Most people these days complain that movies are too long, with modern cinema audiences forced to wait for up to three hours while good killer robots battle bad killer robots or hairy-footed characters redistribute rings. This wasn’t the sentiment of the Glasgow-born artist Douglas Gordon (1966-), however. He looked at Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (109 minutes) and decided it needed to be around 13 times longer.
His 24 Hour Psycho (1993) is literally that film slowed down to a little under two frames a second from the typical 24 fps, so that it runs for 1440 minutes. It was first shown at the Tramway gallery in south Glasgow in 1993. Since then it has toured the world, including Gordon’s 2006 retrospective in MoMA, New York.
The choice of the film is significant, and not just because it is an icon, instantly recognisable. It wouldn’t be nearly so effective without Psycho’s shadows and abstract forms, lengthy shots of corridors and rooms, patterns dark and light – not a teeming world full of people but of empty space anticipating presence and demonstrating absences. You can enjoy the shadows for the beautiful abstract forms they are, or seek out fragments of humanity when they’re present in the frame.
Gordon destroys the relationship between space and time, or to be more accurate the illusion of time passing and of movement which is ordinarily generated by the rapidly flickering frames of cinema. He also destroys the illusion of suspense, which operates over a longer period of time than the persistence of vision, but still demands a certain kind of time perception. The viewer is freed from Hitchcock’s grip by an artist who takes exactly Hitchcock’s material but destroys the entire point of it. Does that mean the artwork is now Gordon’s, not Hitchcock’s? It is still Hitchcock not Gordon doing the on-screen cameo near the start. But why shouldn’t Gordon depict Hitchcock in his work of art, making it a portrait of the director as well as his work?
With Psycho, Hitchcock tried to change the way people watched films. Before then, people would enter the cinema at any time during a film, watch the program for a couple of hours as it repeated, and possibly leave when they reached the point they’d come in at. But Hitchcock insisted people were there before the film started, banning admission during the course of Psycho. Gordon’s work no longer offers the visceral shock, but it still offers the challenge of how to watch and appreciate an artwork when you have not seen the whole thing. Indeed, it also offers a challenge to art galleries: if they show it on a loop over 24 hours the majority of the work will be seen by nobody except nighttime security guards, and starting it afresh each morning would be worse. Don DeLillo reported that in MoMA it was paused each night and resumed in the morning.
Douglas Gordon was born in Redlands Hospital, Glasgow on September 20, 1966. His father worked in one of the city’s traditional industries, a carpenter in the shipyards making wooden patterns. Douglas grew up in Maryhill in the city’s northwest, later moving to Dunbarton when the old tenements were replaced with new estates further out of town. His mother became a Jehovah’s Witness when Douglas was four, and he was raised in the Christmasless faith, going door to door with her to spread the message. He attended Glasgow School of Art 1984-1988, then Slade School of Art for postgraduate study. Since university, he has lived in New York, Germany and Scotland.
24 Hour Psycho was the work that made his reputation. There were claims of a falling out between him and the Scottish art establishment following its early success, and his work was not widely shown in Scotland for several years after. But he continued to produce a significant series of works that were often inspired by Scottish culture and literature. Monster Reborn (1996/2002) and Fog (2002) draw on Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and Hogg’s Confessions of a Justified Sinner, both novels concerned with doubles and alter egos. Dualism is central to his work: Between Darkness and Light (1997) projected two contrasting films, horror shocker The Exorcist and religious biopic Song of Bernadette, on opposite sides of a single screen; other works have featured two-screen projections. Likewise, he has doubled Psycho by showing it on both sides of a screen.
His other most famous creation is the documentary feature film Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait (2006), co-directed with Philippe Parreno and soundtracked by Glasgow band Mogwai. This shows the great French footballer for an entire game, the cameras following him constantly, even though for most of the film all he does is run back and forth far from the ball, or just stand around. As with much of Gordon’s work, it could be considered boring to the wrong mind. The idea was copied from Hellmuth Costard’s 1971 George Best documentary Fußball wie noch nie (Football as Never Before), although Gordon’s contribution was to decide that the product was art rather than just a film about football.
Gordon proposed to follow up Psycho with a five-year showing of John Ford’s The Searchers, stretched from 119 mins to 2628000 mins: 22084 times slower; one frame taking 920 seconds. This project may have been unrealised, although it would be easy to begin. Another long-term work is List Of Names (1999), which records the name of everybody he’s ever met, on a large wall of the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, updated constantly.
Hitchcock’s Psycho has proved a fertile source for later artists. Gus van Sant remade it shot-for shot, and it inspired a TV show, Bates Motel. Steven Soderbergh produced a mash-up of Hitchcock and Van Sant’s versions. Likewise, Gordon’s work has its followers. James Franco collaborated with Douglas Gordon on Psycho Nacirema, which drew on Hitchcock and the Fatty Arbuckle story. 24 Hour Psycho is central to postmodern novelist Don DeLillo’s novella Point Omega. Its prologue and epilogue are set in the New York gallery showing 24 Hour Psycho. An unnamed character reflects on the artwork and the nature of time, before breaking off to chat up a girl and rejoin the world, “the thing that’s not the movies”.
DeLillo’s is a spare, stripped-down, very short novel, about a young filmmaker planning a documentary on a conservative intellectual involved in the Iraq war and reflecting on the nature of time and Teilhard de Chardin’s vision of the universe constantly evolving in increasing complexity until it reaches the omega point; the two main characters visit the gallery in the prologue but do not stay for long. While DeLillo with his quiet prose seems to be performing a shortening trick, the unnamed prologuist seeks an opposite transformation in the nature of time, wondering how often he would have to see Gordon’s work before his sense of time is utterly changed; he demands a showing of the film where nobody is allowed to enter or leave for 24 hours. The book says: “The film made him feel like someone watching a film. The meaning of this escaped him.” In reality, nothing could be less like watching a film: no film is ever watched this closely by anyone not involved in the production. But it’s hard to beat DeLillo’s metaphor: “it was like whole numbers”.
An artwork is never finished until it ceases to produce an reaction, from Hitchcock to Gordon to Franco and DeLillo, and back to Gordon, who is planning a feature film adaptation of Point Omega. I attended the MoMA Douglas Gordon show mentioned in DeLillo’s novel. I didn’t see a man stood there watching for the duration, or any Dick Cheney or Leo Strauss types visiting. DeLillo considers various ways of leaning against a gallery wall; I was told off by the guard for sitting on the floor.
Douglas Gordon, 24 Hour Psycho, 1993. Video projection. (Image on this page: still from Psycho, dir. Alfred Hitchcock, 1960.)