by JESSICA DRAPER
After an entertaining chat in writer and artist Harland Miller’s studio, a converted factory in Peckham in south-east London, we step out into a torrential downpour, the beginning of a charming English summer. Miller, who was born in Yorkshire in the north of England in 1964, clocks one of his printed deckchairs in the rain that reads “Grimbsy: the world is your whelk” and says that would make a good picture. He has a natural ability to conjure and capture the banal everyday experiences that make life great and grim. Turning them into witty aphorisms has led critics to liken his work to that of his contemporaries, including Jarvis Cocker and Tracey Emin.
Inspired by old Penguin book covers, Miller paints large canvases under his alter ego “International Lonely Guy” – “the spectral figure behind each potential story title” – which are truly funny, dark and uplifting all at once. Miller’s new paintings are compelling; colourful and geometric, with titles that evoke positive advertising slogans tinged with charming neurosis: Overcoming Optimism and High on Hope. In person, he is a truly great storyteller and while the interview gave me an insight into his work, talking with the man behind the books and canvases gave me reassurance that there is no shortage of material.
Jessica Draper: Are these your biggest canvases yet?
Harland Miller: No, not really. They are quite large, but then the Berlin space is really large – I mean high, high ceilings, like a cathedral, or actually a bit like a mall, where there’s almost no sense of a ceiling. It’s a great space – unique but challenging, and what looks big here in the studio will look smaller in the space, so I made some smaller works too, to make them look big again – comparatively. When people say, “These are the biggest paintings he's ever made”, I feel a bit irritated on behalf of the person listening to that because size in itself is kind of meaningless. But I'm taking the idea of a book and blowing it up and that implies a comment on the content, something to do with the idea of exploring big themes.
JD: Tell me about some of the pictures around us. [When we meet, the pictures for the show are in transit to Berlin for his exhibition Tonight We Make History (PS. I Can’t Be There) at Blain Southern.]
HM: Some of the titles are personal. [He gestures to work around his studio that he is trying to finish for collectors.] Pipe Down Cunt, for instance, I guess could sound gratuitous, but actually is intensely personal. It’s for my Dad – not aimed at him – but is about when he got Alzheimer’s. He didn’t used to swear, didn’t care for profanity. The worst he would say was “damnation” or “pipe down” when he got real mad, but then when he started with the dementia, he began swearing like a trooper. Cunt this, cunt that – he could even swear between syllables. And if you’ve ever tried that, it’s not easy.
JD: Are there fixed meanings behind each title?
HM: I don’t like to explain the texts too often. When people read text, not just on paintings, but anywhere, they start to extract personal meaning and connect to it in a personal way – or not. But when they do, it is usually something intimate they've always thought, which seems to them to be bound up in the painting and nothing to do with what was in my head when I made it, and so I don't like to disabuse people of what it meant to them. If people have a personal relationship with the work, that’s great. I used to get letters asking me what my paintings meant, but with this series, people write and tell me what it means to them. I prefer that.
JD: Tell me about the inspiration for this show.
HM: Social science … from that very particular, positive, postwar era when information was being made more available and being hungered for, too. It was often practical and pre-jargon and to do with fixing things – fixing society, fixing yourself, there should be one written now about fixing jargon really – but anyway, at the time this optimism was reflected in popular maxims such as “Keep on truckin’”. That was by the illustrator Robert Crumb and, without sounding like a hippy, I tried to channel him and come up with something that had that same feeling, and I came up with “Hate’s Outta Date”, which had the same metre … hate’s outta date, keep on truckin’, hate’s outta date … I thought everyone would say: “Oh, yeah, Robert Crumb, man – you've channelled ‘Keep on truckin’.” But actually they didn't. This is what’s happening nowadays, my references are getting out of date too. But when I was a kid, it was everywhere, I had a T-shirt that Baz [his brother] had before me: it was pretty faded and authentic-looking by then and I was trying to come up with something now that would have that same mass appeal, a sort of bumper-sticker appeal, but that actually sounded dated, too – [it had] a tie-dye feeling about it.
JD: And this show is your first in Berlin?
HM: Yes, it means a lot to me because I lived there for a year or more, but never showed. I first went with Bruce McLean, just before the Berlin Wall came down, just for a few weeks but I got the feel of it. I loved it, so I went back as soon as I could after the Wall came down, and stayed for nearly two years.
