Category: Contemporary Public Art

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University of Strathclyde and around

Empire, Brunswick Street, By Douglas Gordon (1997).

High on the side of a tall building in the heart of the Merchant City hangs a bright, slightly flickering neon sign. The single, bright green word "EMPIRE" projects from the wall like the sign for a cinema. But there are some quirks to this otherwise ordinary looking urban sign. The letters of the word EMPIRE are reversed. The word can only be read the correct way round if the viewer is standing at an angle which allows them to see the sign reflected in the dark mirror on the wall. The letters on either side of the sign sometimes flicker, like the "Hotel" signs seen in American films.
There are many ways of trying to interpret this piece, and a viewer may not see the piece as an artwork at all. There are no labels or signs to identify this as an artwork.
The word "Empire" has many historical and cultural dimensions. But Douglas Gordon is attempting to provoke the viewer to embark on their own meditations on the word "Empire". For example, in the 1930s, "EMPIRE" would have been a popular name for cinemas all over the United Kingdom. Perhaps the placing of this sign relates to an actual cinema which once occupied this space, recalling the thriving cinema culture which existed in Glasgow until the 1960s.

The British Empire was once the largest and most powerful empire in the world. It was seen as a great civilizing influence by many patriots, who felt that British power and culture would help 'developing' countries such as India and Hong Kong. Now, the days of the Empire are sometimes seen as a shameful chapter in British history, when brutality and privilege made life unfair for colonial citizens. There are many other ways of approaching ideas suggested by the word "Empire", but it is not clear exactly how the viewer should proceed. Each individual is challenged to examine their own thoughts.
It is also important to make comparisons and connections with the actual context where the sign is placed. Glasgow used to be a great trading and manufacturing city. Many of the British Army’s most famous soldiers are commemorated in statues throughout the city; for instance, Sir John Moore and Lord Clyde in George Square, Wellington in Queen Street, and Lord Roberts in Kelvingrove Park. This simple sign has many complex connotations which are intended to question fixed ideas about history and culture.
Douglas Gordon is an artist from Glasgow who has shown his work in many cities around the world. He studied at Glasgow School Of Art, and in 1996 won the prestigious Turner Prize. The arts organisation Visual Arts Projects worked in the management of this project.


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