His artwork can be extreme and intense, with duality at its heart. Meet Turner Prize-winning Glaswegian Douglas Gordon. By Peter Hill.

The many sides of artist Douglas Gordon

Glasgow-born artist Douglas Gordon.
Glasgow-born artist Douglas Gordon.

In this story

I’m walking through Douglas Gordon’s astonishing installation of mirrors, film stills, low-tech television monitors and timed-to-the-split-second video projections of Robert De Niro, as Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle, practising pulling a gun – “You talkin’ to me?” – when a text comes in from the man himself. “Window of opportunity,” he says. “Early lunch?” 

I’m at ACCA (the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art) in Melbourne’s Southbank, a venue that’s given me some of the best art experiences of my life over the past few years: Barbara Kruger, Joseph Kosuth, Nathan Coley, and now Douglas Gordon. I step outside and ring his number. I know this Glaswegian globetrotter is returning home to Berlin in the evening. We arrange to meet in 20 minutes at the Sofitel, where he’s been staying. 

I leave The Only Way Out Is the Only Way In exhibition, jump on a tram and speed-read the newly arrived catalogue. Hundreds of different sized images fly past me as I flick through the pages: shell-shocked soldiers; a semi-nude descending a staircase; overlapping film stills from The Exorcist and The Song of Bernadette; a dying fly; a naked woman squatting; John Wayne wearing a cowboy hat; the artist, lying on the floor, singing Lou Reed’s greatest hits; a baby’s (his baby’s) first erection; a hand cloaked in candle wax. 

By the time I get there he’s checked out of his room and is in the lobby chatting with Okwui Enwezor, Nigerian-born über-curator who runs the Haus der Kunst in Munich. He has previously directed Documenta, the world’s biggest art event, and is in charge of next year’s Venice Biennale. They look an unlikely pair, Okwui in his immaculately pressed suit and polished shoes, Gordon white-faced, arms sleeved in gothic-looking tats, expensive chrome eyewear and heavy jewellery. He gives me a haven’t seen-you-for-ages bear hug and we head out for lunch. I’m keen to take him to one of the Italian places at the top of Bourke Street. “Can’t eat wheat,” he says. “No pasta. It’s some kind of food allergy I’ve developed. But I’ve found this place that does amazing soup and great oysters.” He leads me through my own adopted city to Cumulus Inc in Flinders Lane, explaining as we go that Okwui is in Australia making studio visits, scouting for artists to bring to Venice. 

The restaurant, which backs on to Arc One Gallery, is packed – or hoaching, as we say in Glasgow. We squeeze onto two bar stools. Most of the staff seem to know him. “I’ve been ducking in here all weekend when not watching Game of Thrones up in the hotel. I’ve got through two box sets on this trip.” And this is his second visit to Australia in a couple of months. The day before, I’d returned from Singapore via Sydney to catch a final glimpse of his work in the Biennale, two slowly opening kohled eyes accompanied by a Rufus Wainwright soundtrack, framed by two grand pianos: one extant, the other charred to a cinder. Charred to a cinder like 30 per cent of Glasgow School of Art. And this is what we immediately focus on. He studied there as an undergraduate. I went to Saturday morning art classes from the age of seven, back in the 1960s. A few weeks ago, a student preparing for their degree show set the building ablaze through the incorrect use of foam.

“We used to say it was a tinderbox waiting to go up,” Gordon begins, sipping on a glass of pinot. “Students would be using all sorts of power tools and dodgy materials. Such a tragedy about the library.” My mind flashes back to that beautiful Charles Rennie Mackintosh room with its suspended floor and ornate, yet severe, decoration. The Glasgow School of Art and the Sydney Opera House are probably my two favourite pieces of architecture on the planet. 

When Douglas Gordon emerged from Glasgow School of Art in the late ’80s, the international spotlight was already on the city. Steven Campbell, quickly followed by Adrian Wiszniewski, Ken Currie, Peter Howson and Jenny Saville were the figurative painters commanding huge prices in New York, London and Berlin. Collectors flew to London only to change planes and head north to Glasgow, in the same way that private jets from Los Angeles and Hong Kong now refuel in Hawaii and Singapore and bypass Sydney and Melbourne to visit MONA in Tasmania. Gordon and his then partner Christine Borland had some great teachers, especially Samantha Ainsley and David Harding, who not only taught them how to critique their own practice but how to engage with the art world at large. They inhabited a feral offshoot of the main art school, once known as the mural and stained-glass department. It morphed, free of all creative-dulling bureaucracy, into the Department of Environmental Art. 

“The particular department that I went into was like the Battersea Dogs home of the Glasgow School of Art,” he told one interviewer, with bang-on accuracy. “It was all the mongrels who would go there. I, like everybody else, wanted to go into the painting department, but the painting department didn’t want me, and then I wanted to go into sculpture, but sculpture didn’t want me. And so I ended up in this new department, which didn’t really have a philosophy, didn’t really have a history. It was the best thing for me.”

1 . Prestigious alumni

The list of prominent Glasgow School of Art graduates is long, ranging from Simon Starling to Martin Boyce to Claire Barclay. Like all great art schools it was also a feeder for the film, television and music industry, spawning, among many, Peter Capaldi, band members of Franz Ferdinand and Travis, Muriel Gray and Robbie Coltrane. 