JD: Is there a particular relevance to showing in Berlin now?
HM: Definitely, because it is almost a quarter of a century since I lived there. I was about 27 and was just trying to get by – I never showed, I never thought of it then, but all these years later, I find I have a lot to say about that time. It’s not necessarily evident in the work I'm showing there, but it definitely feels like a return - in the romantic sense of the word – because that time, that world, no longer exists.
JD: Did you find Berlin particularly inspiring? And German artists?
HM: Like a lot of people, I love Gerhard Richter and Sigmar Polke. They weren't quite so popular then, but I liked them. Mostly, I liked the idea of being an East German pop artist and not having access to any pop! I particularly liked that early stuff that came from ads for things like socks. I'm sure it was very aware – like that was funny and ironic and a comment on East Germany. But I also liked the idea that that was all they could get hold of. East German advertising seemed to reflect the Yorkshire evening papers, where you would get ads for sheds or donkey jackets, that kind of imagery; an advert for three different pairs of socks, that aren't even that different – “Buy two, get one free” – that was exactly the kind of advert you’d get in the Yorkshire press.
It was the 90s when I went, but because nothing had changed for 40-odd years during communism, you could still feel all these eras; traces of them anyway. Physically, there were areas that reminded me a lot of Leeds in the 70s, because of the bomb damage and a lot of hasty rebuilding around it. I suppose I went there with a romantic notion about Berlin. I also thought it would be good to get away from London and try to get some work done. That was laudable, but it didn’t really happen. In fact, it was probably one of the most social years of my life. Once I got to know people it got very … decadent, I suppose – at least, it felt that way to me. It was all happening underground or after dark – even if it was somewhere on the top floor, it felt underground – but it was a while before I discovered this scene. To begin with, I was just walking around. It’s funny, I hate walking, but I liked it there. It’s very conducive to thinking, but then it was like with Alice and when she finds the low door in the wall and suddenly I was meeting people that you rarely see in the daylight – you probably wouldn't want to see them in the daylight, to be honest. I didn’t get much painting done. I did more writing.
JD: When did you start writing?
HM: Well, I started to write while in Berlin, not about Berlin exactly, but I started a journal and ended up writing about home. I think it happens sometimes when you’re abroad that your thoughts on where you’re from become distilled, you become more aware it, partly because people are always asking you: when I arrived there, I spent a lot of time explaining that I wasn't Australian. I had long blond hair and the remains of a tan – not very Berlin, more Los Angeles.
JD: I recently saw one of your paintings in Soho House in Los Angeles. For me, there is a knowingness in your humour that feels very English. That self-awareness and feeling like an outsider seemed funnily appropriate in a place that has built its reputation on being an “insider” place.
HM: There is an element of self-deprecation in the work that you wouldn't imagine people identifying with, but then there are evident layers to this. First, it’s funny so it can’t be serious – “He's kidding, right” – “In fact, he means the opposite”. Then there’s the authorship of the work that removes it from being first person. This idea of being a loser can be laid at the author’s door like a protagonist in a film perhaps – someone you’re glad you’re not, but that you root for. All of this is grist to the mill in a town that runs on fiction. In the movie industry, films are always being summed up in a few words: there’s the pitch and the title of the film and the strapline, Alien – “In space, no one can hear you scream”. There is also this whole experience of driving everywhere, so you have a lot of messaging that jumps out at the motorist as well. I think the art scene reflects that too. There is a lot of text that hits you with itself – like wham! Something you would see in passing but with no secondary or subtext. That painting you’re talking about in Soho House in LA says: “This is where its fucking at” with smaller letters underneath reading “Least it used to be.” Some people maybe just don't read the second part. What is great about art in clubs is seeing how people react to it over the course of an evening. They go in straight and look at it one way and by the end of the night when they’re less inhibited and they're looking at it – and speaking about it, in another way. That doesn’t really happen in galleries. I mean how long do you spend looking at a painting in a gallery? David Hockney famously said [it was] as long as it takes to peel an orange.
JD: I read that you found a book of secondhand Penguin books in a box and that was the start of your book covers?
