Monday, 7 January 2008

Art, sport and the history of IPA

The Times, January 7, 2008

The problem with a five-star success, as any Hollywood producer knows, is how to follow it up. It is conundrum the artist Douglas Gordon has been wrestling with since 2006 when rave reviews for his film Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait, spilled out of the arts pages into the sports supplements. This brilliant production, said one critic, was ideal if your “idea of a perfect Saturday is a morning at the Tate Modern followed by an afternoon at the match.”

Now at last, Gordon and his co-director Philippe Parreno have settled on the sequel. Ratcheting up the testosterone levels, they are shifting focus from football to bullfighting, from the enigma of Zinedine Zidane, the great French player, to José Tomás, Spain’s most famous matador.

Gordon is a Turner Prize winner, breathes the rarefied air of contemporary art. But he is a disarmingly unpretentious man, who chuckles as he describes how he was swept up in the cult of Tomás.

Last summer the bullfighter returned to the ring in Barcelona after a self-imposed exile from the sport of five years. Expectation was high and the stadium packed. Tomás did not disappoint, producing a brilliantly mannered performance and – despite being knocked to the ground - was carried out of the arena shoulder high in triumph. Gordon was agog.

“It was the most astonishing bullfight I’d seen. He is an amazing character who has obviously gone against the grain in that very macho culture and Philippe and I are interested in him as a matador. But we can also see things from the point of view of the animal, this beautiful beast,” recalls the artist. He envisages his film as “a game between the matador and the bull,” which will employ all the artfulness and technology which created Zidane – 16 cameras were trained on the footballer throughout a full match, to achieve an astonishingly intimate portrayal “every bit as detailed as a painting or a photograph”.

Winning Tomás’s continuing support for the film which will take months to plan and execute may not be decisive – another matador could step into the limelight - but with the spectre of an EU ban hanging over bullfighting, time is of the essence.

The urgency of the project only adds to the sense of activity and optimism which surrounds the artist. Eighteen months ago during the Edinburgh retrospective of his work Gordon was still coming to terms with the break up of his relationship with Anna Gaskell, and fretting over how he might maintain a closeness with his young son in New York.

Now he is relaxed and assured and in the throes of moving back to Glasgow, which hasn’t been his permanent base since 2000. Gordon is looking forward to playing golf and watching Scotland’s efforts in football’s World Cup qualifiers. And he has any number of artistic projects on the go.

The last “astonishing summer” convinced him to return to Europe. It wasn’t just Barcelona. Gordon participated in the ‘artists’ opera’, which was part of the Manchester Festival and spent enough “fallow time” in Scotland to make him realise that he had been a “bit too cranked up” In New York. He will keep a flat in Manhattan, and probably buy another in Berlin, but he already has two places in Glasgow, one of which, near Park Circus, is being converted into a non-profit-making gallery. Gaskell is likely to be one of the first artists to exhibit there.

The notion of an exhibition space in his house was dreamt up with Katrina Brown, an old friend who is the former director of Dundee Contemporary Arts. Over dinner, she told Gordon about her Common Guild foundation which is dedicated to mounting public programmes of contemporary art. “I said, ‘I have a big town house in Glasgow, but I only ever live in the kitchen. Why don’t we try to run it as an art space?’ “

The homecoming is enticing to an artist who feels both Scottish and European. “It made sense to get back to a context in which I was challenged in a different way. And people didn’t keep saying to me, ‘O your accent is so cute’, and I didn’t have to predicate everything I said with subtitles.”

Gordon was born the eldest of four children in Maryhill, Glasgow, where he absorbed all the obsessions which beset many Scottish men growing up in 1970s: sex, death, football and religion. When he was four, his mother became a Jehovah’s Witness; at nine, Gordon was giving Bible readings to audiences of 200 at the Kingdom Hall.

He would have studied literature and history and university if his guidance teacher hadn’t persuaded him to apply for Glasgow School of Art. Now at 42, he intends to right that decision and will apply to study the Reformation at St Andrews University. It should help, he says, in one of his current projects, “to rewrite the Bible”.

“I was in Germany recently looking at works by Cranach. There is a beautiful portrait of Martin Luther, and I thought, ‘Douglas, you just don’t know half as much as you should. Maybe it’s time to go back to school. You can be one of those cool, mature students for once.’”

Luther he admires for his “attempt at inevitable failure”, his 1517 protest. “I think what interests me in it – it’s very tricky - is that aspect of Protestantism which is the introduction of choice as oppose to dogma. We know that a few hundred years later it became dogmatic, but in those days …”

He lets that thought drift off. “If I study in St Andrews and have a flat in Berlin, I can go and see a lot of the paintings and go to Wittenburg.”

And you can study religion and have fun, he reckons. As if to prove the point, his most recent experiences in Berlin – absorbing the art of Cranach and Durer – were leavened by his new career as restaurant reviewer for the French edition of Playboy. He calls his column 24 Hours Gastronomy, echoing the title of arguably his best known work, 24 Hour Psycho. It first ran last October with a despatch from St Andrews.

“I thought I should start it off with a little patriotic nod. ‘Dear Reader’, it began, ‘I’m sitting aboard an Airbus, coming in from Charles De Gaulle to Edinburgh airport … Don’t go directly to St Andews. Stop off at the Oxford Bar in Edinburgh and have a pint of IPA.’ I give them a wee history of India Pale Ale. Then we stopped off in Crail for a lobster, we played golf, we went to St Monans for dinner. The French Playboy people loved it.”

He even takes his own photographs on his camera phone and e-mails them into the office. Now wonder Yan Ceh, the editor-in-chief of the magazine, lists Gordon as one of his heroes on his YouTube website.

In Berlin he wanted to dine in an exclusive restaurant, frequented by Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt. “I called the concierge and asked him to book. He said ‘Zees is not possible.” I said: ‘I am the food and drink editor of French Playboy magazine and I’d like to check the place out.’ I had a table in five minutes.”

Not bad, he laughs, for a man from Maryhill.

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