interview by SVEN SCHUMANN
photography by MAXIME BALLESTEROS
Scottish artist Douglas Gordon is best known for his video artworks, ranging from a slowed-down, 24-hour version of Hitchcock’s Psycho to a beautiful film of an elephant lying down in a white New York gallery. But the art world is not the only one to admire Gordon’s work. Football fans and film-lovers alike raved about his feature-length film, codirected with Philippe Parreno, Zidane: A 21st-Century Portrait, a study of the most well-rounded football player of his generation. The film follows Zidane for a full 90-minute game and was shot with 17 synchronized cameras. Gordon has also set grand pianos on fire, burned the eyes out of portraits, turned the Park Avenue Armory into a giant lake, and made a solid gold sculpture of two hands, which was famously stolen from Christie’s. His next endeavor awaits us in the world of theater.
SVEN SCHUMANN — You once said that art is a bit like sneezing in public, and the gallery stops it from actually getting on the meat. When was the last time you sneezed?
DOUGLAS GORDON — Well, my allergies are so bad that I can’t stop it. [Laughs] I was coming out of the bathroom at a Thai restaurant last week and sneezed as the waitress walked past. She was quite surprised. That was literally when it last happened.
SVEN SCHUMANN — What about when you did the piece with pianist Hélène Grimaud at the Park Avenue Armory in New York?
DOUGLAS GORDON — Yeah, because it was such a pressure for me that my use of various anesthetics was on a Champions League level. I should have been a little bit more careful.
SVEN SCHUMANN — You did say that from the moment you first stepped into the Armory, you wanted to piss all over it. That might have been part of it…
DOUGLAS GORDON — That was a bit of sneeze, true. An involuntarily evacuation of fluid from your body, or a voluntary one. I once got donkeys to piss on the floor in the Palais des Papes, in Avignon. That was a funny thing.
SVEN SCHUMANN — When was that?
DOUGLAS GORDON — It was while doing a whole suite of works in Avignon years ago. This curator friend of mine proposed to the pope’s palace that we could do something. I wanted to take snakes in there because, you know, bringing snakes into church is supposed to be forbidden. They agreed, so we brought real ones. I thought if they let me bring in snakes, what about donkeys? When I started to give the donkeys some water, their trainer said, “No, don’t give them any water because they’ll piss.”
SVEN SCHUMANN — Which I guess sparked the idea in your mind…
DOUGLAS GORDON — I was like, “Aha.” So I went and bought another six bottles of Evian, and what happened was incredible. I think the mommy donkey pisses first, and then the daddy donkey comes up and licks the piss of the mother, and then he pisses on it. Then the baby donkey comes up and licks the piss of mommy and daddy. Very peculiar. But it turned out that in whatever century the popes had a little menagerie of exotic animals to entertain themselves, too. It was quite something. Anyway, when you have to pee, you pee.
SVEN SCHUMANN — Are you comparing your urge to make art with these urinating donkeys?
DOUGLAS GORDON — You can hold it back for so long, but at some point you just have to let it go. There is something quite beautiful with the art thing, that you can only hold it back for so long and then you have to do it. That is very different than
many other fields. I would say that maybe an office worker or a bank worker doesn’t feel the same thing, but since I am not an office worker or a banker, I don’t really know. I don’t know whether bankers really have to bank.
SVEN SCHUMANN — If anything, they just really want to make more money.
DOUGLAS GORDON — But I don’t know if you can’t stop banking. You wake up; you’ve held your banking back for so long that you just wake up and you just … have to bank really badly. Traveling so much for the last two years, every time I come back to Berlin, of course I go home and I want to see my daughter first, but then I start to get edgy and have to come here to the studio. It’s almost like an involuntary thing. It sounds a bit too romantic for my taste, but it’s just the truth. I can’t really stop it.
SVEN SCHUMANN — So what is the first thing you do when you get to your office after being away?
DOUGLAS GORDON — I wouldn’t tell you exactly what I do. Banking, of course! I used to make a drawing every day, but when you are traveling that gets difficult. But now that I am back, I came in yesterday and made a drawing. And I came in this morning and made a drawing. So that’s really the first thing I do.
