TEL AVIV — It seems somehow fitting that all I have left of the current Douglas Gordon retrospective at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art are some snapshots on my phone and some scribbles in a notebook. As I struggle to figure out what to say about the show, I look through my artifacts, my memory shaped by what I’ve written and what I chose to photograph.
This feels appropriate, relevant, and especially symbolic because the entire exhibition revolves around memory and artifacts, struggling to define and commemorate identity through the mundane and the worldly, through handprints and soccer players, animals and Marilyn Monroe, mementoes of the everyday and detritus of the act of living.
The exhibition, a massive mid-career retrospective that spans decades and countless rooms of the museum, sprawling between wings and floors, tucked into crevices and dominating cavernous spaces, is titled I am also… Douglas Gordon. Not This is Douglas Gordon, because that would be easy, but everything Douglas Gordon is as well. This means everything other than the flesh-and-blood Gordon: the keepsakes he’s collected, the memories he’s shaped, the experiences he’s seen, the words he’s heard, the images that surround him. And everything Douglas Gordon is, so are we.
One of the first rooms feels like an Instagram frenzy. The walls, from floor to ceiling, are covered with multisize images, some large and glossy, some small and intimate, all varying between the mundane and breathtakingly intimate. The impact of the images seems lessened somehow by our constant exposure to the internet, and the internet’s ready acceptance of our own photo diaries. Images about food? Check. Selfie in the bathroom mirror? Check. Sexy girl in red heels and sheer tights? Check. When Madonna is snapping selfies in her own bathroom mirror, and when #foodporn has over eight million posts on Instagram, this level of exposure comes to feel jaded.
Nonetheless, opening with these photos surrounding Gordon’s “Burned Baby Grand” (2012) — the remnants of a burned baby grand piano, as the title suggests — immediately sets the tone for the rest of the show, which, on the surface, may appear disparate and eclectic. Much like memory itself, however, the underlying meaning is there, floating on the edge of our consciousness, waiting for us to tug it closer.
“I Am Also Hyde” (2011), the title of the 360 images that make up Gordon’s photo diary, references the idea of fragmentation and duality, of a man divided between two personalities: the public and the private, the artist and the “other.” The assumption is that we know Douglas Gordon, the artist; with this exhibit, we are on a mission to discover the “other,” the “also,” the man for whom we only have rooms full of hints and memorabilia. As in “Burned Baby Grand,” we have the artifacts and remnants with which to piece the story together. Like the scorched piano, Gordon is gone but not consumed, and like detectives, we must follow the clues.
“No Way Back” (2011) is an actual chest of drawers filled with Gordon’s mementos and relics, from photographs to shoes and discarded money. The accompanying wall text says that “No Way Back” reflects his interest in fragmentation and destruction, but it feels to me like a further reinforcement of the themes already established in the previous rooms, of self as defined through objects, of the elusiveness of memory and the use of remnants to convey narrative.
One of the first objects of the exhibition, “Left not right” (2007), is a life-size cast of Gordon’s left hand, molded and cast in highly polished gold. While it’s true that a handprint, even just a fingerprint, holds the key to a person’s identity, by casting his hand in gold, Gordon elevates something functional to the level of preciousness. The hand itself is often our key to self-expression, the means by which we communicate our feelings for someone (professional, violent, tender). Gordon establishes his reverence for the actions and motions of the everyday, while also winking at the cliché of artistic genius.
A perverse counterpart to “Left not right” is “30 seconds text” (1996), found in a small room in another wing of the museum, tucked away on the ground floor, far from the lightness of the exhibition’s beginning. “30 seconds text” was inspired by an early 20th-century experiment conducted by a French doctor, in which he attempted to communicate with a decapitated criminal’s head immediately after execution by guillotine. For about thirty seconds, the head still responded to the doctor’s voice. This is the amount of time we’re given to read the text on the wall before the room is plunged into darkness, leaving us only with the memory of what we’ve read and the images we’ve imagined. What is memory, the piece seems to ask. What is conscious? And what’s left when life no longer remains?
Adjacent to the room that contains “30 seconds text” is another one devoted to a very different experience. “Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait” (2006) is a video installation for two projectors, which offer a hyperreal, dizzying depiction of soccer star Zinedine Zidane. Zidane is projected as larger than life, with footage of him edited together from seventeen high-definition cameras that recorded his every move during a game. We are so close to him and his under-the-breath mutterings recorded with ample volume, along with the cries of the 80,000 soccer fans and the commentary by Spanish television, it’s as if we were there, on the soccer field ourselves. But the intimacy is an illusion; once we leave the room, there are no artifacts by which to remember him.
Down the hall from the Zidane experience are two works grouped together: “Self-Portrait of You + Me (Marilyn making of, in four pieces)” (2008) and “Self-Portrait of You + Me (oversized Jackie)” (2012), both of which are burned out prints of the two icons overlaid on a mirror, so that when you stand in front of them, your reflection stares back at you. This seems fitting, since memories are not merely based on what happened but also on how we interpret it. The Mona Lisa doesn’t stay in your mental file; it’s your experience of seeing her that remains.
The most extraordinary work in the exhibition, the one destined to linger in the memory, is “pretty much every word written, spoken, heard, overheard from 1989 … ” (2006). The piece is composed of almost one hundred texts installed around the museum’s atrium (known the “lightfall”), the phrases varying in style from biblical to colloquial, some a few words, most a short sentence: “I believe in miracles”; “I won’t breathe a word (to anyone)”; “Close your eyes, open your mouth.” In the newly built wing, the “lightfall” is an 87-foot-tall spiraling space, breathtaking in its scope and rendered even more magical by the texts imposed upon it. “pretty much every word … ” reflects Gordon’s fascination with language and its ambiguity, and demonstrates his attempt to memorialize, to record before time and space render these moments forgotten.
I am also… Douglas Gordon continues at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art (27 Shaul Hamelech Blvd, Tel Aviv) through July 6.