HM: That was when I was living in Paris. I used to paint books that had B movie-type imagery on the cover. Guys chewing matches, blondes lying on motel beds, that kind of trash or pulp imagery. I was painting that. The art world would term this practice appropriations, but they are straight copies. This was the early 80s, minimalism and matt black and chrome – these book-cover paintings were the opposite of all that. They were originally made by illustrators using a faux painting style and I would repaint them, but go again with the painting style – let them go a bit further and I could do this because I was working on a much larger scale. But, yeah, my source for these books was thrift stores. When I moved to Paris, although there were no shortages of those kind of books – in fact they were more popular in France – I couldn’t at that time understand the titles in French. The typography was such an integral part of the work that it was disconcerting not knowing the precise meaning of what I was painting, so I decided to replace the original titles with my own and that was a key moment because I was suddenly making work about my own experience in France. When I found a box of Penguin books outside a French secondhand bookshop in Notre Dame, I realised that the design of those classics would throw all the focus on to the title of the book – which is exactly what I wanted to do.
JD: Where do your titles come from?
HM: Nowhere in particular. Everywhere, anywhere.
JD: The Steinitz brothers between Paris and New York?
HM: The reason I was in France was a direct result of living in New York and showing there with a French gallery in the meat-packing district, called Prisunic, which was the name of a French supermarket. The gallery was owned and run by these two brothers, Paul and Benjamin Steinitz. This was 1988 and I really loved these guys, but they weren't the greatest dealers in the world. Paul was in a serious relationship with a girl called Christine. Christine was transgender. I believe that’s the correct term these days, though, at the time, I don’t recall that particular term being around that much. In the world that documented the days of Lou Reed’s New York, the 70s were always referred to as the transsexual 70s, which obviously wasn’t pejorative. Christine anyway told me – referring to her and all her friends, and with her hand to her breast, that: “We’re all sluts to our hearts.” She was terrific and I got on with her loads. When the gallery closed – one of the artists sued them – Paul announced that he was going to the desert. He said in this very Parisian accent: “I’m going to the desert, man, to make a lesbian epic.” The way he said it, it sounded like “eh-peak”. He was joking, of course (I think), but hanging around in the transgender scene in NY had really inspired him. See, the great thing about Paul was that, for him, their identities were what mattered. For Paul, the trans girls were all females - the difference was what made them his muses, I guess. And he did indeed make eh-peak photos of them all – beautiful photos. Paul is one of the best photographers I’ve ever known. He wasn’t a scriptwriter though and a few months later I got a call from him from the desert asking if I’d go and help with the script. When i arrived, I discovered a scene akin to the early pioneers of film, where there is spontaneous shooting with people leaning over the director’s shoulder with suggestions for lines. In Hollywood back in the early days, these people were called “gag men”. It was very free, probably too free. Sadly, it never got finished – though perhaps that was its proper form, I don’t know … note to self to ask Paul if I can watch it again. He asked if I wanted to come and help. When I arrived, I was handed a script to read and discovered they were having problems because there was no writer as such – it was coming about as a kind of group effort. Paul and Christine were the main writers, but all the girls had been contributing too, chipping in you might say. I thought at first that the whole script was a sort of arthouse collage of reference taken from music that was popular in that scene. I say this because it was definitely made up of Diana Ross quotes – no question. But it turned out that these lines were just the kind of things they wanted their characters to be saying – straight y’know. For instance: “Do you know what you’re going through? Do you like the things that life is showing you?” Well, that’s a Diana Ross quote, but they were like: “No it isn’t, Harland.” And yet it was. What can you say? So I said, panto style: “Yes it is.” They were like: “If you’re going be like this, Harland, then there’s really no point in you being here.”
But, yeah, that was fun. I was actually on a retainer with these guys, so it was like work too. Some galleries did this in the 1980s, like you would a baseball or soccer player. Pace, I think, did this. I got paid to produce, and was contracted to five more shows. Benjamin, meanwhile, had gone back to Paris and opened a gallery, so I went to do a show with him there, in accord with my contract, and decided to stay. That’s where I found the Penguin books.
JD: What does Penguin think of your paintings?