SVEN SCHUMANN — What kind of drawings?
DOUGLAS GORDON — Really good ones. [Laughs] When I was a kid at school, the first thing you did in the morning was called mental arithmetic and, obviously in Scotland, “mental” also means crazy. So I liked the idea that mental arithmetic is just crazy arithmetic, which means you just write anything. Five plus 10? Mental! 105. I loved playing with words like that when I was young, but also it was this idea of exercising something every day. Just to get your brain to start. You sit down with a pencil or a crayon and a sheet of paper, and you just release something. It is like a warm-up for athletes. They know how to stretch. So, I don’t really know what kind of drawings I do. It’s just important to do it.
SVEN SCHUMANN — I read that you are driven to push things to the extreme in all parts of your life. When was the last time you really pushed it?
DOUGLAS GORDON — The two theater pieces I’m working on at the moment are pushing things pretty far, at least conceptually. My pieces are getting darker all the time. I don’t know if darker means “further” or “deeper.” My initial idea for one of them was, “We should just get a kid on stage and punch the fuck out of the kid. And it should only last for like, six minutes.”
SVEN SCHUMANN — I am sure that was pushing it a bit too far for a commercial theater production.
DOUGLAS GORDON — Yeah, it was a bit too much for our funding and our producers. I love the idea that people would pay, whatever, 25 euros and come in and that’s it. Because that really exposes the violence. So, then I just had to find a different way to make it go far. I can’t tell you exactly what that’s going to be, but it does go quite far.
SVEN SCHUMANN — Does it get more difficult to keep taking things further after you’ve already been trying your best to do so for decades?
DOUGLAS GORDON — Since I’m nearly 50 years old, maybe I’m not able to, just like I can’t physically run very far now.
SVEN SCHUMANN — You’ve used fire in your art many times, most memorably in your piece The End of Civilization, where a grand piano burns on the border between Scotland and England. When did that fascination start?
DOUGLAS GORDON — I was fascinated by fire as a kid, of course. But I was also always fascinated by the way that my dad taught me how to light a match. It was very different than what other kids were told. Most people know that if you light a match you are supposed to do it away from your body, but my father taught me to do it the other way, so when it lights you have it right next to your body. I still never worked out why he did that. He also told me to use a knife in the same way, always toward the body, never away from it. There is some sort of message in there from my mom and dad, but I don’t know what it is.
SVEN SCHUMANN — Maybe it gives you more self-control knowing that if you fuck up you will hurt yourself…
DOUGLAS GORDON — Yeah, it’s a very Scottish way to approach education, I guess.
SVEN SCHUMANN — What is the most exciting thing you’ve set on fire so far?
DOUGLAS GORDON — Well, the pianos were good, but the most exciting thing I set on fire was my jeans. It was by accident when I was at Gagosian in New York. I am interested in religion and voodoo, in New York specifically, like a very stupid white man’s idea of what voodoo could be. So, I gave a list of things to burn, some of which are very toxic. By the time we have been burning things for a couple of hours, there is a lot of toxicity in the room and in my body, and at one point I am setting fire to something, and I turn around to set fire to something else, and then I feel my legs getting really warm. I’m trying to look around, and my pants are on fire, so I try to take them off. Everyone is like, “Just put water on it! You are such an exhibitionist. You have to set your trousers on fire just to take them off?” This has happened twice already. But the best is yet to come.
SVEN SCHUMANN — You do work in a variety of forms. You primarily make films and performance art pieces, but you’ve also done photography, paintings, and sculptures. As you mentioned earlier, you are currently rehearsing for your first two theater pieces, one in Berlin at Hau3, and Neck of the Woods, which will premier at this year’s Manchester International Festival and will star Charlotte Rampling. Is theater a natural extension of your body of work?
DOUGLAS GORDON — Well, it feels to me like it’s not my first because I came from performance art, which, of course, is kind of a loose rather than concrete theater. But these two pieces are different from the performance art pieces, which sometimes lasted for so many hours that people had to leave. Now, I have to cope with the idea that people pay money for a ticket and can come in and sit down and then they leave when it’s done. So, conceptually it doesn’t feel different, but this kind of orthodoxy is unusual for me.
