“My initial idea was to have all the busts turning their back on Burns,” says Gordon, “so you had all the other characters ignoring the central character. Then I began to be intrigued by the way he was ivory coloured, which made me think about his history with slavery, and I thought, why not take this white man and turn him into a black man.
“I'd already started working with marble, and I found this wonderful black piece that was about the right size. We did a 3D scan of the existing sculpture, and made a mini Burns to see how it looked. It's being finished in Italy, where we're polishing him up, and then what we're going to do is shatter him, and bring him in bits.
“Burns did have to polish up his act. He had to change his language to make the move from being a farmer to becoming this Edinburgh society chap, and that must have left him shattered. It does when you have to become something else. I left Scotland thirty years ago, and I have to practice my accent every day.”
Gordon is possibly known best for his monumental film works, including his 1993 solo show at Tramway, 24 Hour Psycho, and his 2006 Mogwai sound-tracked homage to footballer Zinedine Zidane in Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait. More recently, the1996 Turner Prize winner has kept himself busy with projects including acting and writing. In 2013, he played a leather-clad trucker who befriends an eleven year old girl fleeing from her abusive father in fashion designer Agnes B's film, My name is Hmmm...(Je m'appelle Hmmm). In 2015, his play, Neck of the Woods, opened at Home in Manchester, where Gordon damaged one of the venue's walls with an axe.
Black Burns is the result of a long-standing invitation from the SNPG for Gordon to create a new work. As his last statement hints at, there is a personal impetus driving the end result.
“I'm about to make a phone call to my mum and dad to see if they can find a certificate for recitation which I was given at school. Rabbie was omnipresent in that way when I was younger, but as you got into music it faded away. Then as you get a little bit older you realise there's something more mutual going on.”
This trajectory is very much in keeping with that followed by Gordon's friend and Glasgow School of Art contemporary, Graham Fagen. Whether through accident or design, Black Burns will sit in the SNPG alongside The Slave's Lament, Fagen's own take on Burns, which reinvents the bard's lyric in a reggae version performed by vocalist Ghetto Priest in a new arrangement by composer Sally Beamish. Born from a long-time love of dub which ran alongside Fagen's Ayrshire roots, The Slave's Lament was Scotland's entry to the 2015 Venice Biennale.
“Graham got into reggae through The Clash,” says Gordon. “We were in the same class, and we were in the Mack doing a life drawing class, and the rumour went round that the Clash were playing the Rock Garden on Queen Street. One by one everybody dropped their charcoal and left, until there was just this naked woman left in the room. It was, “Gordon says of the Clash's legendary 1985 busking tour that would also see them set up in GSA's Vic Cafe the next day, “the most disruptive time we ever had.”
As both artists pursued their respective careers, reggae and Rabbie continued to loom large.
“It will have been different for Graham because he grew up in Ayrshire, whereas I'd been in Maryhill and then Dumbarton, but if you came from a certain background, which invariably involved heavy drinking, you were going to be aware of Burns.
“I went to London, and there was something in the air. I lived in Camden and had friends in Brixton, so there was always something going on. I got into Adrian Sherwood's On-u-Sound stuff, and I remember coming to Edinburgh to see Tackhead. But being away from Scotland, Burns becomes this totemic and anthemic figure, so he's still omnipresent. I used to do these Burns suppers, and they were quite messy affairs. It's even the case that my dad's birthday is January 25th. I like the idea as well that Ghetto Priest has got a gold tooth, and so have I.”
More than thirty years on, and with The Slave's Lament most likely to be audible while Black Burns is in the house, the Clash-inspired pair of Gordon and Fagen are still disrupting things.
“That sort of interference could work really well,” says Gordon of the relationship between the two works, “and the intention between Graham and I in having both things in there at the same time is to set up a kind of game between them. Just to invite two Partick Thistle fans in is amazing, and I don't want to undermine that. I want to make something that's contemporary rather than historical.”
While preparing to install Black Burns, one of Gordon's many projects is a planned film adaptation of Don DeLillo's 2010 novel, Point Omega, which features references to 24 Hour Psycho, with one of the book's narrators obsessing over the installation's details as he watches it all day long. Gordon first got wind of this through an email he received in 2008, but didn't take it seriously.
“I didn't even respond,” he says. “I thought it was some scamp taking the piss, and then I got sent a draft. After it came out, a friend said to me that I'd kidnapped Alfred Hitchcock's film, and now someone's kidnapped my idea, so why not buy the rights to the book.”
With plans to shoot in the Highlands, Gordon has also spent much of the last two years working on a film about Lithuanian born avant-garde film-maker Jonas Mekas.
“Mekas was born in a farming village the same as Burns was,” says Gordon, “so working on these two things at the same time seemed to make quite a lot of sense. Burns was very much a man of the soil. He was such an earthy man. It turns out as well that there are more statues of Burns than any other person. I was going to say any other living person, because it feels very much like he's alive, and since we started on this I've come up with another couple of Burnsesque ideas, so this may be the start of another furrow to plough.”
Gordon laughs at his own joke.
“With this,” he says of Black Burns, “I don't know if it's a shattered portrait of a man or a portrait of a shattered man...”
Douglas Gordon: Black Burns runs as part of Edinburgh Art Festival 2017 at Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh, July 29-October 29.www.nationagalleries.org
The List Festival Guide 2017, July 2017