Douglas Gordon with William Corwin
The film I Had Nowhere to Go (2016) is Douglas Gordon’s meditation on the early life and adventures of the filmmaker Jonas Mekas. William Corwin sat down with Gordon in his studio in Berlin to discuss his friendship with Mekas and the origins of the project. Gordon also speaks to his use of disjointed time, Scottish literature, and the poignancy of image, sound, and text from the perspective of the viewer.
William Corwin (Rail): I want to talk about what we talked about the very first time I met you, which was through the Scottish writer James Hogg, a.k.a. the “Ettrick Shepherd,” and his book The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner—how Hogg considers the duality of human spirituality and behavior.
Douglas Gordon: I had a fascination with Robert Louis Stevenson and I’d done quite a lot of work flitting between Stevenson and R. D. Laing—the idea of the divided self, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. As a kid I was brought up with things like Jekyll and Hyde, Treasure Island, Kidnapped, all the Stevenson classics. When I was older, I was re-reading The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, down at my mum and dad’s place. My father, who left school when he was twelve, and was a pattern-maker, a niche kind of carpenter, and had really no academic training at all (he went from school into work and the army), noticed I was reading it and said, Oh yeah—you should really be reading James Hogg.
About ten years after I began studying Hogg, this weird thing happened. I was doing this exhibition at the Tate Liverpool. It was a really curious two-person exhibition and it was me and J. M. W. Turner, curated by Mark Francis. In one part of the gallery there were really beautiful Turner paintings, and in the other part, the gallery was completely dark, which was my part, of course. When I was on the plane en route to Liverpool, I happened across a letter in the Daily Telegraph—the last letter that Stevenson had ever written had come up for auction in New York, and I bought it.
The letter is absolutely curious because it was written from Samoa, where Stevenson died. One of Stevenson’s great novels is unfinished. It’s called Weir of Hermiston, and again it plays with this idea of mirroring, a classic theme of Stevenson’s. So he’s writing this in Samoa, and obviously took time off the novel to write this letter to a friend of his in Scotland, and in the letter, he talks about his health and how well he feels (he famously suffered from all sorts of chronic illness), and he also comments on the civil war in Samoa and the fact that he found a severed ear at the bottom of his garden. So he finds this severed ear, basically finishes off the letter and clearly has some kind of a seizure and passes away. However, his housekeeper posted the letter, so the letter has the date of the day he died, the postmark is the day after he died, and it is delivered to his friend in Edinburgh.
Another bizarre coincidence: I’m in a bar in Edinburgh, and I was introduced to a lawyer, whose family owned Stevenson’s house. So we went, he took me to the house, and it hadn’t changed at all. Stevenson’s bedroom was at the top of the house, and when we were going through the house, going up these wooden stairs, he says “don’t step on that step, no one ever steps on that step.” When Stevenson was out carousing at nighttime in Edinburgh, doing things that his father disapproved of and sneaking back home, there was this one step which had a creak in it—so Stevenson never stepped on that step, and since then, nobody ever steps on that step. I posted the letter from New York to Stevenson’s house, to send it home after all these years. So again, there is a lot of courting of chance and chaos in all of this.
Rail: Do you allow that chaos into your work?
Gordon: I don’t know if I allow it, but I don’t know if there’s very much I can do about it. It’s definitely there, definitely there.
Rail: Yesterday in your acceptance speech at the French Embassy, as you were being made a Commander of the Academy of Arts and Letters, you were talking about stocking shelves in a grocery store in Glasgow when you were young, and dreaming of France. You made a dual argument for France; which was Scottish history and the connections to France of Mary Stuart, William Wallace, and Robert the Bruce, and then you talk about French cinema. Let’s talk about the cinema, because we’ll never stop talking about Scottish history if we start down that road. When did the French film aesthetic first appeal to you?