SVEN SCHUMANN — You don’t strike me as the most orthodox guy.
DOUGLAS GORDON — Normally, I’m quite disrespectful of most things. That’s why I set things on fire. No, that’s because I love them. Actually, that’s wrong. But my respect for the people I work with who take direction and take instruction is quite incredible. Of course, they interpret my instructions or directions, but they’re working with somebody who’s basically directionless, I have nothing but admiration for them. It’s difficult for me to direct anyone other than myself, so they have to be very open to the way I try to work. It’s not easy at all, and the premiers of both pieces are within the next six weeks.
SVEN SCHUMANN — Do you enjoy the immediate feedback you get from the audience during a premier? You have some experience in that area from your film work.
DOUGLAS GORDON — No, there’s nothing I can do about it at that point. With film, for example, we can spend a year editing something to get it the way we want it, and it’s not going to change after that. Even if it did change, it would not be because of the audience’s response. And the principal audience for the theater pieces is me. So if I’m happy with it, I’m not changing it.
SVEN SCHUMANN — So even getting people’s reactions doesn’t mean you’ll change anything.
DOUGLAS GORDON — No. Don’t believe the good, don’t believe the bad. Maybe the ugly, yes, we take the ugly. I remember when Zidane premiered in Cannes, [codirector of the film] Philippe Parreno and I just sat near the door, and we had it perfectly timed. We knew there was a certain point that is very exciting, so we would go to the bar. And then we’d sit at the bar and just watch the clock. And then we would get back in just in time. This is my plan for the theater project as well. I’ll come back after the booing and everything has stopped.
SVEN SCHUMANN — I’m sure it’s tempting with theater, since you can adapt the performances every night.
DOUGLAS GORDON — I don’t understand how people can adapt. That should happen during the making of a piece. With the theater pieces, there’s an idea, and then you have to let the idea change and go back to where you started and see if the changes are working and then go back again. It’s almost like cooking. No recipe will ever be the same. If you can’t get hold of onions, and you have to use shallots, then this is going to change it. But you don’t stop making the dinner. You just alter to suit during the process. “Alter to suit” is kind of a quotation on Lawrence Weiner’s work. You change it as need be. Even though you might look at something like these burned paintings and think that you have seen it before, actually if you really take it in detail they’re all different. They have different chemical issues as well. It just depends what I can get my hands on. It is interesting not to do the same thing twice.
SVEN SCHUMANN — After you made 24 Hour Psycho — a piece in which you slowed down the Hitchcock classic to last an entire 24 hours — you won the Turner Prize and could have easily repeated that formula with other films.
DOUGLAS GORDON — Right. When I started to work with the Lisson Gallery and Nicholas Logsdail in 1993, he told me: “You know, you could slow down movies for the rest of your life, and you could have a very comfortable life. But I think I know you. You’ll get bored to death, and everyone else will get bored to death.” My art professors in London and in Glasgow also said, “Never go for the comfort zone. It won’t make you happy.” So I grew up with that idea, that I shouldn’t do what was expected. I’ve made a couple of good feature films, but I’ll continue to work with feature films because I haven’t done it all yet.
SVEN SCHUMANN — Why did you start by manipulating other people’s films rather than making your own?
DOUGLAS GORDON — In a way, I used other people as an alibi for me to do what I thought I really wanted to do. Then the next step would be to make films with no reference to anyone else. The films I’ve made haven’t been based on a book or a poem, and the theater pieces are not really based on a text that had previously been written. Zidane, of course, has a reference to someone else, and that’s why you choose him. But maybe it’s this constant need for an alibi.
SVEN SCHUMANN — What motivates you these days?
DOUGLAS GORDON — I’m thinking about the film Birdman, where it’s based on a Raymond Carver story — because to do an adaptation is very difficult. So, of course, I realize it’s very difficult, and that’s what I want to do next. The next big film I’m working on is an adaptation of Don DeLillo’s book Point Omega. I would adapt Point Omega rather than Falling Man or any other book of his because Point Omega was based on an installation that I did in New York that Don went to see. That was kind of a perfect, or an imperfect, circle, an unfinished circle.
