“I’m always thinking…when you go from Germany…something about those trees…” The disembodied voice is likely that of the violinist Roi Shiloah talking on a train bound from Berlin to Warsaw via Poznań with viola player, Avri Levitan and artist Douglas Gordon. “I don’t have any Holocaust complex, but when I see those trees…unbelievable…when it’s cold and snowing…those are the only moments I think about it…to be outside in the freezing weather…so cold.” Shiloah and Levitan, both Israelis of Polish descent, are heading to Warsaw’s Philharmonic concert hall to perform the lead duet in Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante in E-flat major, also known as “k.364”, after which the exhibition is named.
The journey’s historical significance echoes throughout Gordon’s 50-minute film. In one scene, his characteristic close-cropped frame hones in on a workman inspecting the underside of a stationary train outside the musicians’ carriage window, exploring up and down the tracks. Viewers are reminded of the different journeys that Jews would have made across the German-Polish border during the Second World War, with inspectors and officials prodding and probing bodies, searching beneath carriages for escapees or fatalities. In a second gallery space within Dundee Contemporary Arts (DCA), box frames containing the charred remains of musical scores emphasise the connection between peacetime journeys and wartime transportation.
Of course, k.364 has acquired new resonances for European audiences since the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Once again, an autocratic state is overrunning a neighbouring country that it places within its historical boundaries–just as the Nazis did in Poland before making it a primary site for extermination camps. But whether or not we draw such parallels, Gordon’s work provokes a strong sense of psychological intensity rooted in political allusion.
The performance in Warsaw is the subject of the second half of the piece. Juxtaposed audio and video components play on each side of two towering screens, arranged in a shallow V within the darkened gallery, reflected by mirrors positioned on opposing walls. Cameras fixate upon the musicians’ animated faces and bodies as their feet tap and lips twitch. A similar focus is demonstrated in Gordon’s ‘Zidane: A Twentieth-Century Portrait’ (2006): the intensity of possession in a moment and in a finely honed craft that makes the physical expression of artistry engaging. However, when Shiloah asserts, “this thing is so deep in our genes, so strong in our minds,” the phrase seesaws like one of Gordon’s permutational language pieces. It simultaneously refers to their passion and connection to music, “which has no future and no past,” and the inherited trauma of cultural genocide.
Many aspects of the piece are familiar from Douglas’s other moving-image work, like the use of zoomed-in, slowed-down or doubled footage. In the past, these techniques have been applied to pre-existing material to reveal elements to the viewer about their own viewing: the way our eyes and minds subconsciously respond to the moral codes, taboos, and archetypes of pop culture. However, the intense focus on Shiloah and Levitan is more about expressing an elemental and wordless human bond. As with other works of Douglas’s, much of the credit for the captivating effect must go to the creators of the original artwork (in this case, the composer, conductor and performers of k.364) as well as to the conceptualist’s hypnotic edit. Written by Greg Thomas