Saturday, March 10, 2007

Douglas Gordon at the Hirshhorn

written by David Waddell

I had high expectations for Anne Ellegood’s follow-up show to the Uncertainty of Objects at the Hirshhorn. However, Refract, Reflect, Project: Light Works from the Collection was exactly that, a survey show with work from the collection. It was another brief tour of art. Regulars such as Dan Flavin, James Turrell and Robert Irwin appear to educate the masses. Stand out pieces include Olafur Eliasson’s Round Rainbow and Douglass Gordon’s Play Dead, Real Time. I tried giving Turrell a chance but it proved to be a stressful experience.

I barely adjusted my vision to see the Turrell piece without bumping into other guests as a security guard turned on his flashlight to guide me away from the piece. I was too close. I apologized and told him that I could not see. Another man in the room snorted and said “Yeah, me neither.” That was the end of that Turrell experience for me. I recommend the Quaker House in Houston. It is an amazing experience and surpasses the Cy Twombly gallery at the Menil Collection as my new favorite place in Texas.

Meanwhile, at the Hirshhorn, disappointment had already set in when I encountered two large screens and a television set that shows an Indian elephant rolling on the ground, standing up and laying on its side. My gloom lifted off me, as though I were a child at a circus (taking into account that I was ignoring animal rights). The camera pans around an elephant in a white room. The camera constantly spins around this beast, even when the animal is motionless. The ground beneath the subject appeared to be moving. It is disorienting as this giant becomes weightless.

Another dizzying factor is the relation of the screen to the viewer. Standing next to the screen, the top of my head reaches the horizon line. Everything below this point is legible reflection. Where the screen meets the floor, a second reflection merely captures light rather than image.

Visitors walk between the projected light and screen. The projector is mounted to the ceiling at an angle and casts silhouettes of those who pass through. Viewers on the other side of the screen witness heads floating at the bottom of the screen. It becomes a surreal, puppet show.

By including the viewer’s ‘interaction’, constant camera movement on the large screens and a static camera on the television, Gordon shows us his devices. He is reveling his tricks and magnifying his medium.

The camera inspects this animal from a mechanical viewpoint. But the audience can see this pachyderm as a soulful animal. On the television set, Gordon begins by panning slowly across his face and into the eyes. When the elephant playfully rolls around, he seems so compact, like a ball. These acts almost diminish his large stature. He seems like a pet, a cat.

We are reminded of the elephant’s ancestors. His wrinkles, oversized skull and tree stump legs are queues to dinosaurs. These ancient creatures roam this earth. Instead of letting them live in peace, we treat them as a sideshow. It is interesting that Douglas uses the most recent technology to capture one of the oldest creatures who have been abused for various reasons for so long.

In the end, Gordon is making a statement about human control and taming wild animals for transportation and entertainment purposes. And just like the circus, we ignore the protestors outside. We devour cotton candy while enjoying the spectacle. I couldn’t bother to feel sad at the moment of watching in amazement the beauty and grace of this animal. I was seduced by the medium of film and brilliance of light. Gordon is successful at mesmerizing the audience to then overlay a meaningful message.

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