SVEN SCHUMANN — And you want to finish the circle.
DOUGLAS GORDON — I’m hoping that it won’t be a perfect circle. If you try to draw a circle and can’t make it happen end to end, then I suppose that’s a spiral. Which is maybe not a bad thing. The perfect circle is impossible, you know?
SVEN SCHUMANN — What kind of artists have set your circle in motion?
DOUGLAS GORDON — Andy Warhol, Joseph Beuys, and Marcel Duchamp would probably be the critical three. I still go back to those artworks that really influenced me when I was young. I remember being in high school and my teachers giving me a book on Warhol and a book on Duchamp. At 15 or 16 years old, this really changed things for me. Occasionally, I love to drive by the Gemäldegalerie in Berlin. For me to go in there and see a Caravaggio painting is just incredible. My memory of being in Berlin and in Germany in general also has a lot to do with Albrecht Dürer and Lucas Cranach. I don’t have to go and make a pilgrimage every year; it is enough for me to know that I am surrounded by these things that influenced me when I was young, and they remain an influence. I mean, do you get bored with good music? We have been listening to the same one-and-a-half minute Erik Satie piece now for an hour.
SVEN SCHUMANN — I didn’t even notice.
DOUGLAS GORDON — Exactly. This is also something that I do here at the studio often, listen to something on a loop. I don’t even have to listen to it, and it is still going under the skin. There is a fantastic film by Carl Dryer, The Passion of Joan of Arc, and in our old studio we used to have three monitors set up that would play the film constantly. So if you went to the kitchen, you would come out and catch it. If you went to the back of the studio, there was one there. We did this for like three months. This is, in a way, why the Satie is on permanently. Because I have to get into the idea of the hands-on keyboard since I’m going to be working with the pianist Hélène Grimaud in two weeks for the Neck of the Woods piece.
SVEN SCHUMANN — Is that also the reason why there are several wolves scattered around your studio at the moment?
DOUGLAS GORDON — Yes, I thought if I’m surrounded by wolves something will happen. Lately, there has also been a lot of work to do with violence. Sometimes, I have these knives and axes lying around. Sometimes, I take them home with me, just to remind myself of what I’m doing. I think that kind of infusion is important and always has been important for me and my art pieces. When someone dies, if you don’t know enough about them and then you go through their stuff, what seems insignificant could have been very significant. But everything I’ve kept is important.
SVEN SCHUMANN — Do you ever think about your legacy?
DOUGLAS GORDON — It is important to me that things last a long time. I think most artworks take at least 15 to 20 years to inhabit a place in the world, whether they are good or bad. 24 Hour Psycho is 22 years old now, and I think it has just about found its place in the world. We should actually do something special for the 24th anniversary … See, it took me 22 years to think of that! I am still working on old things. I think that the legacy is important. This is something that really hit me when I came to live in Berlin for the second time. I realized that my legacy can’t just be the toasters of the world and all the junk that I had accumulated over the years. I realized I should probably look after my legacy, and there are certain works that deal with that. I like the idea that — to be very specific — my children won’t throw anything away because everything I’ve kept is important.
SVEN SCHUMANN — So, you do care about your legacy, but you don’t seem to care about your reputation.
DOUGLAS GORDON — Do I have one? [Smiles] I don’t think I have a reputation. As a joke, I say that my reputation is in tatters. Tatters is a nightclub in Glasgow, so that’s where my reputation is. It is somewhere else.
SVEN SCHUMANN — At a nightclub.
DOUGLAS GORDON — Well, it used to be. These days it is … I was going to say my reputation is in bed, but that’s even worse!
SVEN SCHUMANN — One last question. You’ve described your father as a high-end carpenter, your mother was named Mary, and you grew up as a Jehovah’s Witness. How often did you think about being the messiah?
DOUGLAS GORDON — Maybe that’s my reputation. [Smiles]
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