BY Thomas Lawson in Interviews | 05 MAR 93
Featured in
Issue 9

Hello, It's Me: Douglas Gordon

In frieze issue 9, Thomas Lawson spoke to the influential filmmaker about 24 Hour Psycho (1993) and the worst reactions to his letters

BY Thomas Lawson in Interviews | 05 MAR 93

I met Douglas Gordon in 1990 when Glasgow was flourishing as European Capital of Culture. I was back there preparing my show for the Third Eye Centre; he (along with Christine Borland, Craig Richardson, Kevin Henderson, and Roderick Buchanan) was getting ready for a post-college exhibition at the same venue.

The name of their show was ‘Self Conscious State’, and Douglas’s piece - an enormous list of names, of everyone he had ever met and had remembered - was calculated to raise that frame of mind. This terrifyingly simple idea was developed further for another exhibition, ‘Guilt By Association’, at the Irish Museum of Modern Art.

Thomas Lawson: It seems to me that your work circles a kind of anxiety of influence. The questions it raises are about what is possible, and who might care. There is a sense of there being some unknown voice monitoring behaviour, cautioning, whispering ‘I know who you are, I know where you've been, you can't hide forever’. When you first told me about the letters you have been sending people I couldn't help but think of that scene in Rear Window (1954) - you know, the bit where James Stewart and Grace Kelly send over the letter to Raymond Burr, the suspect, and it says ‘What have you done with her?’ They just watch his reaction from their perch - if he's not guilty he'll just crumple it up and put it in the bin. But his response makes the letter worthwhile. Do you see yourself as the kind of artist, the enquiring photographer, portrayed by Stewart?

Douglas Gordon: I love James Stewart. But no, I don't see myself that way. I started sending letters as part of one of those exhibitions where lots of people are invited to show by sending a small work to the museum or gallery. This was at Nevers, in France. I was sent a list of the participants - they were mostly London based, and quite a few of them were already quite well known. I knew who they were, but at that point I reckoned that they wouldn’t know me, or where I lived, or anything. The first letter simply read: ‘I am aware of who you are and what you do’, which was the truth. But in the end I don't think any of them got the letter because all the work had to go to France, and there was some big mix-up with the mail-out. I suppose they're just sitting in a French museum somewhere.

Some time later I was in another show where I knew everyone, but not everybody knew me, and I did another letter. This one read; ‘I am aware of what you have done’. After this I just got into the habit of sending them out to various people, some of whom I’d met. I thought there was a nice parallel with On Kawara’s postcards, and that it would be good to keep the whole thing going.There are quite a few now, and I send different ones to different people each time.

TL: Have you heard of anyone having an adverse reaction to one of these missives? People freaking out over what some might see as anonymous messages and pseudo-threats?

DG: There was someone in New York who sent the letter straight back to me via Transmission Gallery. I heard later that he was very pissed off about it. Mind you, he got the worst one, a Biblical quote: ‘If only you were hot, or cold. But you are neither hot, nor cold. I am going to vomit you out of my mouth’. Some people who got that one, and recognised the source, loved it. Recognition has a lot to do with it.

They are not anonymous. The idea is to project a role that is morally ambiguous, and this means that issues of responsibility come into it. I am not interested in picking names at random from a phonebook or whatever. There has to be some kind of relationship between me and the person receiving the letter - it might be that we met casually, or through the art world, or are in a show together, or sometimes it will be people who crop up on the mailing lists of galleries and museums. I think the letters are kind of friendly. I always address them ‘Dear so and so’, and I sign them ‘Yours, Douglas’.

TL: But that friendliness comes in the form of a letter that speaks clearly of a kind of anonymity, a computerised, printed communication. It seems to me that you might be expecting some adverse reactions, and yet you are working in a way that forbids you from monitoring responses, you’re not looking out on back windows to see how people react.

DG: But I think that happens no matter what you do. You get a response from people who can be bothered to give you a response. I have had replies, mostly from people who know me, or from people who can trace me. Their letters tend to be witty, and sometimes they are as ambiguous as the ones I’ve sent.

