Encounter with Through a Looking Glass by John Abrams
John Abrams Taxi Driver 20 x 14 inches 2013
The artist is a receptacle for emotions that come from all over the place: from the sky, from the earth, from a scrap of paper, from a passing shape, from a spider’s web. That is why we must not discriminate between things. Where things are concerned there are no class distinctions. We must pick out what is good for us where we can find it – except from our own works. I have a horror of copying myself. – Pablo Picasso
In the fall of 2000, Douglas Gordon’s Through a Looking Glass was showing in the main gallery of Toronto’s Power Plant Contemporary Art Gallery. As I entered the installation I found myself in the empty space between two large projections of the same famous clip from the film Taxi Driver. Two huge images of Robert De Niro at either end of the gallery space were repeating over and over, with menacing intonation, the iconic question: “Are you talking to me?”
I was the only one there. I did not immediately like the installation; something about it made me feel uneasy in a manner out of proportion to what was physically being presented in the room. I do not experience the same strange feeling with all art but work that is challenging can disturb me before I know why. The question that seemed to trouble me was the following: can simply presenting a pre-existing film clip from popular culture in a gallery setting be important as art, and if so, then how can this act of recontextualization be made relevant next to the history of formal art practices – painting, sculpture and photography – which traditionally have dominated the art gallery and museum?
After describing Douglas Gordon’s installation this essay will examine the points of interest that make Through a Looking Glass at home in the museum. There are two chains of ideas that will be discussed which play harmoniously around the installation: the story of the transition of the image through its stages, and the concept of re-using the found image.
Curated by Philip Monk, Through a Looking Glass (1999) uses the well-known scene from director Martin Scorsese and writer Paul Schrader’s 1975 film Taxi Driver, in which Robert De Niro plays Travis Bickle, a damaged Vietnam veteran whose paranoid grasp on reality is enhanced and exacerbated by drugs, sleeplessness and loneliness. Projected on two gallery walls, the iconic seventy-one second sequence addresses itself across the space of the gallery, on opposite walls. Placing the audience in between the double image, Gordon gives us the view from the mirror, but slightly out of sync. The two projections start simultaneously but then they slowly begin to go out of sync in a geometric progression, creating a jarring sense of disjunction before the process reverses itself and the two moving images slowly resynchronize. With the seventy-one seconds of the sequence playing in a continuous loop, the whole cycle took about an hour to complete itself. This established the effect that I was standing in the middle of a dialogue that seemed to be dancing in a circle around the implied mirror, which also acts as a screen or like the theatre’s fourth wall.
Bickle simultaneously addresses himself, the viewer, and some projected vision of a future threat. I sensed that Bickle was actually using the mirror to re-create his own image, one he could use to empower himself to help come to terms with his own alienation.
When Travis Bickle utters those famous words to his own reflection he is, in a sense, addressing the other, but what he seems to really be doing with the mirror is creating an image of himself to use later to confront the perceived threat of the other. The scene that immediately follows the mirror sequence in the film, but is not included in Gordon’s installation, has Bickle take the process of making himself a physical step further by shaving his head, giving himself a Mohawk. With this act of self-distortion he attempts to complete his metamorphosis into a shocking persona of whom people will take notice. This act reinforces my opinion that Bickle is using the mirror to re-create his own image.
At first glance the viewer sizes up the exhibit and, understanding the mirror reference, the idea of Jacques Lacan’s mirror stage and the realization of the other is suggested. Slavoj Zizek uses this same scene from Taxi Driver in numerous writings to illustrate the Lacanian principle of the mirror stage. In Zizek’s words:
When Travis prepares for his attack, he practices in front of the mirror the drawing of the gun; in what is the best-known scene of the film, he addresses his own image in the mirror with the aggressive-condescending "You talkin' to me?” In a textbook illustration of Lacan's notion of the "mirror stage," aggressivity is here clearly aimed at oneself, at one's own mirror image.
This is important because it shows that both Zizek and Gordon are troubling the same Taxi Driver scene to unpack some of Lacan’s more complex ideas concerning the mirror stage.
