Douglas Gordon - Insipidreadful?

At its worst, Gordon's art is painfully one-dimensional

Feature by Lucy Faringold | 12 Dec 2006
Trumpeted as one of the world's most important contemporary artists, Douglas Gordon's new retrospective, entitled Superhumanatural, attempts to grapple with suitably weighty metaphysical concerns. Life and death, good and evil, time and even reality itself are all given the Gordon 'treatment'. It's a big show and these are big issues, but Gordon's preoccupation with duality has produced a retrospective which is frustratingly uneven. At its worst, Gordon's art is glib, hackneyed and painfully one-dimensional. Nevertheless, its variety and scope make this an event that you dare not miss out on.

Occupying three venues inside the Royal Botanical Garden - as well as the RSA itself - there was always the chance that Gordon's work was going to be spread too thin. Sure enough, his transformation of Inverleith house, entitled 'Pretty much every word written, spoken, heard and overheard from 1989 until now…' is an interminable, overblown exercise in banality. Born from his desire to 'turn a house into a book', the artist has haphazardly pasted chunks of text onto almost every surface in the venue. Cornball text-bites such as "…bad is good/bad is god/good is the sun/god is bad" find Gordon engaging with the idea of duality at the level of an angsty sixth-former, whilst legends such as "every time you think of me, you die a little" are nothing short of cringe-worthy. Certain critics have spoken vaguely about the rooms creating a 'sense of unease', but even this faint praise is more than the work deserves.

In an annexe of this building is an installation entitled 'Plato's Cave' in which we are invited to stand around a single flickering flame and contemplate our own ignorance – if we can stand the stench inside the room that is. Seemingly Gordon intends to flush us out into the daylight of enlightenment using nothing more than olfactory violence. Ingenious.

The final piece in the gardens is situated in Caledonian Hall and has been titled 'Between Darkness and Light (After William Blake)'. Here we find Gordon at his most explicit, simultaneously projecting The Exorcist and The Song of Bernadette onto opposing sides of a translucent screen with the intention (according to the exhibition guide) of evoking "the struggle between the forces of good and evil." More than his lazy appropriation of other people's work, what is most distressing is the triviality of Gordon's conceit. Although the viewer's imagination is readily able to synthesise dramatic overlap between the two narratives, there is simply nothing engaging about this piece – a fact born out by the rows of empty seats which I observed during my visit. To claim that Gordon is questioning the nature of authorship and authenticity is simply not good enough, and to do so would be little more than limp rationalisation.

It is in the RSA that Gordon's most interesting work is to be seen, and here, at least, there is something for us to get our teeth into. Two banks of television screens flank the top of the main stairs, each showing one of Gordon's video works, together comprising 'Pretty much every film and video work from about 1992 until now.' Works such as 'A Divided Self I and II' – which features a person's arms wrestling against each other – once again showcase the artist's preoccupation with duality. The works, ranging from the crass to the profound, combine to form a dense emotional aggregate - this piece is undoubtedly one of the highlights of the show.

'Play Dead; Real Time', which occupies the main gallery, is another engaging work. Here, on two huge screens, we see an elephant playing dead, before slowly rising into movement. There is grace and a certain poignancy in the animal's performance, but the most intriguing footage is to be found on one smaller screen to the side of the gallery. Here the camera focuses on the elephant's eye, examining its tiny size in relation to the animal's unwieldy frame, and creating an unusual, strangely unsettling emotional response in the viewer. There is a simple, undeniable articulacy about this piece that throws into relief the obvious contrivances of much of Gordon's other work.

A series entitled 'Blind Stars', which fills much of the next gallery, perfectly illustrates the artist's frustrating inconsistency. Gordon has removed the eyes from images of celebrities and replaced them with mirrors in order to make a point about the nature of identity and desire. This is a monumentally unsuccessful piece: laboured, dull and really quite condescending – this is the kind of thing Gordon should have got out of his system at art school.

There is more work to see than I have had space to mention, and despite its many flaws I have no hesitation in recommending this show. Thankfully there are just enough moments of lucidity and thoughtfulness to justify the time necessary to take everything in. Let's hope that Gordon discovers how to edit his output in time for his next retrospective.
Superhumanatural at RSA and Royal Botanical Garden Edinburgh until 14 January 2007. Entrance to RSA is £6 (£4). Entrance to Botanical gardens is free.