Currently on view in the Contemporary Galleries at The Museum of Modern Art is a large-scale video installation by the Scottish artist Douglas Gordon. The piece, titled Play Dead; Real Time (2003), consists of two large screens on which footage plays of an elephant striding and tumbling around the glistening floors of New York’s Gagosian Gallery. (The piece also includes two monitors placed in opposite corners of the large gallery, which, though smaller and less trafficked by guests, somehow seem to offer a less intimate view.) The circus elephant was brought to New York expressly for Gordon’s piece, and the result is a work of art that also takes the viewer elsewhere, as the piece is a stellar jumping off point for some heavy subjects.
Case in point: a conversation between two museum-goers. One of the visitors was squatting down with her phone in her hand, making her own video recording of one of the large screens on which the elephant wandered and periodically fell to the floor. Her friend walked up to her and asked, “Do you like it?”
The girl filming replied without hesitation, “Yes, do you?”
Her friend was not so confident about the piece. She began talking about what’s wrong with taking an elephant and masquerading it around a New York City gallery. Aside from the theatrics and extravagance of bringing an elephant to a gallery, Gordon’s Play Dead; Real Time is remarkably simple. But elephants are also familiar specimens, very present in the public’s consciousness. This fact, combined with the piece’s simplicity, opens it up to interpretation and discussion of subjects that go beyond the work itself. And isn’t that what all art ought to strive for?
Gordon, never one to shy away from controversy, is perhaps best known for his video installations such as Play Dead; Real Time and The End of Civilization. His subjects – a burning piano in the Scottish countryside, an elephant – are not completely unfamiliar; but the enormity of his projections gives them an otherworldly, surreal, almost absurdist quality, all while still nodding to the tangible, the believable. This piece’s title, and its evocation of a creature’s demise, is certainly tongue in cheek. With this piece, Gordon is, for all intents and purposes, creating a fiction, but like all great fiction, in visual art and literature, it comes shockingly close to complete and utter believability, as the above conversation might suggest.
Play Dead; Real Time, with its camera always moving, never stationary, is certainly very aware of the questions it raises regarding ethics and the treatment of animals. That such a gigantic, majestic animal should be subject to the whims of several humans is certainly a provocation it makes (made ever stronger by the fact that it was a circus elephant, and is thus now two degrees away from its natural habitat). The piece also manages to say something about the exotic being relocated to the familiar, the interior of the Gagosian and now MoMA, both of which are landmarks in the art world. The warmth of an actual, breathing life form comes up against the necessarily cold, spare gallery walls and floors. But beneath the questions lies genuine beauty seen from a constantly shifting perspective, in a different context, and under unique conditions.