Douglas Gordon Accepts France’s Highest Cultural Honor—Spurred by Far-Right Populist Marine Le Pen

Tess Thackara
Feb 15, 2017 11:53PM

Colin Davison/Great North Run Culture/Locus+ Archive. © Studio lost but found / Douglas Gordon / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn, 2017. Photo: Studio lost but found / Douglas Gordon.

The Scottish artist Douglas Gordon was awarded the title of Commander of Order of Arts and Letters on Wednesday. The title is the highest cultural honor bestowed by the French government, and Gordon is only the second Scot to receive it, after the actor Sean Connery. But he is in many ways a consummate EU citizen. He went to school in Glasgow, came up in the London’s YBA scene at the Slade School, has worked extensively in France, and lives and teaches in Germany.

The ceremony itself took place in Berlin, some five years after Gordon was first notified that he would receive the honor. When reached by phone in Paris on Monday, where he was in town to spend Valentine’s Day morning with his girlfriend, Gordon explained that it took him some time to decide whether he wanted to be given the award in Scotland, Britain, Berlin, or the French capital.

The current political climate precipitated Gordon’s decision. In just two months, French citizens go to the polls to decide on an election that might seal the fate of the European Union (EU). Far-right, anti-EU politician Marine Le Pen is in serious contention for the French Presidency for the first time, following a scandal involving François Fillon, the former Prime Minister, who was previously the presumed favorite.

“The way things are looking in France right now, I kind of would prefer to get it under [the current administration], rather than what might be his office in a few months,” he said

Politics notwithstanding, Gordon has had a long love affair with France. “As a kid, I grew up fascinated with the idea of France,” he said. Some of this fascination originated with his Scottish heritage—both Mary Queen of Scots and Bonnie Prince Charlie “really only spoke French,” he said. “I think even William Wallace was educated in France and then Rome.”

Douglas Gordon
Through a Looking Glass, 1999
Gagosian Gallery

The Turner Prize-winning artist has also long been steeped in the avant-garde tradition of French cinema. “When Channel 4 started on the British T.V., I was working at a supermarket,” recalled Gordon. “I would get home after the twilight shift and fall asleep watching Francois Truffaut, Godard, Éric Rohmer, and Henri-Georges Clouzot.”

Gordon would save up for his first-ever trip out of Scotland, to London to visit the Tate, and on to Paris, at the age of 16. It was then that he also got his first taste of French politics first hand. “Me and some friends went out to a cafe in the Sixth Arrondissement, and lo and behold—you know, I had all these images in my head from the 1968 uprising—here was a real riot happening,” said Gordon. “And suddenly there were cars on fire, teargas. So we ran out the cafe and thought ‘It’s happening, let’s get involved.’”

Some 10 years later Gordon discovered the demonstration had actually been held by members of the country’s far right. “My French wasn’t very good, so unwittingly we’d gotten involved in the wrong side of the fence,” he said.

As the April 23rd elections in France approach, with Le Pen’s National Front party again on the rise, there are strong echoes of the right-wing protests Gordon encountered over three decades ago, he says. “There are a lot of posters up around Paris calling for people to demonstrate against elements within politics that are cracking down on cultural freedoms.”

Douglas Gordon & Philippe Parreno, Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait, 2006. Courtesy Studio lost but found, Berlin; Studio Philippe Parreno, Paris; Anna Lena Films, Paris. © Studio lost but found / Douglas Gordon / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn, 2017. Photo: Studio lost but found / Douglas Gordon.

Gordon remembers the Paris of the 1990s, when he was working on commissions and exhibitions for the Musée d’Art Moderne and the Centre Pompidou, as a place of artistic license and cultural diversity. “There was a real scene of people doing fairly radical things,” he said, noting that the country was also more tolerant of outsiders entering their society and taking part in these movements.

It was during this time that he had a fateful first encounter with Philippe Parreno. The two artists have gone on to collaborate on a number of projects, including their film Zidane, a 21st century portrait (2006), which follows French footballer Zinedine Zidane through an entire match, using 17 cameras.

He also developed a deep friendship with Agnès B and met his former French gallerist Yvon Lambert, both of whom Gordon said were likely instrumental in him receiving the Commander of Order of Arts and Letters distinction. The French, he said, picked up on his work early.

“I don’t know if I resonated with them or they resonated with me, but there was a resonance, that’s for sure.”

Tess Thackara