I went the Museum of Modern Art the other day with the intention of seeing the new Dada exhibition. I never made it in, however, because I found myself preoccupied with the Douglas Gordon videos on display in the room next door. Now let me say at the outset that video art has never been my thing. I’ve usually found that artists working in video try too hard to de-familiarize a medium cognitively associated with the pleasures of television. Video makes my brain expect TV and thus more than anything else to expect narrative. The response by video-artists is often to freeze out all notions of story telling—or what we might naively call action—and put in their place one or another kind of tableau. Video art would appear to become art, in other words, when it sheds its association with what we ordinarily find within the box.
So I was happily surprised to find so much in the Gordon exhibit, and to find in particular that Gordon’s videos worked precisely by making me rethink (at least for a moment) the ways in which we view television or film. This is not to say that Gordon’s works are a version of television or film, or what some might deride as mere entertainment; it is rather to say that Gordon remains much closer to the forms to which the medium of video inevitably alludes. His point is not to detach video from entertainment but rather to try to comment upon the way in which visual entertainment works.
Perhaps the most well known of his works is 24 Hour Psycho, in which he slows down Hitchock’s film to the speed at which it would take a day to watch the whole thing, and projects it front and back on a single, large panel. Do the math and that turns out to be roughly two frames per second, just enough for the human eye to perceive each as it gives way to the next. The result is that the motion of the motion picture is not so much slowed down as thrown into a kind of controlled herky-jerky. The illusion of reproducing human perception is taken apart, as what we see is not fluid movement—what we at least think we see in real life—but rather a series of connected stills and the gap between them, as if we’ve learned for the first time that light really does come in particles after all. The effect is uncanny: one can almost feel the brain attempt to stitch together the stills into the motion we expect from films and the events we remember to be the story of Psycho. But this requires, first, that we, as it were, melt the one still into the next (and the next), and, second, that we situate them in relation to a whole that we will never see. When I got there Janet Leigh was putting her stolen bundle into her bag and preparing to go on the lam. An hour or so later, she had been pulled over by a policeman. Anthony Perkins, the shower, etc. were still nowhere to be seen. Now of course we remember Perkins and the shower when we see the film denatured into a daylong version of itself. Our memory assists in the effort of putting the one still in a fluid relation to the next, which is I suspect something that happens at a preconscious level when we watch film at its ordinary speed.
A similar sort of thing happens with Gordon’s genuinely disorienting piece Left is right and right is wrong and left is wrong and right is right, which splits Otto Preminger’s Whirlpool into two panels with alternating frames projected on each side, one the reverse of the other. One frame flashes on the right, followed by black leader, and the next frame, flipped in reverse, flashes on the left, followed by black leader, and so on. The visual result is a double and mirrored image and a pulsing strobe that fills the entire room. The effort to compress the two into one—to flip the movie right side out—and make something like a cohesive fit is daunting. More so, however, is the aural effect. 24 Hour Psycho is blessedly silent (one shudders to think what speech and score slowed down to that duration would sound like). But Left is right keeps the soundtrack attached to its flipped over and alternating frames. What emerges is not quite human speech, but something that has all the cadence and rhythms of it appearing to come out of the mouths of the images broken up and split on the screen. The piece thus reveals an interesting difference between the way we process visual and aural stimulus. At some level of preconscious activity, we convert sequential stills into the perception of motion. We can even do this when the motion is revealed to be one still after the next or, with greater effort in Left is right, when the images strobe and mirror each other. We cannot do the same with speech, which, as the philosophers would say, is compositionally structured. Break speech down by inserting syncopated pauses and mumblings and it will sound like speech but communicate nothing at all.
Space keeps me from saying much about Between Darkness and Light, a riff on William Blake that projects The Exorcist and The Song of Bernadette (a 1943 movie about a woman claiming to see the Virgin Mary) on top of each other. One quick thing to notice is the sheer dominance black and white has when placed on top of color. We see through the blush of the one to the more saturated tones of the other. And of course the ironic juxtapositions of two films reversed in spiritual content yet similar in iconography and form.