HM: They were planning to sue me for the longest time. I've forgotten all the legal rigmarole, but it was something to do with me bringing the brand into disrepute. It began with the Hemingway stuff I did: I’m So Fuckin Hard by Ernest Hemingway. They took exception to that. I knew about this threat of legal action long before they called, so when they did, it wasn’t a shock but it was a worry. They asked me to come in for a meeting at the main offices on the Strand in London. I thought: “Oh hell, here’s where they throw the book at me – literally.” They had many books to throw at me there. I went along with Jay [Jopling, Miller’s dealer], a friend and representative and, at that time, the closest thing I had to a lawyer. When we came into their top floor offices, they had laid on a lavish lunch. I thought: “Oh well, if you’re going to be sued, they at least go about it in a civilised way.” But, it turned out very differently. At this time the company was headed up by John Makinson, a cool guy who under the prompting of Stephen Fry had decided not to sue me but to get behind what I was doing and even to think about acquiring some of my work for their permanent collection. The lunch must have gone well because by the time we got out of the lift and back to the ground floor, they commissioned me to make works for all of their territories, of which there were 16 worldwide. When they were threatening to sue, I tried telling myself it was cool to be thought of as so subversive, but being brought into the company and given free rein of their archives in Bristol was a kind of heaven – I spent days in there. It’s a real treat to see all the original artwork and all the failed designs as well. It was terrific – and timely in a way, as it kind of brought the series round in a circle to my own first sketches for it. Also, Penguin Books is part of Penguin Random House now, so there’s a little bit of history too.
JD: So to your writing. Publicist Megan Newcome describes you as a writer’s artist and an artist’s writer. As your career develops, do you feel yourself leaning towards one or the other?
HM: Well, if you were paranoid, you could think you weren’t either. Or if you weren't paranoid, you could think you were both. I think I'm paranoid about this way of thinking about it, but I’d say that, right now, I feel more like an artist who has written a book and some journalism and short stories along the way, rather than a writer who paints. I think I can say with confidence that I am a frustrated writer and maybe I am holding on to that frustration because that is what is coming out in the paintings here. Most of the text in my work presents as a reference to literature and these are all potential titles for stories. I really like the short story genre, and I think of each one of these as a potential story, the title for a story that I could one day write, though I probably never will, which is a story in itself. But I have got a book of 16 short stories coming out. Here Comes Heartache Sixteen Coaches Long is coming to a bookshop not very near you, not very soon.
JD: Your first short story, First I was Afraid, I was Petrified, published in the same year as your novel Slow Down Arthur, Stick To Thirty in 2000 has really stayed with me. The layout of the book was great, with a picture of oven knobs on every page to convey the psychology of obsessive compulsive disorder. People are really into mindfulness but at the end of this story, where you are told to imagine your problems as a shape and colour, you choose the boomerang, thus as the book ends, your problems return to you. This made me laugh. You imply that having problems is part of your creative process.
HM: Yes, which is kind of what I was saying. I need that frustration which it all feeds into.
JD: Slow Down Arthur, Stick to Thirty features a brilliant character, a Ziggy Stardust impersonator. With David Bowie’s recent death and your mutual history and current show in Berlin, it is very interesting to hear your thoughts on the matter. Like Bowie, in the form of a large title and second smaller title, your work often masquerades as one thing, but is really something else. In each of your paintings, you seem to allude to characters you have created who could be part of a larger performance or plotline. What do you think of alter egos?
HM: My son was just asking me the other day about alter egos and rock. He had made a list of them and asked me about any other alter egos I knew of. His list was so comprehensive that the only other one I could think of at the time was my own, International Lonely Guy. I think I was trying to say that I don’t know why those people had alter egos but I know why I did.
JD: And why was that?
