you carry away a retinal imprint of the work and if it's physically affecting you then it must be psychologically affecting you too. Then years and years later to remember Barnett Newman and then read in one of the Warhol diaries that everybody thought that Andy was the party guy but Andy said 'no way I can't compete with Barnett Newman' the fact that they were occupying the same space at the same time.

I also remember the Warhol show at the Hayward, but it was equally influential to be in a toilet at a party in Glasgow in 1992 watching My Hustler and pretending to be still in the toilet so that I could see a little bit more. It was very 'factory', that was cool.

JW: Many of your works show a fragmented body such as Left Dead and Dead Right or Hand and Foot.

DG: They are not so much about the fragmentation of the body in terms of psychology — not that the psychoanalytical reading is irrelevant — nor is it about the fragmentation of the body in a pornographic sense in order to be able to look at something distanced from the body. I was more interested in some ways in what happens away from what you can see: if this is happening to the hand and foot let's imagine what's happening elsewhere. So it is that reverse fetishisation idea, you are not fetishising the thing you are looking at but what you don't have access to. Again this is a little like the mirror idea — by seeing it through the mirror maybe you are not as culpable as being involved in it in real life. You can look at something which is fairly innocent — which is the only thing you can see — rather than something that is actually happening which is far more dramatic off-screen. For me the idea of the off-screen is as interesting if not more so than what is happening right in front of you.

JW: What about appropriation and authorship: if I didn't know you had made Fog I would think it part of a B-movie that I was unfamiliar with.

DG: Good, this is perfect — because for me the pieces that have been 'kidnapped' will not in time occupy so much of a different status from the works that I have allegedly filmed. The multiple and contradictory mythology around the work is as important for me as the work itself. In the video installation, Pretty much every film and video work from about 1992 until now. To be seen on monitors, some with headphones, others run silently, and all simultaneously, 2002, there are a couple of films of flies dying. When we showed it at the Pompidou Centre one story was that I had found these films in a college or medical school that had been doing experiments — partly because it was more believable if it wasn't an artist who had made it. It would be more interesting to get away from the idea of the gesture of art and into so-called real life. But then we put another story out that of course it was me that had made it. It was more interesting for me to have contradictory stories around the work.

JW: In that context can we talk about your body tattoos 'always', which is in mirror writing, 'forever', 'everyday' and 'trust me'? When you made them were they artworks?

DG: This was where art came in handy. Because of the background I come from, a tattoo was a very taboo thing to have in my family.

That indelible mark on the body — which of course is why you like it when you get it done — but I could say, 'this is done as an artwork' and then when you are out of the art gallery it is no longer an artwork.


JW: There is a connection to Three inches (black), 1997, here.

DG: What was interesting to me was that the black tattooed finger became like a story-telling object in itself. It is the left digit, the left-hand side and all that sinister mythology as well as the significance of three inches. It was photographed immediately after the tattoo was made. This guy and I had a relationship to make this thing, he allowed me to take the photographs of it and I gave him the finger to take away. Unfortunately he couldn't be at the opening.

JW: There is often an ambiguity in your work, as though you don't want to fix people's relationship with it.

DG: It is interesting that you put it like that. I'm coming from the other side of that, where my idea was that things are fixed so let's jeopardise them. I like jeopardy. I like the idea that having had an exhibition at the Hayward I can now disappear. In the same way that I never wanted to occupy one particular field of art practice, I think there shouldn't be an onus on the artist to maintain a position in the world. I think that it is very important that I should give myself the option of saying 'no' as often as possible, for there to be an option that you can suddenly shift and leave the artist out of it. In a way, although there is a biographical/autobiographical theme to the show, the way Fiona Bradley [curator of the exhibition] and I spoke about this when we were installing and planning it was that it should almost be done and look as if I wasn't here for whatever reason. So it is clearly not a retrospective, but it is an overview of an aspect of a practice.

What have I done was at the Hayward Gallery in London from November 1 2002 to January 5, 2003.


Jean Wainwright is an art historian and critic living in London.


[Editor] Zhang Shuo