Douglas Gordon

Play Dead; Real Time (this way, that way, the other way)


Not on display

Douglas Gordon born 1966
Video, 2 projections, 1 monitor, colour
19 minutes16 seconds
14 minutes 44 seconds
23 minutes 44 seconds
Tate and National Galleries of Scotland. Lent by Artist Rooms Foundation 2012
On long term loan


Play Dead; Real Time (this way, that way, the other way) is a video installation with no sound by the artist Douglas Gordon. The work comprises two rear projection screens and one monitor. The screens are large, freestanding and placed perpendicular to one another in the otherwise empty and darkened gallery, while a monitor resting on the floor nearby plays similar footage. It was recorded at Gagosian Gallery in New York, where the artist arranged to have a four-year-old Indian elephant, Minnie, brought in from the Connecticut circus. In the gallery, a professional film crew recorded her as she carried out a series of tricks – ‘play dead’, ‘stand still’, ‘walk around’, ‘back up’, ‘get up’ and ‘beg’ – on the command of her off-screen trainer. The footage showing Minnie’s sequences of tricks is precisely edited, with each take fading to black. In the images projected onto the screens, the camera circles around Minnie, moving clockwise on one large screen, and counter-clockwise on the other. The footage on the monitor zooms in and out on her, with each new sequence commencing with a close-up of her eye.

The work was prompted by Gordon’s desire to see an elephant lying down. ‘I woke up one morning with an idea’, he has recalled, ‘that I’ve never seen an elephant lying down … and the reason why … is because they don’t like to lie down.’ Therefore, ‘the premise of the film’, he goes on to explain, ‘was simple, that we would ask the animal to do something that she wasn’t used to doing and see how she behaved.’ (Douglas Gordon, ‘Douglas Gordon on Working with Elephants’, video, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco 2010,, accessed 24 January 2012.) As such the film documents Minnie as well as the conditions of her captivity, which force her to perform anthropomorphised actions without reference to elephant behavior in the wild. The artist has remarked that Play Dead; Real Time (this way, that way, the other way) sits somewhere between ‘a nature film and a medical documentary’, which allowed him to ‘get close enough or under the skin of the elephant [… to see] a sense or sensibility that doesn’t actually physically exist’. (Gordon 2010, accessed 24 January 2012.)

The construction of a situation in which the elephant must perform for the camera, relates to other works by Gordon that depict animals. For instance, Looking Down With His Black, Black, Ee 2008 (Tate AR01178) depicts a flock of crows being chased around a darkened room with bright light, while Film Noir (Fly) 1995 (Tate AR01180) shows a fly with wings stuck to the table, squirm and eventually die. To different extents all of these works take the mistreatment of animals under the human gaze as their subject, implicating the viewer as much as the artist in a sadistic act.

Based in Glasgow and New York, Gordon works in various media including film, text, photographs, video and various types of installation. He has become best known for works made using existing film footage – both documentary and fictional – altering its pace, context or scale.

Further reading
Superhumanatural, exhibition catalogue, National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh 2006.

Carmen Juliá
February 2012

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