Gordon: I grew up closer to Hitchcock. When I was a kid, if I couldn’t sleep, I would go into bed with mum and dad, and they would always be watching TV. You can’t really use the term “adult movies” these days, but I saw things that weren’t necessarily meant for children. Then when I went to France, one of the guys I was traveling with was a big cinephile and he bought the Hitchcock/Truffaut dialogues, and that probably led me into Truffaut first. On coming back from France, I made it my business to find out more about Truffaut. From Truffaut I got into Godard, from Godard I got into Éric Rohmer, and all that stuff. And then I started to look at earlier films—Georges Clouzot, Marcel Carné, a lot of the film noir period—so it was kind of through the eye of Hitchcock. When I was in art school in Glasgow, the Glasgow Film Theatre, where we’ll show the Jonas Mekas piece on Saturday, I went to on a weekly basis. My girlfriend at the time worked at the film theater, so I used to get in for free.
Rail: Thank you for showing me the Mekas film here in the studio in Berlin. I’m trying to remember how many images of Jonas there are in the whole film: it starts with your voices, you see him three or four times—or is it more?
Gordon: I think part of the structure of the film is that when you see [Mekas] at the beginning, you see him even though it’s only the voice. I think this is rather important, that you have a disassociated voice and disassociated sound—I mean these are important things in terms of metaphysical work, but in terms of a kind of a moral philosophy of image, if you see the speaker, or the narrator, or the orator, even for two seconds, the rest of the oration will be tied to that image. I suppose this is where I got really disappointed with certain aspects of cinema where, you know, you can use the Rolling Stones, or Beatles, or any other band you could choose, in order to get from one scene to another, and I really don’t believe in that.
Rail: What was the origin of I Had Nowhere to Go?
Gordon: The way this whole thing came about was that Ninon [the film and sound editor] and I and a couple of friends were sitting in a bedroom just outside of Bordeaux, drinking wine with Jonas, and I said, “someone should make a film of your life, and I think I should be the one that does it.” And Jonas said, “Yes, yes, I will think about this.” And the next day I got a message saying, “Yes, you do it.” So this is a challenge and it’s absolutely, as we say in German, a Spielplatz—a playground. What I always recognize with him is that being a displaced person from Lithuania, New York was a playground. It’s very difficult for middle-class and upper-working-class people these days to even recognize what a playground is, and we found a playground with him.
I think another thing that is really important is that Jonas and I understand what it means to sit in the dark, as a metaphor and as a reality. Sitting in the dark is really terrifying, brittle, and beautiful.
Rail: What have you been thinking about as an alternate to the screen in the context of film or video?
Gordon: We were just talking about the reflection of a screen. Because we’re surrounded by light bulbs here, and I always think that when you put a light bulb on, it means something; it’s the generation of electricity to give light, and if you give light, then you have to deal with light. We love the dark; you can stay in the dark. When the light comes on, then you have to respond, because you become physically evident to other people. That’s kind of a curious thing.
Rail: Is sitting in the dark a loss of self? I like how that contrasts with Jonas being in that dark—just his voice, but [the viewer] always sees him. But, watching him, you are nothing. Is that part of it?
Gordon: For me, the interesting thing is how to gravitate between cinematic conventions. It’s like going to a cathedral: people sit and listen to God. To take them out of that, which is now what I’m working on, is to demolish the idea of sitting and listening, sitting and looking. Stand up and see what you’re interested in—that’s very much what Jonas stands for. But you stand up for what you believe in. You sit down—the comfort of your ass on a chair means that you listen a different way. If I touch you here [touching Corwin’s ear] does that alter the way that you’re listening to me?
Look what I have in my ear [Gordon has a lot of metal in his ear]—it’s completely altered the way that I listen to people, but in a very low frequency, but all of these little details are incredibly important. And Jonas was very aware of that with all of his [work], especially the poetry. The language, the enunciation, the dialect; he was super concerned with that. That’s what I wanted to have in the film.
Rail: How do you change the way you listen with your body?
Gordon: Call me old-fashioned, but I always think that the way that you watch a movie or listen to a song depends on who you’re in bed with.
Rail: Now this film about Jonas oscillated between 1945 and 1949 – 50.
Gordon: No, 1922.
Rail: I mean his story is between being in New York and being in the camp.