HM: When I came up with International Lonely Guy, my life was quite boring – lonely, anyway. I had gone to New York with, I mean, hell, I guess this idea of making it. However you would judge that idea of making it, I certainly wasn’t doing it on any level. In the early 90s, the transvestites used to take me to this 24-hour diner called the All Star Country Kitchen, where all the truckers used to eat. The meat trucks used to arrive in the middle of the night. When they parked their rigs and opened up the containers, you would get this blue refrigerator’s light spilling out of the backs of the refrigerated units and into the night, and it was like a bat signal to the Vietnam vets and the homeless, who lived under the 14th Street Bridge . They would appear wearing fatigues to unload the carcasses and they’d get paid in cash. In that way, money would come into the neighbourhood and slide around a bit: some truckers would turn tricks with the girls and they’d get cash too. Because I’d helped them out a few times in the past and they owed me, they started taking me for dinner to the the All Star Country Kitchen. Jerry, the guy who ran it, was an aspiring character, trying to keep a nice establishment, but he had truckers and prostitutes and artists there. On the wall, he’d hung a sign that said: “No profound language.” Obviously, he meant profane, but that word play appealed to me. You knew what he meant, he didn’t want bad language in his house, but it also suggested in a humorous way that he was down on deep thought – actually, he probably was. Anyway, when Jerry used to come over to take our order, one of the girls, Monet, would get everyone to speak in as loud and profound a way as possible and he still didn't get it. She was a frustrated writer too, trying to write short stories. I asked her what they were about and she said: “You know, all the girls, all the kinky sex.” And I used to say, you should write that, its going to be good. It’ll be a best seller … She never did, which is a shame as she was very funny. Anyway, Jerry would come over and he sort of knew something was going on and that his leg was being pulled, but he never worked it out. I’d go in there on my own and see the sign and always start trying to come up with this kind of word play, you know when you have something huge, a suggestion of profundity and offset it with something mundane. With international, like when you hear “international” it’s usually followed by something glamorous like departures or departure lounge. International … then, lonely guy, doesn’t follow … but it does. This alter ego came from the contradictory nature of Jerry’s sign. So then I started to write a sort of international lonely guy journal, in a hardboiled Raymond Chandler-esque style that elevated the mundane. That is where the coathanger paintings come from and the shavers only socket paintings and the mini bar paintings: they all come from the same experience of checking into another lonely hotel, which can make you feel almost suicidal really if you do too much of it, but if you photograph and document it, or make paintings of this, then that feeling goes away.
JD: Like Sophie Calle’s piece on hotels. I love that.
HM: Yeah, that’s great. They are great places to document because the shifts in hotel rooms are so subtle.
JD: They can feel like sets.
HM: You’re aware a thousand people have been there, but it’s yours at that time. You can’t imagine anyone having been there, any other play being played there, I think that’s why they feel like characters.
JD: I’d like to talk to you about the idea of the glamorous, or an attempt to create glamour. In Slow Down Arthur, what caught my imagination is that scene where you go into a charity shop and dress up in a suit and try to leave with all the tags on. Your work often touches on the creation of an act or a look.
HM: I think it’s to do with escapism more than glamour itself or anything exotic. Escapism through changing your image in a way and your imagination just not accepting the reality that’s around you. So you create an illusion, the most expedient means of creating an illusion to live in is to change your appearance, which sort of signals a rejection of society norms. As a young person doing this with limited funds, you inevitably end up looking strange. And maybe that was right. I guess it was much easier back then to look strange, and look like you didn’t belong. And there was Bowie, of course.
My protagonist was doing all those things, living by romantic principles that didn't even exist, but still served to reject his reality. I felt the brim of his fedora was a form of psychic protection, not a styling detail, if that’s not too fancy, too far. It was the same thing with the International lonely guy character, and a lot of guys identify with that character in quite a romantic way, which is a surprise. I remember in the 1950s, there was a famous ad for Strand cigarettes. I don’t actually remember it because I wasn't born but, for a while, I was really interested in commercial art. I took lectures with this guy called Andy Connawalker, who sadly passed away, gone to the big lecture theatre in the sky, and he was showing slides about ad campaigns that had failed. I thought, maybe this isn’t such a good business for me to go into because I like all the ones that have failed and, according to Andy’s lecture, the one that I really really liked for Strand cigarettes was the biggest failure of all: “You’re never alone with a Strand.” That apparently was an advertising disaster because it suggested if you were on your own, you were a loser:forget the cigarettes, buster, you are alone. But to me it conjured up a billion other images of guys in old cine reels, that gave me that third man feeling, Vienna, romantic rubbish. I love that it means nothing to me, it actually means a lot to me. And Bowie was kind of introducing this stuff that people were so into in the 80s. So that fed into the novel as well.
JD: Did you meet Bowie?
HM: I didn’t, no. I obviously loved his work and everything and then I had written this book. When I was a kid growing up, I know it sounds ludicrous but I never thought he was real. I never thought there was a chance of meeting him. There might have been the opportunity to see him in a huge arena. Celebrity is so accessible now. Then, celebrities didn’t look like the guy next door. Well, some of them did, but not the ones I wanted to meet. Bowie didn’t even look like he lived in a house. Arthur Banockburn AKA Ziggy Hero in Slow Down Arthur was much more real than Bowie was. That’s where his appeal came from.
JD: The book reminded me a trip I took to Edinburgh where I met the art students who wanted to experience new things and who existed in this big sprawling group in this old town.
