We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.

”Douglas Gordon”

At the Hirshhorn Museum and

Sculpture Garden to May 9

There are only two kinds of stories, right? Either a stranger comes to town or somebody takes a trip. The Gospel According to Matthew or The Odyssey. Of course, they’re just opposite sides of the same coin, and which one you end up with is a matter of perspective. As soon as the traveler shows up someplace, he becomes the stranger.

Historically, the storyteller has functioned as a repository of cultural myth, guardian and transmitter of the narratives that instruct a people in their formative traditions. But parables of shepherds and naval sagas seem less immediate than they once did. Our modern folklore is characterized not by sanctity but by simple ubiquity. Our new classics are Hollywood movies, and in place of stage or pulpit is television.

As a child of the Video Age, born in Glasgow, Scotland, in 1966, Douglas Gordon says that he has exercised the bulk of his cinephilia in bed, plopped down and propped up like any bleary-eyed insomniac or day-jobless ne’er-do-well. This is worth remembering as you make your way through a Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden retrospective that includes Psycho slowed down until it takes 24 hours to run; a translucent screen that simultaneously hosts The Exorcist and The Song of Bernadette, their images interpenetrating, their soundtracks blurring into one; and three side-by-side projections of the original version of D.O.A., falling out of step as they run at slightly different speeds.

Writers of the moviegoing generation look at these trick-synced video projections of Tinseltown features and figure that a bunch of people watching films in the dark makes for a type of cinema, however perverse the artist’s interventions. But it doesn’t. Gordon’s work is closer to twisted communal TV. Going to the movies is about submitting to authority, sitting back and taking in what’s dished out. Wanna go to the bathroom? Shoulda thought of that during the previews. Anything or anyone interfering with your enjoyment of this THX-enhanced ’splosionfest? Report it! Turn ’em in!

But watching TV is about feeling at home. C’mon, you know these folks—don’t forget to tune in next week. Miss the 11 o’clock broadcast? Don’t worry, we’re repeating it tomorrow morning—evening, too. And the technology keeps getting friendlier. Spouse trying to sleep? Hit Mute and toggle the closed captioning. Miss something in that scene? Relax—TiVo’s got rewind. It’s now commonplace to watch a film in ways other than intended; for example, I viewed Edward Yang’s Yi Yi over three weeks, a scene or two at a time right before bed, treating it more like a visual novel than a movie.

By taking up products of a medium of spectacle that most viewers will have encountered through a medium of reassurance, Gordon gets to have the best of both worlds: authoritative, even canonical, sources that we expect to be messed with. He reinforces the idea that we’re watching TV by giving his screens rounded corners, and for his career-making piece, 24 Hour Psycho (1993), he manipulates a film that was halfway to being television to begin with. Psycho was a low-budget quickie, shot by the crew from Alfred Hitchcock Presents, the director’s CBS anthology series. The movie was also “soft-matted,” shot full-frame and then projected in theaters with mats on the projector slicing off the top and bottom of the image to make it widescreen. Gordon goes with a more televisual aspect ratio, squaring off the image a bit and using information obscured in widescreen presentation.

The artist has claimed that he’s like the manufacturer of a laissez-faire board game: the board, dice, and pieces are his, but it’s up to you to figure out the rules that take you from start to finish. It’s equally helpful to think of him as a fashioner of freely framed tales—not so much a storyteller as a storytelling enabler, someone who gets us to string events together into some sort of loose-linked chain. Of course, the stories we tell ourselves while viewing his work aren’t cinematic and they aren’t literary. They’re be art stories: distracted, rangy, self-centered; not plot-driven but thought-driven, not dramas but discoveries.

Because Gordon doesn’t enforce any kind of synchronization between the 122-minute Exorcist and the 156-minute Song of Bernadette in Between Darkness and Light (After William Blake) (1997), allowing them simply to loop endlessly, we are, to a certain extent, at the mercy of the image-production machine he has set into motion. On my first visit, as beatific Bernadette wandered toward the site of her outdoor epiphanies, the No. 2 train plowed through her ghost.

But we also find memory and expectation bringing into play portions of the films that aren’t on the screen. When Bernadette’s exhausted, underemployed father swings his legs up onto the bed at the end of a hard day spent burning medical waste, we shudder for him, knowing that Regan found little refuge under the covers. And when we see veteran character actor Lee J. Cobb poking into violent defenestrations in one film, we anticipate him weighing in on the issue of Bernadette’s sanity in the other.

Of the eight movies cited in the exhibition brochure, I’ve seen seven (sorry—couldn’t find the 1934 version of Treasure Island): Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931), The Song of Bernadette (1943), D.O.A. (1950), The Night of the Hunter (1955), Psycho (1960), The Exorcist (1973), and Taxi Driver (1976). The similarities are telling. All but Bernadette involve a psychopathic killer, and of those only D.O.A. makes him a minor character. All view sex as defilement, with scenes ranging from Bernadette’s lovelorn swain promising to keep himself pure as she’s shuttled off to the convent to Hyde’s genesis as the hairy-knuckled manifestation of a monster case of blue balls.

