Unwatchable, in the Best Sense of the Word

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The New York Sun

The rap against the Scottish artist Douglas Gordon (b. 1966) is that his work is boring. Although this criticism gets at something, it is based on a misinterpretation. Rather than boring, the work of Mr. Gordon – who won the 1996 Turner Prize, the 1998 Hugo Boss Prize,and the Premio 2000 at the Venice Biennale, and is the subject of a midcareer retrospective currently on view at the Museum of Modern Art – is perhaps better understood as unwatchable.

One enters the MoMA show through tall and narrow dark glass doors that emit a crisp phht. Behind them, one finds expensive, 11-foot-high, freestanding translucent video screens designed, it would appear, to attract as many viewers as possible.

The exhibition’s title, “Douglas Gordon: Timeline,” alludes both to biography and to the artist’s fascination with the temporal. The curator, Klaus Biesenbach, writes in the accompanying catalog,” Gordon sculpts time into a physical experience,” and those lofting screens do have a sculptural feel.

Elsewhere, Mr. Biesenbach speaks of Mr. Gordon’s work as “an ongoing examination of collective memory and shared visual knowledge.” It is true that some of these pieces are highly, even arcanely, allusive: The first screen plays “24 Hour Psycho” (1993), which extends the duration of each frame of the original film so that the whole takes 24 hours to play. “Left is right and right is wrong and left is wrong and right is right” (1999) sorts Otto Preminger’s 1949 film, “Whirlpool,” into even and odd frames, playing them side by side.

But what unites these pieces, and a number of his others, is less allusion or biography or even their treatment of time than the fact that they all explore the concept of unwatchability – in the best sense of that word.

Has anyone ever sat through the entirety of “24 Hour Psycho”? I hope not. That said,looking at it for anything from 10 to 60 minutes is a thoroughly worthwhile endeavor, demanding that one treat each frame, and each scene, like a photographic still or a painting. Similarly,I doubt anyone has the patience to sit through the fertile mishmash that is “Between Darkness and Light (After William Blake)” (1997), which sandwiches Henry King’s film “Song of Bernadette” (1949) with William Friedkin’s “The Exorcist” (1973) to make a sort of running collage.

Playing on two screens,” left is right” is actually prefaced by a sign warning that exposure to its flashing frames can cause epileptic fits. In any case, viewing it does not quite reveal its conceptual underpinning, which, to be sure, is a bit sturdier than quicksand.

I find the gruesome images of coma patients in the “Film Noir” series, as well as the death throes of a housefly in “B-Movie,” at once fascinating and unbearably repugnant. “M: Futile Fear” (2006), which appropriates Mr. Gordon’s own “Feature Film” (1999) into a three-channel installation, chops up the actions of conductor James Conlon to such a degree that it is literally impossible to follow his movements; thus one must focus instead on the music he’s conducting, which plays uninterrupted on the soundtrack.

The show amounts to an index of the ways a film can repulse – too long, too confused, too hideous, too stimulating – while, curiously enough, remain compelling. But Mr. Gordon also makes films that do not push the limits of optical tolerance or personal endurance.

“Play Dead; Real Time,” presented at MoMA as a four-screen installation, is a comparatively audience-friendly version of the stupid-pet trick. On the two large screens set at right angles to each other, an elephant – the publicity material tells us it comes from a circus – rolls over and plays dead in a bare, white-walled room that looks much like an art gallery. Two TV-sized monitors give a close-up of the animal’s eye. To many, the elephant itself is what appeals, but I find the notion of an elephant plucked from the wild for a life of circus tricks much more dreadful than the concepts behind Mr. Gordon’s less obviously watchable films.

To my mind, the strongest individual pieces on view are also the simplest – those where the artist’s hand performs some action. His fingers mimic sexual intercourse in “Blue” (1998) and, in “Scratch Hither” (2002), a raised finger either beckons the viewer or makes a scratching motion, depending on how one sees it.

How one sees it: This is the crux of all of Mr. Gordon’s work, whether magnetic, repulsive, or, ideally, both at once. Take the fancy screens. Though they might seem sculptural or gaudy, their main use is for scale: to emphasize the massive size of the elephant or the tininess of the fly (some versions play with scale by employing other dimensions). When they are huge, they force the audience back; when miniscule, they draw us in.

Some may prefer to see the effects of Mr. Gordon’s wry personality filtered through the films he borrows. But I’ll take the simpler pieces, those that use nothing more than the artist’s body and wit, if only because the bare-bones puppetry of works such as “Blue” have a lightness and directness that seems, in the end, more about gratifying an audience than illustrating a concept.

Until September 4 (11 W. 53rd Street, between Fifth and Sixth Avenues, 212-708-9400).

The New York Sun

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