Shooting an elephant at MoMA

I went to MoMA yesterday for the Akram Zaatari installation, then turned a corner in the contemporary galleries and practically ran towards the elephant projected on a video screen.  This was Douglas Gordon’s two-channel installation “Play Dead; Real Time” which, when I first saw it at Gagosian in 2003, had given me one of the most captivating experiences I’ve ever had with contemporary art.  Then, I’d gone into it with no expectations and felt almost embarrassed to explain to my gallery companions why I couldn’t tear myself away; that was okay, as it happened, because nor could they.

The art babble on the Gagosian gallery site had described the work this way, which does it a disservice:

For these monumental works Gordon uses a giant Indian elephant as the subject being filmed. The elephant has classically symbolized memory, and here functions as a trope for our own remembrances of circuses, zoos, and nature documentaries, various situations where the chaotic power of the wild is held safely at a distance and is controlled. As the title suggests, the elephant appears to conform to command and lie on its side before attempting to return to its feet. The impossibility of the idea, and the incapability to occupy both states simultaneously are reminiscent of the artist’s continuing investigations of the polarities between control and free will, life and death.

I don’t know about all that.  I mean, it’s just an elephant.  There are two enormous screens in a vast, darkened room; a video camera circles on a low dolly; the elephant rolls over, plays dead, then gets to its feet.  Repeatedly.  Sometimes the scene fades out.  That’s it, basically, but I can attest that I never truly looked at an elephant before this piece.  Previously, I would glance at them, process them as consistent with the image of an elephant we all have in our heads, and then glance away.  Now I stared, in wonder.

Go: you’ll see what I mean.  Though I will say that, at MoMA, owing to the way the projectors are installed and perhaps to the type of crowd drawn by Uniqlo Free Fridays, visitors intrude on the work more than they did at Gagosian.  For many, the elephant is incidental and it is the shape of their own shadows against the screens that captivate them.  That detracts from the experience, no question, but the work was still very hard to  stop watching.

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Click here to see all my posts about art, video, or New York.  Or here to see my recent post on the James Turrell exhibit at the Guggenheim.

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