Video Mutants: The man with the video camera

Pub date January 23, 2008
SectionArts & CultureSectionVisual Art


The unmistakable riff from AC/DC’s "Back in Black" blares from the dark room in the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art that houses Douglas Gordon’s exhibition Pretty Much Every Film and Video Work from About 1992 until Now. It’s coming from Gordon’s cell phone, in the pocket of his trench coat, which he’s wearing over a leather jacket.

Gordon is a man of many layers, though as its title plainly states, Pretty Much collects his visions to date, a number of them appropriated, into a single room. There one can spend a minute or a day pondering light and dark manifestations of selfhood, taking the long view, in which the TVs buzz like sinister leftovers at an abandoned appliance store (or lights in the eye sockets of a huge skull), or opting for an extreme close-up on a piece such as 1999’s through a looking glass, in which Travis Bickle’s famous dialogue with his mirror image in Taxi Driver is endlessly fractured and reunited.

After we’ve stepped outside the exhibition, Gordon chooses to focus on the relationship between 1998’s Blue (which brings new meaning to the phrase finger-fucking) and the stretch of his famous 24 Hour Psycho in which Norman Bates notices a fly on his hand. He’d just noticed it while leaving Pretty Much‘s "moving encyclopedia" of his works and decides it’s time to "fabricate a relationship" between the two images. I show my recently scarred left hand to Gordon to trigger some image association, since disembodied hands star in a number of his video works, as well as in Feature Film, his 1999 portrait of James Conlon conducting Bernard Hermann’s score for Vertigo. Ordering Red Hook at noon, he shares a story about a bone-splintering skateboard wipeout.

Other visual triggers shed a few more sparks. I pull out an old hardcover copy of Otto Preminger’s autobiography Preminger (Doubleday, 1977) because Gordon’s 1999 piece Left is right and right is wrong and left is wrong and right is right is built from Whirlpool, Preminger’s 1949 echo of 1944’s classic Laura. Surprisingly (or perhaps not so), the book and its superb Saul Bass cover design trigger Gordon to talk, in a roundabout way, about directors other than Preminger.

"When I got off the plane, I got a message that Gus Van Sant has been trying to reach me," he says. "I met [Van Sant] once before. He’d just released [his 1998 remake of] Psycho and I had just finished editing Left is right, so I’d been stuck in a strobe environment for two weeks. The last day I’d finished editing it, I took my girlfriend to see Psycho. Because I’d just been bombarded by thousands of strobed images, I couldn’t handle it. I fainted at least three times. When I met him, he asked what I thought, and I said, ‘I really enjoyed it.’ I was lying through my teeth! So I have a confession to make to him."

I pull out one last visual trigger, an old snapshot a friend took of My Bloody Valentine’s Bilinda J. Butcher. "That’s the same guitar as mine — I just bought a Fender Mustang!" Gordon enthuses, noting that the group is re-forming. My Bloody Valentine’s re-formation arrives a few years after the group’s Kevin Shields worked as the noise consultant for Zidane: a 21st Century Portrait, Gordon and Philippe Parreno’s masterful portrait of the soccer legend. Zidane‘s upcoming one-week run at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts will allow people to see just how crucial Shields’s contribution — which makes crowd noise into something truly hallucinatory — is to a masterpiece of modern cinema.

"Our generation experienced film in bed, mediated through TV," Gordon says. "That’s a huge difference from deconstructing it mechanically in a film academy or art school. For us the deconstruction was social.

"The first time I came to San Francisco, in 1994 or 1995, I was searching for stag movies that had been transferred onto tape," Gordon continues. "Now it’s all online. I don’t want to be too nostalgic about it, but there was something special about making a physical pilgrimage to get [images]. The dissemination of ideas today is not necessarily media based. For my generation and for younger people it’s a tsunami — you cannot beat it back."


Through Feb, 24, 2008, $7–$12.50

San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

151 Third St., SF

(415) 357-4000


Feb. 1–7, $8–$10

Yerba Buena Center for the Arts

(415) 978-2787