Wednesday, September 14, 2011

k.364, Douglas Gordon, 2010

I have always been slightly suspicious of Douglas Gordon’s video installations. I know, in the 1990s his work was groundbreaking and, together with artists such as Gary Hill and Stan Douglas, Gordon was using the new medium to create a brand new phenomenology of the moving image. I appreciate that. But I have often found his work predictable and lacking the depth that others claimed it had. So, as I was on my way to see k.364, 2010 a work designed as a split screen installation, that was to be projected on a single screen in the Pompidou Centre’s cinema space, I wondered why I was bothering. And then, when Gordon introduced the film with what I read as inappropriate mockery of himself and his film, I was about to start counting the minutes till it was all over. Add to this the fact that the reviews of K.364 by the British broadsheets were scathing, I was prepared for the worst.
Installation of K.364 at Gagosian in London
But k.364 is compelling for what it sets out to do as much as for its creation of a world from which we have no exit until the film is over. At Gagosian in London, k.364 was installed on split screens, presumably looped, with mirrors at the entrance to the room and Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante for Violin, Viola and Orchestra in E-flat major filling the room. And probably for the first time ever, I was relieved to have seen Gordon’s film on a single screen projection. Because this is a film with a very clear narrative journey, beginning as the train that will take the violinist and the violist to Warsaw via Poznan to play the Concertante pulling out of Berlin’s Hauptbahnhof. And the journey continues towards the final half of the film which comprises the performance of k.364 in Warsaw with Avri Levitan and Roi Shiloah,  playing the viola and violin solos respectively. Both are, significantly, Israelis of Polish descent. Gordon’s film installation actually takes its title from the Köchel catalogue number of Mozart’s 1779 Concertante. So on the train from Berlin to Warsaw, a train journey that mirrors those we know to have carried Europe’s most cultured Jews to their deaths, the indivudals also have their own history.
K.364, Douglas Gordon, 2010

I can’t help thinking that the critics for the Guardian, the Telegraph and other British papers either don't understand music or they don't understand film. Even the most rudimentary understanding of Mozart’s Concertante, gives insight into the tensions and contradictions that become echoed in Gordon’s film. Mozart, as a rule, did not write a lot in minor keys; although of course he has two symphonies in D minor, he preferred the brilliance and delight of the major keys. And E-flat major is the most heavenly of all; it is the key that takes music closest to God. E-flat major typically wraps all those who hear it in love and devotion, transporting its listeners to heaven. And yet, the middle andante movement is written— not unusually —in the corresponding key of C minor. And in the languishing notes of the andante movement, we hear the pain and agony of the history that we know too well took place in Poland during World War II. It is an agony that today is often symbolized by the train journey from Berlin to Warsaw. Mozart’s tension between major and minor keys therefore comes as the most perfect expression of the irresolveable contradictions between the ethereal beauty of the music and all that is carried between Berlin and Warsaw on a train.
Douglas Gordon, k. 364, cover of catalogue
One of the most memorable things about k.364 is the time it takes to declare the ethereality of music. At one point, one of the train travellers reflectively announces that “music only exists in the air”. And later in the film, he says “music only exists when it is heard”. Music has no past and no future: it is the perfect and only expression of the present. Yet, while music has no history, this is a film in which history abounds. And so  another contradiction, between the pure presence of music and the weight of historical burden carried by images and words, is brought to the fore. This is often the problem that the reviews have with the film: namely, that it doesn’t go deeply enough into the Holocaust that it nods towards. But I don’t think that Gordon is making a film about the Holocaust. Rather, if I had to pinpoint what the film is doing, I would say he references the Holocaust, and indeed, connects to it in the conversations had on the train, as well the very journey of the Israelis from Berlin via Poznan to Warsaw to reflect on how the shadow of the Holocaust is cast across the apparent seamless and peaceful world of contemporary eastern Europe. And the perfection of this world is carried through Mozart’s music. 

There is another discourse about the past and the weight of its barbarity as it is measured in the installation of a swimming pool in the place of the synagogue in Poznan by the Nazis in 1939. This story is told on the train as the travellers pass through Poznan. In addition, the film goes back to balletic underwater shots of body parts swimming in an outdoor pool. These fragments I assume are meant to communicate a clash between the barbarity of the Nazi’s act and again the beauty of the music and the bodies. However, I was not convinced these fragments were so necessary to the film.

The brilliance of Gordon’s film lies in his ability to create music in a medium other than that created by musical instruments. One of the most impossible tasks of film and moving images is to recreate the experience that an audience would have if it was engaged with another medium. And yet, Gordon manages to do just that. I became so enveloped by the music that by the end of the film, I felt as though I had been dragged through the gamut of emotions of Mozart’s Concertante: the excitement, the tragedy, the celebration that is this exquisite piece of music. It is because, not inspite of the fact that they are often shot in tight closeups that make it difficult to focus on the violinist's and the violist's faces, that we are able to experience the love affair so delicately developed between them. Because the music, not the image is what enables this relationship. All the time the image is there to show the affect of the musical intimacy, through the fragment of a facial expression or the falling of an arm into the depths of a phrase. This fragment is all we need to see something magical happen between two musicians playing Mozart. Also, through the use of the split screen, the two soloists are held in a relationship with each other, in tight closeup, such that there is nothing else in the world besides each other and the instruments that connect them.

Gordon captures this impossible intimacy, a union that can only exist in the air that holds the music in a fleeting present. This is an intimacy I would not have thought it possible to capture through the concretion of images. And for this reason, Gordon redeems himself as a videomaker to be held in my esteem.

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