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The Opposite of Dorian Gray
Douglas Gordon on vanity, death, and wax figures

Exhibition view
Photo: Eva Maria Ocherbauer

Stagings of the self, identities, and transience: in "The VANITY of Allegory" at the Deutsche Guggenheim, Douglas Gordon combines his own art with works of other artists ranging from Man Ray to Jeff Koons as well as films from Hollywood and the underground. Ulrich Clewing visited the Scottish Turner Prizewinner shortly before the exhibition opening in Berlin.

A meeting room on the fourth floor of the Deutsche Bank building Unter den Linden. Douglas Gordon has just come from the exhibition hall, where he’s busy setting up the show. He seems tired; a result, perhaps, of last night’s train journey from Paris to Berlin, on which he didn’t seem to get all that much sleep. But then, all of a sudden, he’s highly concentrated; for one, he likes to talk, and secondly, he obviously has fun giving interviews.

Douglas Gordon, Confessions of a Justified Sinner, 1995-96, Video Installation

Ulrich Clewing: Mister Gordon, you like to play with different identities in your work. You’ve claimed the main character of James Hogg’s novel The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, Robert Wringhim, as your e-mail identity and appropriated the book’s title for your split-screen video installation "Confessions of a Justified Sinner". If we were about to evoke the spirit of Douglas Gordon – who would he be today?

Douglas Gordon: It’ s a funny thing, you know, because I traveled here last night from Paris on a train. It was very funny, because it reminded me of when I was young and the idea that when you meet people you could be anyone or anything. Last night, I’d forgotten that when you travel in Europe in the summer, it’s like a circus: you meet the strangest people. I ended up at three o’clock in the morning sitting in the buffet car with a French-African filmmaker, two interior-designers from Pakistan, a DJ from the north of France, an anthropologist from the American Midwest and five or six American guys, you know, from St. Cruz. And everyone is telling each other what they do. Of course I was conscious of the fact that everyone could have been lying.

Exhibition view
Photo: Eva Maria Ocherbauer

So what did you say?

I told them the truth: My name is Robert Wringhim...I think they’ll all come to the exhibition on Friday. Let’s see who turns up…

We live in a straightforward culture. Why should we care about allegory today?

Oh, I think that it’s maybe difficult to imagine the place for allegory in the present time. But you see, there are bombs in London, there’s war all over the world, maybe it’s time we need the extended metaphor.

Proposal for a Posthumous Portrait, 2004 Photo: David Heald,
©Collection Sean and Mary Kelly, New York

Your work "Proposal for a Posthumous Portrait" (2004) seems quite morbid. It shows a carved skull embedded in a mirrored case. At the same time, it refers to a classical Vanitas motif. What fascinates you about the transitoriness of being?

If you think that’s morbid, you should see some of the other things [laughs]. The Proposal for a Posthumous Portrait is a reference not only to Vanitas, but to Duchamp . Because the star carved in the back of the head is measured exactly from the photographs of Marcel Duchamp with the star-shaped tonsure. There’s another piece that’s not in the show – we discussed it, and came to the conclusion that it would make a very different type of show. It involves buying a skull, a real one, for every year of my life, 38 in all, and making a trepanation into the skull, one star shape for each year. The first one would have one, the second two, the third three, and so on. And by the time I’m fifty years old, it will become very difficult to have a skull with fifty stars. Imagine, when I get to be an old man and I’m very fragile, then my little birthday present to myself is going to be extremely fragile. So you could say that my interest in defeating death is inevitably some kind of vanity.

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