Edinburgh art festival review – the dark side of Robert Burns | Art and design

Robert Burns stands tall, a white marble hero dominating the great hall of the Scottish National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh. He holds a scroll – as if Burns used parchment for his poems – and his plaid has become a classical toga. An ideal man, or so John Flaxman’s famous statue would have it back in 1824. But now look down and find his dark double – his exact inverse – lying broken on the floor. Carved out of black marble from the same mine, all his pristine aspects turned to night, the national poet is ruined and fallen. This is Douglas Gordon’s Black Burns.

It is a shattering sight, not least because the monument is now unrecognisable. Head and body parted, Burns is a divided self. From the balcony above he looks like a fallen angel; on ground level, like mangled body parts jutting from a trench, one foot still polished like a dead soldier’s boot. So the poet is brought down to earth. The inner man is revealed as dark and flawed – literally, a fault line running through the stone defined the way the figure cracked – at the same time that the innards of a marble sculpture are exposed in all their dark and twinkling beauty. Rough jewels: both statue and poet.

‘So the poet is brought down to earth’: Douglas Gordon’s Black Burns (detail). Photograph: Jessie Maucor/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2017, courtesy Studio lost but found, Berlin and Gagosian

Doppelgangers, doubles, divided Jekyll-and-Hyde selves – as an artist, Gordon has long been heir to his compatriots James Hogg and Robert Louis Stevenson. But here he has gone further and liberated Burns even as he appears to destroy him. Gordon’s tremendous anti-monument finds tragedy in the life that Flaxman’s statue altogether ignores, as if Burns had not died young and poor, a drinker and serial adulterer. And a man, moreover, once so desperate that he booked a passage to Jamaica with the aim of becoming a bookkeeper on a slave plantation, which is the subject of Graham Fagen’s…

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