TL: Do you keep a record of your mailings?

DG: Yes. I know who’s had what. The whole process is recorded and becomes the document for the piece. I have a list of the names and addresses of everyone I have sent a letter to, when and where it was posted, who replied.

At first I didn’t realise that some of the people who I was sending things to had actually been receiving seriously upsetting letters; maybe from artists who’d been rejected for shows, and so on. And I didn't want mine to appear like the clichéd ‘cranky’ kind of thing where someone would paste up a message by cutting words from a newspaper or whatever. I go to some length to make the presentation appropriate. The envelopes are standard, and clean, and the letters have the date and the city it was sent from, just like a regular letter. And some of them have colour - so they are quite beautiful.

It was around this time that I started to make telephone pieces. One of the first happened during a very low-key project in a café in Rome. I wanted to use the social situation, late evening in a crowded bar. The plan was for chosen individuals to receive an unexpected telephone call at the public telephone in the café. The project organiser phoned the café once or twice every night for a month. He spoke to the barkeeper, who was in on the plan. The barkeeper would then call someone to the telephone, by name. So they got the phone, expecting to talk to someone they knew. But instead they got the project organiser reading a line of text and hanging up.

This situation has classic cinema ‘thriller’ references. There's a scene in Angels With Dirty Faces (1938) where a similar thing happens. Jimmy Cagney has just been released from prison, and the old mob are out to get him. They follow him to a bar and wait outside. One of the gang makes a call to the telephone, and the barkeeper answers, calling Cagney over by name. As he walks over, he realises what is going on - that the mobsters will come in and shoot whoever is taking the call. So he shouts over some other mug, who gets wasted as Cagney gets away.

TL: I hope nothing that dire happened. But didn’t the people in that café in Rome get fairly threatening messages ?

DG: I wouldn't say that. ‘You can't hide your love forever.’ It’s kind of nice, in a way. I did another piece in Milan recently where the instructions were similar but the message was ‘I won't breathe a word (to anyone)’. There's nothing wrong with that, unless you happen to feel guilty already.

TL: But in a bar you might be in that frame of mind.

DG: Yes, that’s the point. The project in Milan was done in collaboration with a gallery where the instructions were displayed, so there was some kind of contextualising device available, somewhere. But in Rome the calls simply happened - so a couple of times the organiser got someone else to make the call while he sat in the bar and watched what was happening. It seemed important for us to keep an eye on things with this kind of work.

TL: Did he see much reaction? I would imagine he did, since the piece proposes a very direct, but secret intervention in your private life - it could be shocking if the whispered message happened to coincide with some maybe illicit behaviour you were contemplating.

DG: He saw that a few people seemed a bit flustered by it. Others would go tell their friends, some of whom had received a call too perhaps. That’s the idea. It sets up a game between those who ‘get it’ and those who don't.

TL: Working with different strategies of communication that are fairly conventional in everyday life - the mail and the telephone - you perhaps create a space that is less familiar in terms of art production. But I know you have also been making paintings at the same time. Does it seem a bit of a contradiction to be painting at this moment?

DG: When terms like ‘post-conceptual’ and ‘neo-conceptual’, are being bandied around, as they are, it’s a good idea to be wary. I'm sceptical of those terms or definitions for all the obvious reasons. I work in and out of a studio. This means that I have the opportunity to make objects when I choose to, and to work without objects when the context presents itself. When I'm in the studio, I make paintings.

TL: The wall texts obviously force you to deal with issues of site, and I think the letters and phone pieces address these issues from an oblique point of view, by bringing the moment of consumption of art into the private lives of unwary consumers. Can paintings create an equally interesting disturbance in the ways we usually conduct business?

DG: The idea is that these paintings, the way I imagine them, do have a ‘transcendental’ aspect, although I hate that word. Part of the background here is the whole range of ‘endgame’ painting theories, you know, like the Peter Halley/Sigmar Polke/Gerhard Richter positions, and also the Last Exit stuff that you wrote. These ‘thinking’ painters were important to me, partly because of the whole fuss about ‘Glasgow Painting’ in the 80s.