What is important is that both Scorsese’s original film scene and Douglas’s art installation are more about the confirmation of being by the making of a self-image through dis-identification than about directly revisiting Lacan’s mirror stage. When Bickle looks into the mirror he attempts to see himself through the eyes of the imagined other and to create a convincing visible persona. Bickle is trying out his new image in order that he might be seen by a society from which he feels alienated. He feels invisible and is determined to design a character to say to the world “Here I am!” In this sense, Gordon’s piece functions doubly as a metaphor for the artistic process as it is embedded in the relational nature of art to say “here I am,” to construct oneself through the creative act. With further investigation the motivation for Through a Looking Glass becomes more complex than a single literary device.
The concept of working from appropriated source material far predates modernity; it was Plato who taught that art is an imitation of an imitation of an ideal form. Through a Looking Glass plays with the idea of creating by finding and then using things that are already conceived and produced in popular culture, allowing for altered perspectives on the found image or object. It is this approach to the idea of appropriation that constructs the viewer’s experience of Gordon’s installation.
Gordon’s act of choosing found cinema, taking it out of the theatre and bringing it into the museum changed the context of the famous film sequence that was his source material; it became art in the sense that it interpolated its viewer to read it as such and to consider its multiple potential meanings. The idea of the artist’s act of choosing having conceptual significance connects the installation directly to the readymades of Marcel Duchamp, which changed what art could be. The idea became the work of art, sparking the birth of conceptual art. Duchamp selected objects from the everyday – a snow shovel (En prevision du bras casse) (1915), a urinal (Fountain) (1917) or a coat rack (Trebuchet) (1917), and exhibited the pieces in gallery settings with very little interaction between the artist and the art.
The artists of the dada movement, the surrealists, the pop artists and the fluxists all used found images and source material harvested from popular culture in their work to blur the boundaries between art and everyday reality. Joseph Kosuth states that the moment that gave birth to the readymade changed the essence of art:
With the unassisted readymade, art changed its focus from the form of the language to what was being said. Which means that it changed the nature of art from a question of morphology to a question of function. This change – one from appearance to conception – was the beginning of modern art and the beginning of conceptual art. All art (after Duchamp) is conceptual (in nature) because art only exists conceptually.
Gordon’s Through a Looking Glass takes on the same unaffected quality and surprising simplicity of Duchamp’s readymades, which have had a reverberating effect on the course of art. With Gordon’s work it is almost possible to hear the uninitiated mutter, “my kid could do that” – a sentiment which I have often heard repeated in reference to exhibits of Duchamp’s readymades. But the ramifications of the idea that now the context not only exists but is essential to the experience of looking offer direction and challenge later art to participate. These concerns are central to many current art practices, which test the boundaries of what is possible within the new parameters of art if the object is secondary to the idea.
Douglas Gordon takes the pre-existing film sequence from a well-known Hollywood picture to create an altered artistic context. In an interesting reversal of Gordon’s act of troubling disciplinary boundaries and analyzing the specific properties of artistic media, Jacque Ranciere offers this analysis of what Jean-Luc Godard was doing with cinema, particularly in the film Histoire(s) du cinema:
The cinema that he recounts for us appears as a series of appropriations of other arts. And he presents it to us in an interlacing of words, sentences and texts, of metamorphosed paintings, of cinematic shots mixed up with news photographs or strips, sometimes connected by musical citations. In short, Histoire(s) du cinemas is wholly woven out of those pseudo-metamorphoses, those imitations of one art by another that are rejected by avant-gardist purity.
Just as Godard fractures disciplinary boundaries by bringing art into the cinema Gordon troubles the notion of artistic purity, bringing cinema into the art gallery to challenge the way the audience views the boundaries of art. The fracture that is mirrored in these two works creates an infinite interplay, inverting and re-inverting the image in a continuous dialogue. Gordon changes the site of the cinematic event to the art gallery and Godard brings formal art histories back into the cinema. They both bridge the fracture between film and traditional art mediums.
