Graham Fagen: The Slave’s Lament and Douglas Gordon: Black Burns

Douglas Gordon, Black Burns © Douglas Gordon

This month, we will be exploring the work of two contemporary artists – Graham Fagen and Douglas Gordon –  who have made work in response to the poet Robert Burns (1759-1796).

First shown at the 2015 Venice Biennale, Graham Fagen’s The Slave’s Lament is centred on the 1792 Robert Burns song of the same name as well as drawing our attention to an episode in Burns’ life. In 1786, Burns books a passage to Jamaica to escape economic problems with the aim of becoming a book-keeper on a slave plantation. At the very last moment, news that his recently published first book of poems has been well received changes his mind. In 1792, he pens The Slave’s Lament, his only work that empathises with the suffering of the displaced, the trafficked and the enslaved.

The centrepiece of the installation is The Slave’s Lament, a 4-channel video work in which classical composer Sally Beamish has created an extraordinary interpretation of Burns’ work. Performed by musicians from the Scottish Ensemble, music producer Adrian Sherwood, and the reggae singer and musician Ghetto Priest, it is a chilling reminder that Burns might once have become involved in the very suffering that inspired the lament.

In the Great Hall of the Portrait Gallery stands John Flaxman’s famous 1824 marble statue of Robert Burns. Originally housed in Thomas Hamilton’s Greek revivalist Burns Monument to the south of Edinburgh’s Calton Hill, the sculpture occupies pride of place in the gallery. In a specially commissioned installation, Turner-Prize winner Douglas Gordon confronts this monument to Burns by creating a full-sized replica in black marble, smashed into pieces, lying on the floor. Gordon has long explored the divided psyche in his work and seeing Burns fallen from his pedestal, dark and flawed, the inner man is revealed.

‘With Black Burns, I don’t know if it’s a shattered portrait of a man or a portrait of a shattered man.’ Douglas Gordon.

Joining us to discuss both works will be Susanna Beaumont, a curator, mentor and advisor and founder director of doggerfisher (2000-2010).