Black Burns

It is the premise of conceptual art, presumably, that artists conceive of a project they can then get others to do. Looking across the Great Hall of the Scottish National Portrait Gallery at John Flaxman’s white marbled statue of Scotland’s bard, glorifying Robert Burns as something heroic and pure, one feels Douglas Gordon’s vision of the possibilities for something darker.

With Black Burns, Gordon offsets the Flaxman piece, commissioned as the deification of Burns’ immortal memory proceeded apace in the early 19th Century, with the violently shattered pieces of its black mirror image. The effect is jagged on the eye, literally edgy – the dark shards so sharp that they will need to be roped off from unwary visitors.

Douglas Gordon Scottish National Portrait Gallery

Douglas Gordon’s Black Burns with original Flaxman monument

For the work Gordon enlisted the services of sculptor Martin Foot, who from his studio in Pietrasanta, Italy replicates and restores sculptures in all manner of materials for museums, public works and private collectors – from reproductions of the greats to children’s portraits. Combining 3D scans and traditional carving techniques, Foot produced a perfect copy of the Flaxman sculpture, though with the rose held in the left hand rather than the white. It was then drilled with five holes with wedges hammered in.

The SNGP’s chief curator, Julie Lawson, who was there for the breaking, describes the stone seeming to sigh, before it split “in a great explosion”. The likes of Jeremy Paxman might dismiss Burns for writing doggerel but Gordon’s piece is about shadowing and shattering a national icon – exploring how monuments don’t deal with Burns’ character, complexity, and subleties.

Robert Burns, Douglas Gordon, Scottish National Portrait Gallery

View from above: Douglas Gordon’s Black Burns in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery Grand Hall

It reflects Burns’ divided soul, with the antithesis of the original monument.The lighting of the original Flaxman sculpture, commissioned in 1824, has been adjusted to highlight a pedestal in w hich a virginal poetic muse lays a wreath on Burns’ head. The poet is more often celebrated on Burns night these days as a compulsive philanderer.

A second piece in the portrait gallery by Gordon’s fellow Scot Graham Fagan, The Slaves’ Lament, draws attention to the dark side, with a film work featured in the Venice Biennale. Burns may have espoused the abolitionist cause in one poem, but his plan to travel to Jamaica to take a job managing the slave economy, scholars now say, was only scotched by the success of his first published volume of poems. While the Flaxman monument was ‘Erected by prescription originating at Bombay and warmly promoted in all parts of the British empire”, as the pedestal records, Scotland’s bard had died in penury.

Born in Liverpool, Foot moved to Italy in 1997, and from his workshop one can see the mountains where Michelangelo excavated the Carrara stone for the Medici Tombs. The Burns piece used Spanish marble, the raw severed grain surprisingly grey when it’s not polished to black.

The project began when Gordon visited the SNPG to talk about exhibiting an existing work, his K 364, but saw the flowers laid on the monument from Burns Night. About two years later Lawson joined the team for “the breaking”. “There was a flaw in the marble and we knew that would probably be one of the breaks.  We knew it would break catastrophically, it was held in swings so it wouldn’t fall off the ground, but it broke into four perfect pieces,” she said. “Because of his flaw it broke right across the torso, right across where his heart would be.  It was astonishing.”

The installation in the gallery went down to the wire, finished “seconds” before the opening. “The work of art is not just the final installation here but the whole process.   Every stage has been part of the poetry,” she said.

The sculptor, Foot, had told her he would be “heart-broken”. “But that’s the point, the whole point,” she said. “I don’t think it’s meant to be critical of Burns but it is to do with being a human being.  It’s a self portrait as well.” The Scottish National Portrait Gallery director, Christopher Baker, described it as an “extraordinary , powerful , provocative installation”.

The Bard is dead…long live the Bard.