A disproportionate number of the artists have won the Turner Prize. Gordon was the first of those, and the first winner to do so as a video artist. But he didn’t always work with videos, and sees himself rather as an artist engaged with film and narrative. There was a time before the ubiquitous video projector when artist-made films were screened on small black-and-white video monitors. To visit his installation in the largest of ACCA’s galleries is to be reminded of this period.

The biggest challenge of his early career, when he was known for making text-based works on gallery walls, such as listing the names of everyone he’s ever known (many years before Tracey Emin embroidered the names of all her lovers on the inside of a tent), was when the curator Nicola White, now an award-winning novelist but then running Tramway gallery in Glasgow, offered him a solo show.

Tramway is a huge space. It’s where all the city’s trams used to be housed overnight. On a visit to Hobart in 1996, Gordon told me how his signature work 24 Hour Psycho came about.

“I didn’t know what to do with the space. It was just so big. So I asked Nicola to turn all the lights out, and the problem went away. There was just darkness. I then had to decide what to fill it with. I’d been spending Christmas and New Year up in my old bedroom at home, watching and rewatching Hitchcock’s Psycho. I got the idea of trying to slow it down, maybe getting it to last for 24 hours. The hard part, of course, was actually doing it. I approached a couple of big Japanese TV manufacturers. They could do it but it would cost a fortune. Eventually, after nearly giving up, an acquaintance at Strathclyde University helped me.” 

24 Hour Psycho toured the world, from biennales to museums. It was projected on screens suspended from the ceiling, the only other additions being black beanbags scattered across the floor as trip hazards (I put “the return of the beanbag” as domestic artefact in the 1990s squarely at Douglas Gordon’s door). 

Film theorists began to revise their readings of this classic movie, now slowed down so the shower scene where Janet Leigh is stabbed (the “blood” used was actually chocolate, such are the liberties you can take in black and white) lasts for many minutes, rather than seconds. The literary world showed interest, too. Don DeLillo’s book Point Omega (2010) is about a spook called Richard Elster – a Donald Rumsfeld-like adviser to the US government before the Iraq war – now living in the desert. The book centres around the main character’s fixation with watching 24 Hour Psycho in New York’s Museum of Modern Art. “The less there was to see, the harder he looked, the more he saw,” is how the experience is described. It’s one of my favourite DeLillo books and I’ve always wanted to ask Gordon if he had known it was being written.

As the waiters cleared the remains of our soup and oysters, and the crowds on Flinders Lane clicked past us in fast motion behind the bar, I put it to him.

“He was very good. Don DeLillo sent me the whole manuscript for approval before publication. I wouldn’t mind making a film of the book.”

This was a cue to start talking about all of his other projects. Clive James was once described by the New Yorker as “a brilliant bunch of guys”. Douglas Gordon, now 47, seems to be having a bit of a Jamesian moment, finding himself working in real estate, film production, publishing and as an actor. Earlier this year he starred in My Name is Hmmm… (Je m’appelle Hmmm…) directed by French fashion designer Agnès B., about a Scottish truck driver who befriends an 11-year-old French girl fleeing an abusive father.

“I sold this apartment I had in New York for a couple of million dollars, and I’ve bought an eight-storey building in Berlin that I’m renting out to artists from all over the world. Thomas Demand is on the top floor. I’ve also bought a couple of film production companies and am buying the rights to various books I’d really like to turn into films. I’ve got to know this amazing writer and filmmaker called Jonas Mekas and am really keen to turn his book I Had Nowhere to Go into a film. I’ve bought the rights to it. He was born in a Lithuanian village in 1922, and in 1944, he and his brother were taken by the Nazis to a forced labour camp in Germany. Eventually, after he studied philosophy at Mainz, the brothers ended up in Brooklyn around 1949. He’s had an incredible life. He co-founded Film Culture magazine, wrote for The Village Voice, and he’s still innovating in his 90s. A few years ago he made 365 short films that he released on the internet, one a day for a year.”

Too soon it’s time to go. And I haven’t yet had time to ask Gordon about the film he made of soccer star Zinedine Zidane, shot in real time with 17 synchronised cameras. Or the version of John Ford’s The Searchers, slowed down to last for five years, the length of the screen narrative (and hence the image of John Wayne in the ACCA catalogue). Or of Robert Wringhim. I especially want to talk about that, the name that forms part of Gordon’s email address. Wringhim is the main character in James Hogg’s great Scottish novel The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner. (I recommend the 2008 Canongate version, with an introduction by crime writer Ian Rankin and an afterword by André Gide). Douglas Gordon won the Turner Prize in 1996, not for 24 Hour Psycho, as many think, but for Confessions of a Justified Sinner. It’s the original doppelgänger story and one of the first to introduce a shapeshifter as a leading character in Gil-Martin, who also plays the role of the devil. This book, first published in 1824, was a huge influence on Robert Louis Stevenson (Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde) and on a host of other Scottish writers from Muriel Spark to Alasdair Gray. 

Douglas Gordon’s work is all about doubles. And I see another side of the man as we plough along Flinders Lane in search of the tourist shops at the bottom of Swanston Street. “I’ve got to buy a pair of pink ugg boots for my five-year-old daughter. Nathan Coley bought his daughter a pair, and I’ll never be forgiven if I don’t get my wee one a pair, too.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 5, 2014 as "Lone wolf".

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Peter Hill is an artist, writer and independent curator.

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