Interview: Douglas Gordon on collaborating with Jackie Kay and the RSNO for Glasgow's Festival 2018

Running alongside the European Championships in Glasgow next month, Festival 2018 is a cultural celebration of the city. Fiona Shepherd talks to Douglas Gordon about the event's centrepiece Citizens of Everywhere!

Douglas Gordon PIC: Neil Hanna
Douglas Gordon PIC: Neil Hanna

Douglas Gordon owns a huge plan chest, dating from 1907, which once resided in the Glasgow School of Art. Gordon is one of the school’s most illustrious graduates, the first of its five Turner Prize winners. Following its second devastating fire in four years, he’s now thinking of setting up a wee shrine to his alma mater somewhere in his Berlin studio, to include a piece of cruciform wood he picked from the ashes of the first fire in 2014. “It looks like some kind of holy relic you would put up against fire, believe it or not,” he notes forlornly.

His memorial will not include the original Mackintosh-designed key to the building, which was sold at auction earlier this year. “I had half thought of getting a wee cartel of people together to bid and then I thought ‘do you really want the keys to your mum and dad’s house?’ It brings a certain sense of responsibility. But isn’t it ironic that they auctioned off the key about two months before the Art School burns down?”

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Gordon has flown back to Glasgow twice since the second fire with the intention of paying his respects but has yet to screw up the fortitude to visit the site.

“I’ve walked along Sauchiehall Street and I get so far and then I think I can’t take it,” he says. “Ach, it’s almost like a human sacrifice. It’s like part of your family went missing through negligence. The people who are directly involved in the maintaining of it don’t have the same relationship that we had. We were in there, like an ant colony, and the school managed to survive despite the fact it was this tinderbox from when it was built. But there seemed to be a duty of care. The jannies were pretty terrifying when I was there, you wouldn’t put a foot wrong, they were like ex-paratroopers.”

Though tinged with grief, these return visits to Glasgow also have a happier purpose. Gordon is curating the flagship event of the Festival 2018 celebrations to mark the first day of competition at the European Championships, which are co-hosted this August by Glasgow and his adopted home of Berlin.

Citizens of Everywhere! will pull together the words of Scots Makar Jackie Kay, the music of Mogwai and Paul Robeson, and the playing of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, and it is Gordon’s response to the city of his birth and in particular to its civic hub, George Square.

“What is Glasgow?” he muses. “It’s a city trapped between mountains and the river. The mountains protect you from something, and the river can wash things away and drag in things that you don’t necessarily want. And George Square is a platform for celebration and protest, and what’s interesting to me is how close they can be to each other – ‘I’m not laughing I’m crying, I’m not crying I’m laughing’.”

Gordon has previously worked with Kay on last year’s Black Burns project at the National Portrait Gallery and with Mogwai, who soundtracked his mesmerising documentary Zidane. Lesser known is the Mogwai/Gordon collaboration on Monument for a Forgotten Future, a large rock (as in geological) installation on the outskirts of Essen, Germany, from which emanates the quiet strains of a specially commissioned 23-minute Mogwai epic, Music For A Forgotten Future (The Singing Mountain).

It is this piece which has been orchestrated for the RSNO to perform in George Square, alongside the songs of the great American bass baritone and civil rights activist Paul Robeson, who led the International Workers May Day Parade through George Square in 1960 and later sang his signature number, Ol’ Man River, with its obvious Clydeside resonances, to the marchers in Queen’s Park.

“When Mogwai wrote the music it made me very homesick for some reason, even though it was written essentially for this idea of a forgotten landscape,” says Gordon. “We needed to get something to balance that out so I thought about the Clyde and Ol’ Man River. So I sketched something out between Robeson’s river and Mogwai’s mountains.” Gordon has a candidate in mind to perform Ol’ Man River though his distinctive tones had yet to be confirmed for the event at the time of writing.

As to the title, Gordon says: “I thought it was better to be a citizen of everywhere rather than a citizen of nowhere, which is what they tried to do with Paul Robeson [who was blacklisted, defamed and denied a US passport for his political views and campaigning work]. The citizen of nowhere idea came up because I was listening to Lee Marvin’s Wand’rin’ Star and I thought ‘citizen of everywhere’ – isn’t that what Glasgow has always been trying to be, that we think of ourselves as citizens of everywhere?” ■

Citizens of Everywhere!, George Square, Glasgow, 2 August