Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Negative Art? Not At This Library

Artist Douglas Gordon.
(Image courtesy of The London Times.)

What is art? When confronted by that tricky question often the best answer the average person can come up with echoes Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart's famous statement about pornography: "I don't know what it is, but I know it when I see it." Library administrators at The University of Edinburgh in Scotland see it this way: if it isn't uplifting, positive, and celebratory, it isn't art.

To add a final flourish to the December 2009 unveiling of the remodeled ground floor of its main library, the University commissioned a work of art. The artist chosen for the plum assignment was Glasgow native Douglas Gordon. At first glance the choice seems an inspired one. Gordon is a renowned painter and filmmaker who has won the three biggest prizes the art world has to offer: the Turner Prize, the Hugo Boss Prize, and a prize at the Venice Biennale. His work has been exhibited in museums around the globe including the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, the Tate Modern in London, and the National Galleries of Scotland. Gordon's work often centers around wordplay, textual interpretation, and books. Perfect for a library, right?

Memoirs, 1988-1990. Douglas Gordon (1984-1990).
Ten sketchbooks and backpack,
Museum of Modern Art.

Well, not so fast. Gordon had proposed to inscribe a wall of the library with gold lettering reading: “Every time you turn a page, it dies a little.” But as Andrew Patrizio, a member of the university’s advisory panel, told the London Times: “Several people felt the wording was not celebratory enough, even though the artist had not been briefed to create a ‘positive’ commission. Though one could read it negatively, it is important to stress that nobody had ever asked the artist for something celebratory.” What we have here is a failure to communicate. And so, at the last possible minute, the entire project was cancelled, leaving Gordon fuming, and more than willing to share his indignation with the press.

Gordon's anger and humiliation are readily apparent in this excerpt from his open letter to the University: “I will never again accept a public commission in my home country. I felt I was being treated like a 16-year-old apprentice and not a professional. It has become impossible to work with the commissioning body. Many artists are treated disrespectfully by the institutions they are making commissions for. Most think they cannot afford to say 'No', but I can.”

30 Seconds Text. Douglas Gordon
(1996). Temporary Installation. National Galleries of Scotland.

Whatever one may think about Gordon's proposal, the most cursory research into his work reveals that somebody at the University of Edinburgh didn't do their homework. If you want cheerful, lighthearted, positive art, Douglas Gordon is simply NOT your go-to guy. One of his representative pieces is entitled 30 Seconds Text. Here's a description of the work from the National Galleries of Scotland: "30 Seconds Text consists of a single hanging light bulb that goes on in a previously pitch-black room. The bulb illuminates a text printed on one of the walls, which describes an experiment carried out in Montpellier in 1905 to see how long a man retains consciousness after his head has been severed by the guillotine. Apparently, it takes 30 seconds. It also takes 30 seconds to read the whole text. After this time has elapsed, the light goes out and we are plunged back into darkness." Not exactly Norman Rockwell.

It remains to be seen what, if anything, will end up being the University of Edinburgh Library's "celebratory" work of art. But here's a piece of advice to anyone considering giving a commission to an artist: Take a good, long, hard look at the artist's work before you hire him. That way, when you see his creation, you'll know it's art.

1 comment:

  1. I occasionally bump into this blog when calling up Douglas Gordon's name and it continues to irritate me, though I can see the value in trying to advise potential commissioning bodies to do their homework.

    But a little more homework by this blogger would have shown that I and the three other art specialists involved in the commissioning panel knew Douglas's work well, and over 20 years (i.e. long before his subsequent and justified fame) we had curated him into our shows, written pieces on his work and considered him an artist we knew and liked personally (and still do!)

    The article quoted in the London Times (but in fact given only to The Art Newspaper) failed to express my disgust and horror as the commissioning process was wrecked by a relatively small number of senior University staff. In difficult circumstances, many of us went out on a limb to make this wonderful work happen but were thwarted.

    I still promote this unrealised work to my students (they've even written essays on it), presented it pointedly at my inaugural this year, and remain a dedicated supporter of Douglas's work. He is one of our finest, EVER.

    Andrew Patrizio, Edinburgh


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