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The Divided Self
Douglas Gordon’s "The VANITY of Allegory" at the Deutsche Guggenheim



Douglas Gordon, Staying Home, 2005
©Douglas Gordon, Photo: David Heald


Skulls, wilting flowers, provocative juxtapositions of life and death – vanitas motifs were a key element of baroque art. Vanitas – vanity and futility – conveys the Christian idea of the transitoriness of all life. With "The VANITY of Allegory," Douglas Gordon presents a fantastic equation for life’s brevity – an installation that oscillates between self-staging and a morbid game with mortality. Katrin Wittneven introduces the Scottish artist’s compelling games of perplexity.


Cerith Wyn Evans, TIX3, 1996
Courtesy Jap Jopling/White Cube, London, Photo: Stephen White

Instead of a catalogue, a small black treasure chest made of cardboard accompanies the exhibition. On it, white lines intertwine like tendrils and take on a floral, yet electronically animated look. Together, they form a fragile pattern concealing the artist’s name and exhibition title: The VANITY of Allegory, with the word vanity also implying allegory’s futility. For the exhibition at the Deutsche Guggenheim Berlin, Douglas Gordon, who was born in 1966, chose more than 30 works of art by 13 artists together with the curator Nancy Spector from the Guggenheim Museum in New York and combined them with his own works. The show presents self-portraits and stagings both evident and disguised, artistic ascertainments of existence that tell both of the transience of human existence and the sometimes vain attempt to escape this inevitability.

Man Ray, Marcel Duchamp. Tonsured by de Zayas, 1919
©Man Ray Trust, Paris / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2005,
Photo: Ellen Labenski


Gordon’s very personal selection begins with Man Ray’s photograph Tonsure from the year 1919 and proceeds through Rebecca Horn, Robert Gober, and Jeff Koons on to Matthew Barney and Cerith Wyn Evans. Yet once again, Gordon isn’t satisfied to remain in one artistic area, but rather combines various genres in the accompanying film program. In a mirrored cinema especially constructed for the exhibition, Peter Pan, Marlon Brando, John Wayne, and the Droog Alex from Stanley Kubrick’s Clockwork Orange collide. This collage-like approach, together with the numerous cross-references and relationships to Gordon’s own work, turn the exhibition into a multi-faceted and delicately interrelated total work of art.

Robert Mapplethorpe, Self Portrait, 1988


On the inside of the catalogue box, the works of the exhibition are printed on 49 cards comprising a kind of enigmatic tarot game. Here, in a self-portrait taken in 1988, one year before his death, Robert Mapplethorpe becomes, in the truest sense of the word, the confident herald of his own end – skull-cane in hand. Andy Warhol is present with a series of Polaroids made in the early eighties called In Drag, in which he staged himself in make-up and women’s clothing. What seem like images of an artist who stylized himself to the point of a trademark are, at the same time, testimonies to the deepest loneliness. One picture shows him with a skull on his shoulder, the epitome of the baroque vanitas symbolism, while another shows him with bright red lips and a platinum blond wig. On another card, also in Polaroid,


Andy Warhol, In Drag Polaroids, 1981

Douglas Gordon can be seen in a similar pose: tired, unshaven, and wearing a somewhat lopsided cheap blond wig – and most sexy. Self-portrait as Kurt Cobain, as Andy Warhol, as Myra Hindley, as Marilyn Monroe is the title of a photograph made by chance in 1996, which caused an uproar after the recently awarded Turner Prizewinner issued it to the media as a press photograph. The picture caused offence not only because Monroe and Cobain were both heroes who despite – or because of – their fame met with a tragic end, but mostly because Myra Hindley has remained England’s most famous child murderess since the sixties and, decades after her imprisonment, continues to polarize the public with her petitions for mercy. This image seems to say "I am many" – my own self-portrayal and masquerade and, at the same time, something at a distance from it.


Douglas Gordon, Going Out, 2005
©Douglas Gordon, Photo: David Heald

Vexing games with identity and staging as well as a duality between good and evil, darkness and light, black and white carry like a red thread through Gordon’s work: in other self-portraits, he drew himself with devil’s horns or distorted his face with strips of tape, making himself monstrous. In the 1996 video installation The Divided Self, the viewer sees one hairy and one shaven arm – both of which belong to the artist – fighting one another on two monitors. There are installations that refer to films like The Exorcist, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and The Song of Bernadette, and a photographic series of tattoos for which he had an index finger tattooed black, like a stigma. Yet the boundaries between his artistic work and person remain blurry: for his catalogue book on the exhibition at the Kestner Gesellschaft in Hanover, he camouflaged an autobiographical text with the subtitle "from a friend," and although the artist had the words "trust me" tattooed on his left arm, one shouldn’t believe everything one sees.

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