The paintings that you have seen have come about as a result of the attitudes and strategies that I had developed through working outside of a studio; you become steeped in a research, which isn't based on physical materials.

I was in a show in New York a while ago, and it turned out that the space was the old Betty Parsons Gallery. So I did some research on the place and started making lists of the paintings that had hung on those walls during the 40s and 50s. I ended up making a series of paintings that related directly to these works by people like Ad Reinhardt and Ellsworth Kelly. But although this series came out of a response to a situation, the thing about painting in general is that it satisfies a desire to make work free of a specific context.

TL: I think I’m hearing you admit that you actually make paintings on spec, just like a studio painter would?

DG: Yes. You’ve found me out. But my premise is to take the field of painting as a context in itself - you know, you say the word ‘painting’ and hundreds of expectations or prejudices come to mind. It’s obvious that my interest in painting is not so much in the practical, physical side, as in the idea of it.

I’m interested in the fine line between my intentions and the perceptions of others; that moment when someone encounters something and realises that there is more to it than meets the eye. I’m interested in the moment when someone opens the letter, recognises that it is for them, and starts to wonder why they got it, and what it really means. The same can happen with these paintings: someone sees the piece that uses the title of a Baldessari book and thinks, well, yes Brutus did kill Caesar. But in 1976? And isn’t this the title of another artwork, by someone else, somewhere else, and so on? I would say that all of the work plays with recognition and expectation in this way.

TL: Is there a particular pay-off with the paintings if you crack the code, or is it enough to know generally that these texts refer to works by other artists not on show here? Is it enough to know that there is a clue, without needing to know what the clue is?

DG: I don’t think there’s a particular pay-off. People who don’t recognize the text as a title to a specific piece of art can still have a certain intrigue to play with. If you didn’t know that Slow Motion 1969 refers to a piece by Robert Morris, I think you can still find something that will resonate. Maybe people who aren’t trapped in an art history background can find more.

TL: Do you fetishise your material? Are they well made stretchers, well prepared linen grounds, and all that?

DG: I don’t make a big deal of production values. The paintings simply have to be clean and pragmatic so that there is nothing about them to distract from the ideas they contain. I use available materials and choose colour from a standard household paint chart. I just want the paintings to appear as neutral grounds, no drips, no spots.

TL: I don’t know. By the time you get done they’ll be agitated with blobs and cross hatches, and you’ll be talking up a storm about expressivity.

DG: Probably. Working with shaped canvases, and everything. The paintings are an important project for me, alongside the other things. I'm interested in the ‘big’ media. All those traditions with too much baggage. For instance, I’ve been interested in film for a long time. I always wanted to make an epic as my first film - a real movie, not Super 8 or anything. I thought it might be interesting to take an existing film and re-make it. I wanted a picture with a story which was very familiar to a broad audience; so I started to work with Psycho (1960). What I decided to do was alter the narrative of the original by making it 24 hours long, and without sound.

Although the strategy of expanding the narrative is quite simple, it is very easy to disturb the familiarity that someone might bring to a film which is that well known. Everyone thinks that they know the story, but take a sequence like the shower scene, for example: in the original film, in real time the sequence lasts for about two or three minutes. In my 24 Hour Psycho (1993) the whole thing goes on for over half an hour. It becomes something quite different. Not what you first thought.

TL: 24 Hour Psycho is scheduled for sometime in May. I know you are still working on some of the technical problems associated with that, but are you working on anything else right now?

DG: Yes, I’m continuing all the other stuff. And I’ve started some new paintings. With no text.

TL: Pure abstract paintings.

DG: Maybe not abstract, but definitely pure.

This article first appeared in frieze issue 9.

Main image: Douglas Gordon, installation view. Courtesy: the artist, Gagosian, London and Kamel Meenour Gallery, Paris