Gordon: Wrong. The most important thing for me is the story which is not published in his book; it’s the story of the first image he ever took, and I think that goes back to the 1920s, when the Russian tank commander strips out the film from the camera [and] pushes it into the dust, and says “Run! Run!” and didn’t kill him. And as Jonas says, “I was nothing to them, he could have killed me, but he didn’t take the camera.” And I always say to Jonas, one of the most amazing public artworks hidden in Europe is the first image that you ever made of a Russian tank, and it’s somewhere under the dust in Lithuania. It’s somewhere under the dust. I don’t want to go look for it, but I know it’s there. I think this is incredibly important; that some things that you do are destroyed, some things are hidden, but you know that they’re there…
For me this is where film really amplifies all of the things we are afraid of losing. The eye, the sound. It probably falls outside of any category of medium, but if we’re talking about a representation of something which was atrocious—[consider] seeing someone’s tears—because I know they’re acting, and they’re acting to represent something which is the closest that we have, apart from tears. Tears are out of control, and I think sometimes that’s where cinema is just an architectural construct. Film is something different. And if film can represent something which mirrors your being out of control, it’s very disturbing—but life-affirming, because then you realize you’re not the only person who cries, who feels that way. It’s a universal feeling.
One of the worst things I ever saw was happiness. Fear and loneliness, doubt, and anxiety are things that you know are going to happen to you at every point in your life. Happiness, when you get it, you’re afraid of losing it. I think that film, in a way, exhibits that, because whatever you’re using, 16mm, Super16, or 35mm, it’s a rolling mechanism. Whatever you’re seeing, and you’re happy to see it, you may never see it again.
Rail: So happiness is one of the worst things you’ve ever seen, and you link this fleeting sense of happiness to the rolling of the camera and the momentary presence of the image in a moving image work. As I’m sitting there, I’m thinking this is the artist who stretches things, as in the five-year-long movie about The Searchers [5 Year Drive By]. Is this a sort of Freudian desire to stretch or control the moment?
Gordon: The elasticity of it is interesting. What I like to think is that it takes me a long time to do anything, and I’m slowed down because of the chaos that I enjoy. It’s almost impossible for me to go from A to B without being distracted by C, D, E, F. A simple straight line isn’t as interesting as a meandering line, and I try and take that as a kind of a guideline. When you’re working with a twenty-fourth of a second, or a thirtieth of a second, it’s nice to disrupt that, and one of the ways to disrupt that is to clip it or extend it beyond nature in a way. It just makes the obvious seem more interesting.
Rail: When you take the moving image and debilitate it so it’s a series of frames, what is the emotion that comes out of that? Is that postponing—do you permanently postpone the inevitable by removing the motion?
Gordon: Yeah, I suppose it’s a kind of never wanting something to end. Maybe some of that goes back to my religious upbringing. It was a bit paradoxical for me because of this apocalyptic vision of the religion. I was brought up thinking that the world was going to end every day. The Jehovah’s Witnesses were always saying that the world will end everyday. They would say the Great Tribulation would happen before the apocalypse and I think in the 1960s and ’70s; clearly it was the Cold War—there was a huge idea that the world was going to end. Looks like we’re heading that way again. So, on the one hand there was this idea that the world was going to end, which I didn’t want, and then the other the idea would be that when God’s order was established, then you would live forever. I remember being quite young and saying to my mom that I didn’t want it to end, but I didn’t want to live forever.
When I was making the film with Jonas, I really had no idea about where it was going, but I have such a good team here who understand the idea that if you have no idea, you just move forward. We take material—it’s like when you were a kid, your mum probably gave you a list of things to buy, but I always lost it—so I went to the supermarket and thought, “Oh, I have no idea. What should I buy? What would make mum/dad happy?” And I always ended up with the wrong thing, but at the end of the day, we were all fed. In a way that’s how I think about art practice, and theater and film: you have your list, and you drop the list, and you go ahead and say, “I forgot it, let’s take what we need.” Jonas is a very particular example of anti-cinema: no object, no focus, no reason; just do so. Every time I try to do something with a focus, it’s a disaster.