Visual art: 24 Hours Psycho Back And Forth And To And Fro, Douglas Gordon
Most of all I wanted to know how it feels to revisit his 1993 breakthrough work 24 Hour Psycho in a new two-screen installation 24 Hour Psycho Back And Forth And To And Fro, that will get its British premiere at the Glasgow International Festival of Visual Art, showing at Tramway, the venue that commissioned the original work.
Then we find ourselves sitting, high up in his townhouse in the Park district of the city, looking out at a stunning view across the rooftops, the evening sun dwindling into darkness. We've both got young children and we talk about them, then look out at the incredible cityscape beneath us.
It's the underlying emotional stuff that suddenly seems interesting. What could possibly drive him? What could have taken him from a council house in Dumbarton to stellar international success? How does it feel, on the brink of 44, to look back at the achievements of your younger self?
"If you look back too soon," he says, "Well, it's too soon. But if you happen to look back at the right time you have enough distance."
Looking back, then, it's easy to see 24 Hour Psycho as a major cultural landmark. The piece took that single seminal Hitchcock movie and stretched it out, at two frames a second, into something shifting yet infinite and apparently timeless – though it lasted a definite 24 hours. At the time it felt incredibly authoritative and yet a literal leap in the dark. A single luminous screen hanging in the darkness of a vast hangar of a space, the story strung out into a perfect sequence of ominous but uncertain images.
It seemed absolutely of its time, a time when people's relationship with the world of mass culture was changing when anything – music, films or literature – could be a sample: picked and mixed and refashioned into something new. A time, also, when in a Glasgow still smarting after years of Thatcherite neglect, life was often spent indoors in front of a screen.
Yet these days 24 Hour Psycho is so much part of global culture that Don DeLillo, virtually the poet laureate of contemporary America, has used it in both the opening and closing scenes of his most recent novel.
At the time, Gordon seemed to express a particular freedom in taking such a signature work of culture and making it anew. "I think the idea that something has to be original is a diversion from doing what is necessary." he says. "Of course, the way things are in the world, we're not encouraged to do what is necessary, we should just do what is OK."
24 Hour Psycho was made when he was a young artist only a few years out of college. He had studied at Glasgow and then spent two years at the Slade in London. He says he always knew he would never stay there. "I arrived in London on a train from Glasgow Central to London Euston reading the Fall Of Kelvin Walker (Alasdair Gray's fable about a "Scotsman on the make" at loose in London's media bohemia]. What else could I possibly do?
"I realised that this time in London would be my last. I think that's the moral of that story. It's not about getting one over on people, it's something about time. I knew the moment I got off the train, I was pretty sure I'd get back on that train. Not necessarily to Glasgow, but that I wouldn't be staying."
He talks of briefly meeting Jamie Reid, the artist who produced signature art work for the Sex Pistols. "I suddenly got it." He clicks his fingers. "No more looking, no more horizons. Invent your own shit."
In the years that followed, he spent much of his time in New York, and over the years has achieved practically every international art honour going from the Turner Prize to the MoMA retrospective. "The irony of this is, of course, I suppose I'm successful at the moment, but I don't strive for anything other than the next thing – to wake up with the next thing or to go to sleep with it… which is the next idea."
I wonder how he sustains his momentum. "I think at certain times in your life you accelerate to such speed that you don't see things coming towards you and you're not caring what is behind you, but when you're at a comfortable… what do you call it in the car…" Cruising speed? Gordon laughs. "When you get to that point of life… it sounds so middle-aged. I'll be 44 soon."
"It was a nice idea," he says of 24 Hour Psycho, "but I think it's tenacity that made it happen."
He tells me about the artists – still his friends – who helped him make the work, about how when they sat in the Griffin bar and tried to work out how to do it the first cost estimate was three times what Hitchcock spent on the original movie. "I had fantastic contacts in Glasgow that made it happen. It makes me sound like 'where's my pipe and slippers' but there was no internet or shit like that then."
The new installation adds an extra dimension to the work. The two screens sit side by side one playing the film forwards the other backwards. "I wanted to make it before some smartarse student did." There will be a moment when, at midnight on the opening night, the screens will show the same frame, both versions inevitably lurching towards mortality.
Mortality plays a big part in Gordon's work and life. When he was a child, his mother became a Jehovah's Witness, with a literal belief that they were living in the end of days.
"Well, for somebody like me, who always thought they'd be dead at 14, having grown up with the Jehovah's Witness thing, you were always approaching the end. But what I think I learned recently was to enjoy every minute of it as it is, and virtually no apologies." And for a moment we sit back and admire the view. v
24 Hours Psycho Back And Forth And To And Fro is at Tramway, Glasgow, from 16 April until 3 May
Most art festivals take place in purpose-built galleries and museums and wait politely for you to come to them, but Glasgow International prefers to grab its audience by the scruff of the neck. More than 50 artists are involved in this year's event, which runs from Friday until 3 May and, while some will be showing their work in traditional spaces, many have chosen to occupy more unusual locales.
Alexis Dirks, Allison Gibbs and Christian Newby will present site-specific works at Speirs Locks Wasteland; the FINN Collective will curate a group show in a disused glue factory in Maryhill; Susan Philipsz is installing an outdoor soundwork along the banks of the Clyde; and Angus Farquhar and the ever-innovative NVA will recreate White Bike Plan, an anarchist anti-car action of the Dutch Provo movement by providing a fleet of white bikes for festival attendees to use between venues. If you live in Glasgow, chances are you'll encounter some art over the next few weeks, whether you go looking for it or not. www.glasgowinternational.org
This article was first published in Scotland on Sunday, April 11, 2010