Gordon's work explores major themes, in particular ethical dichotomies such as religion and faith, good and evil, innocence and guilt, life and death. Gordon often uses his body as a ground for debate, exploring how contradictory human nature can be, and involves the viewer in the manner of a confessor and witness to his investigations. He examines the way in which meaning is communicated and how perception is defined by collective consciousness.
A Divided Self I and II, Douglas Gordon
This work consists of two monitors showing two arms wrestling with each other, one hairy and the other smooth. At first glance it looks as though two people are wrestling with one another but as you watch it becomes clear that the two arms belong to the same person. The battle between the two arms suggests an internal battle, the good self represented by the smooth arm and the evil self by the hairy arm.
In the rarely seen video Monster (1996), Gordon�s face becomes grotesque through the application of strips of transparent adhesive tape. Both author and character in this work, Gordon draws on the cinematic trope of a man�s encounter with his mirrored double. In two other works, the artist appropriates iconic �alter-ego� moments from classic films: the transformation scene in Rouben Mamoulian�s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde figures in Gordon�s Confessions of a Justified Sinner (1995�96), and the famous �You looking at me?� sequence performed by Robert De Niro in Martin Scorsese�s Taxi Driver becomes the basis for the 1999 work through a looking glass.
10ms‾ � (1994)
The dynamic between memory and bodily motion is another theme Gordon explores in his work.
10ms-1 uses silent film footage made during the First World War. It shows a soldier, dressed only in his underwear, who seems to be recovering from an injury. He makes a couple of unsteady steps before falling over. Once on the ground, he tries to stand up, but repeatedly fails. The jerkiness of his hapless movements is exaggerated by the slow-motion projection. The title refers to the speed at which an object falls under the pull of gravity.
The film has been transferred to video and is shown in a repeated loop, locking the soldier into an endless cycle of struggle and failure. Watching it can be at once compelling, frustrating and strangely voyeuristic. As Douglas Gordon has said: 'You can see that what is happening on screen might be quite painful - both physically and psychologically - but it has a seductive surface. What do you do - switch off or face the possibility that a certain sadistic mechanism may be at work?'
The man's outwardly healthy appearance makes the forces responsible for his collapse ambiguous. He may be suffering from a spinal injury or from shell shock, but it is equally possible that he is an actor involved in a clinical reconstruction for teaching purposes. In another work made around the same time, Gordon used a medical demonstration film in which a case of hysteria was staged, and he has acknowledged an interest in the way that such ambiguous documentation opens up questions about truth, perception and representation.
Tattoo (I) and Tattoo (II)
The dark undercurrents found in the film projections recur in photographic works such as Tattoo (for Reflection) (1997), a photograph of a man's back tattooed with the word Guilty. The word is inscribed backwards on his left shoulder but is legible in the reflection of an adjacent mirror. Trust is the subject of works such as Tattoo (I) and Tattoo (II) (both 1994), photographs in which the phrase Trust Me is shown tattooed on the artist's arm. One is not sure if the words are those of a close confidant or the utterance of a con man.
Black Spot Series
In one of the "black spot" series, Gordon has taken thirteen Polaroid photographs of his left (sinister) hand and enlarged it to a monstrous scale where image of the hand spans up to three feet. This process of one hand taking a photograph of the other produces a fragmented, duplicitous self-portrait. In the second "black spot" series, Gordon enlarged a detail of his marked hand, to create a landscape of foreboding and jeopardy.
Croque Mort (2000) extends Gordon's interest in using his own body as a ground of investigation as, here, he has photographed his newly born daughter. Repetition is also an ongoing interest in Gordon’s work, and this series of seven photographs provides a powerful self-contained visual installation. Indeed, the works are installed in a wholly red room, like a cinema room with its red carpet, or like the inside of a womb. A ‘croque mort’, or undertaker in French, was the person who as legend has it, would bite the feet of the recently deceased to check whether they were effectively dead, hence the appellation ‘the one who bites the dead’. In this series, Gordon’s daughter playful bites her own feet and fingers, but with the extreme close up and with the addition of the sinister title, what is simply a newborn’s natural checking of its physical existence actually turns into a reminder of our physical mortality. What could be a sentimental series of images of a baby is turned into an unexpected experience.