His darkest materials

    I was by far the ugliest person in the building when I turned up at the Gagosian before the opening of the Douglas Gordon show. Everyone else was either an impeccably turned-out gallery honey or a crisp man in black, striding assertively from exhibit to exhibit. On second thoughts, I may not have been the ugliest person there, as Gordon himself was still about, and he is no oil painting either.

    Skinhead hair, pub eyes, tattoos everywhere, torn T-shirt, Gordon is the kind of bellicose-looking urban Scotsman you would rather encounter in an art gallery in daylight than down an alley in Glasgow after dark. Watching him career about the posh and moneyed Gagosian, putting the finishing touches to his first big show there since his transfer from the Lisson, I found myself understanding his presence here as the art-world equivalent of the relationship Upper West Side heiresses have with rent boys.

    Darkness is Gordon’s preferred terrain. Yet, ever since he won the Turner prize in 1996, he has found himself having to express his post-pub, Glasgow-alley romanticism in ever brighter, ever larger, ever posher arenas. And his appearance here constitutes a clash of realities. Night meets day. Harsh meets plush. Gothic novel meets The Wall Street Journal.

    The new show is called k.364, after the piece of Mozart that lies at its heart. K364 is the official index number of Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante in E flat major, for solo violin, viola and orchestra. You will know bits of it, although which bits will depend on your demographic. Some will remember it from the opening melodic phrases of The Windmills of Your Mind, from The Thomas Crown Affair. Others will know that Michael Nyman employed a one-note variation of the second movement in the soundtrack for Drowning by Numbers. Either way, the Mozart original is a complex piece of orchestration in which the profound ambitions of a symphony try to accommodate themselves in the smaller spaces of a concerto.

    On its most basic level, Gordon’s show, which has the Mozart playing loudly all the way through it, is an excellent opportunity to hear the entire concertante on really big speakers. On its more complicated, upper-gallery levels, this is an attempt by an ambitious Scottish romantic to involve himself in the biggest and darkest slab of subject matter available to an artist in post-war Europe: the Holocaust.

    Gordon’s art has always been preoccupied with violence, darkness, paradox, commemoration. And one way to understand this show is to see it as the uppercasing of some long-standing obsessions.

    The film installation that dominates the event shows two Israeli musicians of Polish descent — a violinist and a viola player, Roi Shiloah and Avri Levitan — travelling by train from Berlin to Warsaw, where they perform Mozart’s concertante in its entirety at the Warsaw Philharmonic Concert Hall. Their grainy journey and the performance in which it culminates are projected across a huge dark gallery, in which cunningly placed mirrors create the sense of doors opening onto other spaces. So it’s as if you are in a big, empty concert hall, with other performances of the same piece going on in other rooms.

    On their journey, the two musicians exchange gnomic conversation about the meaning of it all — their trip is a homecoming of sorts — and the audience is encouraged to ponder the connection between music and evil. The film itself is a fairly standard piece of film-art poetics, with grainy shots of stations and lots of out-of-focus lights at night. It is the performance of the piece itself that takes over the meaning as soon as it begins.

    Rarely shifting from the faces of the two musicians as they play, simply edited and minimally shot, k.364 allows their changing responses to the music to make up most of its content. Even though it is in colour, the movie feels black and white. And, because Mozart is Mozart, and violins are violins, there are moments of heartbreakingly beautiful sadness as Mozart is yoked to the Nazis.

    It’s not enough, though. The piece seems to drift between audio experience and visual, and is difficult to admire fully as either. Indeed, the dynamics of one art form interfere with the dynamics of the other. Gordon has some previous with orchestras. His Feature Film, in which James Conlon, of the Paris Opera, conducted the entire score to Hitchcock’s Vertigo, drew attention to the emotional responses a score sets out to trigger. K.364 is not as convincing. The sense of tragedy that prevails feels mildly touristic, as if the artist is on a short visit to someone else’s history, while the genius of Mozart is given so much opportunity to announce itself, it makes the artist look like a cunning hitchhiker, stealing a ride on someone else’s achievement.

    In another gallery, a messy archive of Gordon’s possessions — postcards, pictures of film stars, a visitor card from when he worked for Playboy (!) — has been dumped casually, as if a concentration-camp guard has asked him to empty his pockets. It’s another raid on big Auschwitz moods. And, to return to my opening observations, the artist seems to be adjusting his scale to fit the gallery’s dimensions. When it should always be the other way round.