Black Burns: Douglas Gordon reinvents Scotland's beloved poet
- Neil Cooper
- 12 July 2017
A certain omnipresent serendipity alongside our iconic bard's irresistible pull led this Berlin-based Glaswegian to create a new marble work of Robert Burns
Rabbie Burns might not know what's hit him once Douglas Gordon gets hold of the bard. Or rather, the full-length marble statue of Burns created in 1824 by John Flaxman and currently standing in the Great Hall of the Scottish National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh might not. The statue, originally housed in Thomas Hamilton's Burns Monument on Calton Hill, is the inspiration for 'Black Burns', a response by the Berlin-based Glaswegian to Flaxman's original. The result literally breaks down perceptions of Scotland's much-revered national poet, who stands as the only full figure in a room full of busts.
'My initial idea was to have all the busts turning their back on Burns, so you had all the others ignoring the central character,' says Gordon. 'Then I began to be intrigued by the way he was ivory-coloured, which made me think about his history with slavery, and I thought, why not take this white man and turn him into a black man.'
Gordon was working with marble and found a black piece that appeared to be an ideal size. 'We did a 3D scan of the existing sculpture and made a mini-Burns to see how it looked. It's being finished in Italy where we're polishing him up. Then we're going to shatter him and bring him here in bits. Burns himself had to polish up his act. He had to change his language to make the move from being a farmer to becoming this Edinburgh society chap, and that must have left him shattered. It always does when you have to become something else. I left Scotland 30 years ago and have to practice my accent every day.'
Gordon is possibly known best for monumental film works, including his 1993 solo show at Tramway, '24 Hour Psycho', and Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait, his 2006 Mogwai-soundtracked homage to French football legend Zinedine Zidane. More recently, the 1996 Turner Prize-winner has kept himself busy with projects including acting and writing. In 2013, he played a leather-clad trucker who befriends an 11-year-old girl fleeing from her abusive father in fashion designer Agnès B's film, My Name Is Hmmm (Je m'appelle Hmmm). In 2015, his play Neck of the Woods opened at Home in Manchester, with Gordon damaging one of the venue's walls with an axe.
'Black Burns' is the result of a long-standing invitation from the Scottish National Portrait Gallery for Gordon to create a new work, but there's also a personal impetus driving the end result. 'I'm about to make a phone call to my mum and dad to see if they can find a certificate for recitation which I was given at school. Rabbie was omnipresent in that way when I was younger, but as I got into music he faded away. Then as you get a little bit older you realise there's something more mutual going on.'
This trajectory is very much in keeping with the one followed by Gordon's friend, and Glasgow School of Art contemporary, Graham Fagen. Whether through accident or design, 'Black Burns' will sit in the Portrait Gallery alongside Fagen's 'The Slave's Lament' (the latter is on display until 29 October). His take on Burns reinvents the bard's lyric in a reggae version performed by vocalist Ghetto Priest with a new arrangement from composer Sally Beamish. Born from a long-time love of dub which ran alongside Fagen's Ayrshire roots, 'The Slave's Lament' was Scotland's entry to the 2015 Venice Biennale.
'Graham got into reggae through the Clash,' says Gordon. 'We were in the Mack doing a life-drawing class, and a rumour went round that the Clash were playing The Rock Garden on Queen Street. One by one, everybody dropped their charcoal and left until there was just this naked woman alone in the room. It was the most disruptive time we ever had.'
As both artists pursued their respective careers, reggae and Rabbie continued to loom large. 'It will have been different for Graham because he grew up in Ayrshire, whereas I'd been in Maryhill and then Dumbarton, but if you came from a certain background, which invariably involved heavy drinking, you were going to be aware of Burns. I went to London but being away from Scotland, Burns becomes this totemic and anthemic figure: he's still omnipresent. I used to do these Burns suppers and they were quite messy affairs. It's even the case that my dad's birthday is January 25th. I like the idea as well that Ghetto Priest has got a gold tooth: so have I.'
While preparing to install 'Black Burns', one of Gordon's many projects is a planned film adaptation of Don DeLillo's 2010 novel, Point Omega, which features references to '24 Hour Psycho', with one of the book's narrators obsessing over the installation's details as he watches it all day long. Gordon first got wind of this through an email he received in 2008, but didn't take it seriously. 'I didn't even respond. I thought it was some scamp taking the piss, but then I was sent a draft. After it came out, a friend said to me that I'd kidnapped Alfred Hitchcock's film and now someone's kidnapped my idea, so why not buy the rights to the book.'
With plans to shoot in the Highlands, Gordon has also spent much of the last two years working on a film about Jonas Mekas, the Lithuanian-born avant-garde filmmaker. 'Mekas was born in a farming village the same as Burns was, so working on these two things at the same time seemed to make quite a lot of sense. Burns was very much a man of the soil. It turns out that there are more statues of Burns than any other person. I was going to say any other living person, because it feels very much like he's alive; since we started on this I've come up with another couple of Burnsesque ideas, so this may be the start of another furrow to plough,' Gordon says, laughing at his own joke. 'With "Black Burns", I don't know if it's a shattered portrait of a man or a portrait of a shattered man … '
Douglas Gordon: Black Burns, Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Queen Street, 0131 624 6200, 29 Jul–29 Oct, 10am–5pm, Thu until 7pm (Jul, Sep & Oct); 10am–6pm, Thu until 7pm (Aug), free.