A Film Exploring Nostalgia and Addiction: Interview with Artist Tan Gillies

by Hetty Mahlich on 2 July 2021

The artist's book and short film explore addiction, recovery and nostalgia through the vistas of Icelandic landscapes and the underbelly of London.

The artist's book and short film explore addiction, recovery and nostalgia through the vistas of Icelandic landscapes and the underbelly of London.

The short film Trauma Hurts is an ode to the past, a love letter to Iceland and an exercise in bittersweet nostalgia for the innocence of youth. For multi-disciplinary artist Kristjan 'Tan' Gillies, creating has been the ultimate act of healing. Released alongside a re-edition of his book, a collated scrapbook of memories which was first published last year, Gillies shares the darker side of this thing we call life. Covering addiction, loss, and the light which can follow, Gillies bravely takes to verse and page with a cutting honesty.

'Swallowed up by a sky so much bigger than my own problems...technicolour lights in the night sky saturating a young and fragile mind, through dilated adolescent pupils the concrete seems so far away in these times of magical bliss, and family more a reality than a concept on a TV screen', Gillies' voice rings out in the film. A white church is set amongst rolling hills, as vistas of grey waves and fading evening skies carry the burden of memory. The film encapsulates the feeling of the in-between - a moment after what already was, and before what may come to be. Gillies' voice ebbs and flows between shrieking birds, glitching in and out like a lost signal - the sound design by Josh Ludlow is pretty superb and deeply moving.

The film is about inner conflict, it's about escape. Mystical Iceland landscapes were the healing backdrop to Gillies' own youth, where he spent his summers away from London. They provide the setting for rehashing his inner conflicts today. 'Sometimes I feel so much it hurts, and I'm over powered.' When the world becomes too much, being faced with nature can both ground us and make us aware terrifyingly aware of our own insignificance, of how precious life can be. Trauma Hurts does it within the first 10 seconds.

'Trauma Hurts'

The film is released alongside a re-edition of Cold Bones, a book charting Gillies' struggles with drug and alcohol addiction and sobriety which sold out in a day when it was released in 2020, with proceeds going to the domestic violence shelter Crossroads Women's Centre based in North London. A revised edit includes 30 unseen pages and a foreword, and are hand-numbered and signed. The book is available to purchase from Rough Trade from today, July 1, and the first 50 copies come with a 40x60cm giclee print on 100% cotton Hahnemuhle photo rag with custom blind emboss Cold Bones stamp.

We spoke to Gillies to find out more.

Hetty Mahlich: What drew you to the medium of film?

Tan Gillies: It just happened without me thinking about it too much. I was out in Iceland trying to detox last summer and I had this idea that it would be cool to make a moving piece of imagery that reflected how Iceland kind of saved me, my mum and sister when we were kids. I've always taken photographs throughout my life and this is kind of an extension of that, I wanted to evolve the storytelling you get with photography. I also love 90s music videos, skate videos and films, so it was a bit of that intrigue as to what might be possible if I let myself go for it. I was watching Toy Machine's ‘Welcome to Hell’ pretty much on repeat in the first lockdown whilst out of my mind, as well as loads of old 90s grunge music videos just going fully inwards on that nostalgic aesthetic. The Hi8 camera was perfect for it too, just raw, romantic, nostalgia .

HM: Why Iceland, and what is the significance of the locations you chose to film in?

TG: My mum is Icelandic and from the west of the country, specifically Snæfellsnes and that is where I've spent most of my time over the years when visiting family. So it's all shot round there in places that meant something to me, places that my grandmother would tell me stories about as a kid and locations that hold a significant memory and feeling for me. I just let myself drift around and stopped in locations which felt right. The narrative matches the locations for the most part, most people might not hear that, but to me and my family it makes sense at least.

HM: When did you first discover poetry?