The creative event repeats itself through the different uses of the image, each drawing on pre-existing cultural meanings, tying together a string of cultural producers and challenging the old concept of the artist as a solitary genius making great works of originality. The viewer is treated to a realistic look under the skirt of today’s art production, exposing art as a collective effort rather than an autonomous pursuit. The relationship between the creative stages of the image resonates for much longer than the time it takes to view the piece and much further than the gallery’s walls. Gordon’s friend Nicolas Bourriaud elegantly describes this idea as “the social network of art itself”
Through a Looking Glass expresses the reality of the art making process, where the idea and image are in a constant state of evolution, passed along and shared by artists and different mediums of production, going beyond a finished piece of art to an art of open dialogue. In Post-Production (2002), Bourriaud explores the new artistic practices fostered by a generation of artists working self-consciously within the structure of pop culture. He writes:
I try to show that artists’ intuitive relationship with art history is now going beyond what we call “the art of appropriation,” which naturally infers an ideology of ownership, and moving toward a culture of the use of forms, a culture of constant activity of signs based on a collective ideal: sharing. The museum like the City itself constitutes a catalog of forms, postures and images for artists – collective equipment that everyone is in a position to use, not in order to be subjected to their authority but as tools to probe the contemporary world. There is (fertile) static on the borders between consumption and production that can be perceived well beyond the borders of art. When artists find material in objects that are already in circulation on the cultural market, the work of art takes on a script-like value: ‘when screenplays become form,’ in a sense.
Bourriaud’s idea of sharing forms and signs across boundaries of mediums and points of perception is exciting because it opens the door for artists like Gordon to investigate new possibilities of what can be expressed meaningfully within the museum context.
By creating a bridge between not only the various media artists choose to work in but also between cultural realms, Through a Looking Glass encourages the exploration of the frontiers of expression and allows the search for new and challenging perspectives. The bridge is a term that Friedrich Nietzsche loads with meaning when he writes that “man is a rope stretched between beast and Superman – a rope over an abyss…. What is great in man is that he is a bridge and not a goal: what is lovable in man is that he is an over-going and a down-going.” The image of the bridge is ennobled Nietzsche’s inference of transition, evolution and translation. Gordon bridges the fracture between cinema and art, a fracture that has its roots in the beginning of film and photography.
The show also bridges the fracture between reality and art, by using found imagery from the real world of pop culture and bringing it into the context of the museum, in the tradition of Duchamp’s readymades, so that it may be examined from new perspectives. It is important to note that at the same time, Gordon’s piece acknowledges its roots in formal art histories, allowing a way to unpack traditional concepts of representation and authorship.
As I look across the space of the gallery, Bickle’s monologue translates into a dialogue with his other self. Gordon allows the image’s implications to project outward, reflecting the deterioration of Bickle’s personality that plays out throughout Scorsese’s Taxi Driver. I know that the piece has been reviewed and unpacked by a number of writers and curators but it has abundant room for interpretation. The mirror offers to the audience two streams of thought, form and idea, brought forward by the artwork, which speaks and instructs on how to view itself. It has more potency for me when I can unravel the ideas that are in sync with the concepts I have been grappling with in the years since viewing Through a Looking Glass. It has set new parameters while working with the structure of contemporary art history.
The exhibition becomes a double helix when the history of the image and the history of the idea wrap themselves around the work of art, the form and the context, which spins in a magical dance of implications through the deceptively strong installation.
My practice has been enriched by my encounter with Through a Looking Glass, which seems to effortlessly command the gallery space: a working model of the image and concept functioning in a conversation, reflecting the exhibition itself.
John Abrams 2010
Picasso, Pablo, “Conversation with Picasso,” Art in Theory 1900 – 2000, edited by Charles Harrison and Paul Wood (New York: Blackwell, 2003), 507.
Zizek, Slavoj, “Some Politically Incorrect Reflections on Violence in France & Related Matters,” 2005, http://www.lacan.com/zizfrance.htm.
Kosuth, Joseph, “Art after Philosophy,” Art in Theory 1900 – 2000, edited by Charles Harrison and Paul Wood (New York: Blackwell, 2003), 854.
Ranciere, Jacques, “Sentence, Image, History,” The Future of the Image, translated by Gregory Elliott (New York: Verso, 2007), 41.
Simpson, Bennett, “Public Relations – Nicholas Bourriaud – Interview,” ArtForum (April, 2001).
Bourriaud, Nicolas, Postproduction, edited by Caroline Schneider, translated by Jeanine Herman (New York: Lukas & Sternberg, 2002).
Nietzsche, Friedrich, “Thus Spake Zarathustra,” The Philosophy of Nietzsche, edited by Bennett A. Cerf, Donald S. Klopfer and Robert K. Haas, translated by Thomas Common (New York: Random House, 1937), 29 – 30.