But the thread that most significantly runs through all of them is that the two fundamental story types are linked inextricably in the violent transformation of a single character into his or her abnormal double—always fated, usually wicked, in one case sainted. The stranger coming to town is the trip for Regan or Dr. Jekyll or Norman Bates or Robert Mitchum’s unctious preacher/killer, the Rev. Harry Powell.

For through a looking glass (1999), the artist has Robert De Niro’s “You talkin’ to me?” riff from Taxi Driver play to a mirror image of itself across the room, introducing a slight lag. In the Hirshhorn’s excellent installation, we’re under scrutiny, under attack. Caught between the pincers of the giant screens, we instinctively hug the inside wall. And there we glimpse ourselves in mirrors that warp the hallway behind us into our space, causing us to lose our bearings. The piece makes us forget how all this started, which Bickle is the “real” one.

Catalog essayist Nancy Spector and New York Times critic Roberta Smith both make the mistake of saying the camera occupies the space of the mirror De Niro is supposed to be talking into. In fact, Scorsese shot into the mirror, away from the actor, not at him—so the real Bickle was never all that real to begin with. What Gordon’s disorienting dissection of De Niro’s improvisation reveals is that we’re seeing Bickle becoming more real through fakery, through the increasing force both character and actor use to will themselves into roles that happen to coincide, that threaten to annihilate their previous personas.

This exhibition makes much of the Scottishness of Gordon’s preoccupation with doubleness and Manichaean oppositions, placing him in the line that runs through Robert Louis Stevenson, author of both Treasure Island and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, back to James Hogg, who in 1824 published his Gothic novel The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner. But his concerns might simply be symptomatic of an age in which entertainment is sidelining actuality. Perhaps this is my suburbanite showing, but I can’t help thinking that Gordon’s obsessions are indicative of someone who—like myself, I admit—often spends more time in the company of fictional characters than real people.

In real life—at least the real life of the cosseted Westerner—the lesson is that most people don’t change all that much, and that it really isn’t so difficult to tell the bad apples from the good eggs. But in the movies and on TV, psychopaths lurk around every corner; every chance encounter could erupt into violence; nobody is to be trusted. And we adore these contrivances because they are so unlike our own experience. Who among us hasn’t marveled at what profound comfort formulaic tales of mayhem provide?

Another paradoxical security blanket of the age is the tattoo, which functions as a hedge against the circumstances that do shift around the still center of the self: I’ll never forget all the great girls on the swim team. Tribal bands will always be bitchen. I may be an asshole, but Pamela’ll never leave. Bearing messages such as “Trust Me” and “forever,” Gordon’s carefully staged photos of tattoos he’s designed play off of such good intentions, even as his worries about just who we are undercut them.

The only trouble is that most of Gordon’s tattoo pieces (though not 1997’s truly shocking and implication-rich Three Inches (Black), a photo suite of a volunteer’s ink-blackened index finger) don’t quite seem up to the task of standing alone. If seen separately, on a collector’s walls or in a museum’s permanent collection, they’d function less as independent works than as symbols of the artist’s oeuvre, stand-ins for the centerpieces that take too much space to show all the time. At the Hirshhorn, Gordon’s minor works—among them text pieces such as A Few Words on the Nature of Relationships (1996), in which the line “Close your eyes, open your mouth” is painted into a corner—ably serve as orientational signage leading from one showstopper to the next. And they do make tempting launch pads for the capers of curator and critic alike. But the nagging suspicion as you read the catalog is that in these cases, it’s not Gordon’s trampoline but the writers’ legs that provide most of the bounce.

Where the artist gets his own back—and where he gives the game away—is in his mid-’90s photo self-portraits, whose terse, sneaky, underplayed humor may just be the most Scottish thing about him. Psycho Hitchhiker (1993) finds him standing haplessly in a narrow median strip, soliciting a ride with a sign reading “psycho.” In Monster (1996–1997), he places himself unaltered alongside his double, who stands for his photo just as unassumingly—though his face happens to be Scotch-taped up, after the fashion of the children’s game, so that he looks like the Creature From the Black Lagoon or the Flukeman from The X-Files.

The clincher is Selfportrait as Kurt Cobain, as Andy Warhol, as Myra Hindley, as Marilyn Monroe (1996), in which a tiny picture of the artist in a ridiculous blond wig floats in the middle of a large sheet of white paper. In Warhol’s case, an outlandish hairpiece was the capstone to a self-reinvention so radical that it read as a decadeslong performance piece. But atop Gordon’s scruffy mug, it’s just a poignant reminder that it’s impossible for him to be anyone else. CP