TG: I’m not really sure, I don’t actually call what I do poetry but the first time I remember wanting to write down my feelings was after I saw The Basketball Diaries (1995) and started reading stuff by Jim Carroll. Me and my friend Charlie were obsessed with that film when we were kids. I’ve kept a notebook/diary for as long as I can remember and scribbled or sketched down how I’ve been feeling in the moment. A lot of the time I would look back and not have a clue when or where I wrote most of it. I used to travel a lot for work and would be on planes a lot drunk and high on benzos and in those times that's when the darkest shit would come out, in the air above the world numbed out detached from anything and anyone, alone with myself. That's when I would really get into writing stuff down. I never thought I would actually do anything with any of it, but I've kept pretty much every notebook I ever had so when it came to making the book, I was just flicking through them ripping out pages. It’s definitely not the best writing by an actual poet's standards, but it is what it is. I just like writing things down, it helps me work through stuff.

HM: How do you approach using the concept of memory in your work?

TG: It's not something I overthink at all, it just so happens that everything I’m making right now is really reflective so it draws on memories. I’ve always had a big problem with nostalgia, I’ve always had a big fetish for it but it can be really bad for me. I can let my head drift into like euphoric recall and end up in a really painful place as that's not reality. I get fully overwhelmed with memories of the past and it's hard to shut them off. Historically I've used drink and drugs to medicate that feeling, you know. To numb it out or heighten it, whatever I felt like at the time, but to sit with it clean is difficult so I have to be careful. Especially when doing really deep reflective work like this, it can be very, very painful at times but ultimately I need to do it.

HM: The score in the film is really moving. Could you tell me a bit about working with Josh Ludlow on the sound and what you wanted to achieve?

TG: I’ve known Josh for 15 years...we've gone through a lot of mad times together growing up...so it was amazing to have him work on this project, it came about very naturally. I originally had a completely different vision of what the film was going to look like. I was going to have a song by this sludge metal band Hang The Bastard. I wanted to make a really aggressive confrontational piece of work but it turned out quite the opposite. [Those initial ideas were formed] when I was still using, was quite angry and in a lot of pain from grief and just didn’t really know what was going on. Once I got clean I sent a version to Josh and he said he really liked it, but said it should be more stripped back to let myself be heard. He said he would compose something, and that's what you hear on there now. It's perfect and it is even more special.

HM: The book feels visually more focused on an urban, London experience and being an adult; the film Iceland, landscapes and lost youth. Could you tell me a bit more about what you wanted to communicate in both?

TG: The book is just a scrapbook of life, and most of it from the last 10 or so years really. London is my home city so naturally a lot of it is set there and also it does dart between Iceland a lot to especially with the theme of the cemetery photography in there, that's all in Iceland. I didn't have a plan with the book...it turned out to be a very personal reflection of how I've been living my adult life but with reflections of my youth in there too. I want people to take warning from it, like this is reality, millions of people are out there medicating themselves whether it be from issues like domestic violence that happened to them in childhood, and people are dying either from OD’s or from suicide. We need to normalise talking about all this stuff ASAP; mental health, domestic abuse, addiction. There should be mandatory mental health awareness classes in all schools, we need to start educating the next generation that it is more than okay to talk about this stuff!

The film really looks at the juxtaposition I had growing up and throughout my life, of the chaos of London and the safety of Iceland, just working through my memories and thoughts and the way I looked at my past before was always focused on the darkness, and this helped me start to bring the amazing memories with my sister and mum that I have of growing up to the forefront of the narrative.

I grew up with a lot of madness around me with my dad as he was a very abusive alcoholic, and on the outside of that I was getting into loads of trouble myself, getting arrested a lot for graffiti and selling drugs and all kinds off chaotic coping mechanisms to deal with how I was feeling in those formative years. On the flip side we had this amazing place of safety in Iceland that we went to every summer, and played out late in the midnight sun and it was full of love and happiness for the most part. Historically I've dragged around a big sack of dark memories that I could never seem to let go of, it drove me to the brink of my sanity multiple times. After my dad died in the first lockdown then my best friend overdosed and died right after that, it was just pure chaos...then going to rehab shortly after that and getting clean finally, trying to process all of that [by] making this film has been essential for me, not only to have something to throw myself into creatively but also to help me shift my thinking in order to lead a happy life and let go of a lot of some of the trauma and make peace with things.



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