HM: Edinburgh and York have very similar parts of town: there is a historical element and a townie element, rough blokes. You needed the one to react to the other – without that, there would have been no book. I wrote it looking back fondly and almost as entertainment for myself. I wasn’t making much art at the time, if any. Logistically, when I got back to England, painting, this kind of painting was out O.U.T. Nobody wanted to look at it, nobody wanted to show it, curate it, talk about it. People regarded you as a curiosity, a relic, and I had a studio and an assistant and all that to keep going with no interest or support. I found it more expedient to get up in the morning and just write. I had a typewriter in the corner of my bedroom. I used to get out of bed, walk three steps, sit down and write. It was so much easier to do a day’s work in the morning and all it cost you was 75p for some paper and a typewriter ribbon. In a way, when I finished it, I thought, what can I do it with it now? I imagined it would be serialised into a fanzine and sold in shops like X Clothes in Leeds. So when I got this big offer from the publisher I was surprised. It was the largest advance for a first-time writer. I thought that was great, but then that became a story in a way that was bigger than the book. For the book, it was a disaster but still a lot of people got a hold of it. And about Bowie, when I would go out, people would say: “Hey, I read your book and I sent it to David.” I’d say: “David who?” They'd say: “Bowie, of course.” And you’d realise this person had done his video, or interviewed him, or done his hair, and they’d all sent him a copy. He must have got about 50 fucking copies, and I had this vision of him getting his mail at breakfast and going through it and opening another copy of Slow Down Arthur and throwing it at the wall and never reading it. I wanted to call him up and say: “It’s not about you.” I had a feeling that while he liked people appreciating his work, he wasn’t connected to fans like a Bruce Springsteen is – a guy who loves his fans. Bowie, I felt, was a guy who loved to work with other artists and made work for them. In a way like he was the fan, he wasn’t looking at people who were impressed by him, I think he probably thought it was an homage.
JD: Which it really isn’t. He’s a symbol, a vessel through which someone is expressing something else.
HM: Yeah, I should have put that on the cover rather than “electrifyingly funny”, which is always going to put you off – it would me anyway. So, no, I never got to meet him. When they sold the film rights, DNA got it – who made Trainspotting. They told me they knew Bowie because he had done the music for Trainspotting. So then there was this idea – there is a character who appears in the last chapter when Ziggy and Kid get lost and go to this guy’s caravan. We thought that Bowie could play that guy.
JD: A central theme in First I was Afraid, I was Petrified is obsessive compulsive disorder. To end your story, you use a John Huston quote – “An action packed movie to me is a mind in turmoil.” It made me think about the similarities between OCD and creativity, and the space between compulsion and paralysis. What inspires you to keep making new work?
HM: That might be in the earlier question. The boomerang thing, holding on to your problems. Inspiration comes from frustration. That’s positive messaging for you, though I’m not trying to diss positive messaging.
JD: There is something uplifting in their pessimism.
HM: Yes, if they strike you that way – it’s a matter of how they strike you. They're personal – it’s back to that. I knew an Irish writer who said: “If in doubt when you’re interviewing someone, go personal. It works most of the time.” He meant go personal about yourself and that will open things up and I liked the sound of that. I think that’s what I have been doing without knowing it.
JD: Where do you get your inspiration?
HM: You are an endless source of inspiration, because you are alive and experiencing stuff everyday. In terms of aphorisms and maxims, even if you are experiencing nothing, you can make something out of that. You’ve probably realised throughout this interview, why use 10 words when 20 will do. I find it hard to write short stories. Whenever I start to write a short story, it becomes a novella. If I were to write a novella, it would be war and peace – in length, anyway. Brevity is no strength of mine, and yet the strength of these paintings rests on brevity and so that’s a real challenge for me. A lot of my work is qualified with a subtext, it’s a writer’s thing. It’s a theatrical quality. There is a subtext, which is Brechtian. That is what is so good about the titles with the secondary title.
JD: Where did you live in Berlin?
HM: I had some dodgy places to live in. I met this woman called Gudrun Bunger in a bar I frequented, opposite my studio. The bar was called Monica’s, after the owner, and both Monica and Gudrun looked like Liza Minnelli. Gudrun was the widow of Bertold Brecht’s official biographer. Obviously they’d been good “party members” and had a huge apartment and Gudrun’s only son, Johanes, was about to leave home and move in with his girlfriend, so Gudrun was going to be left in this sprawling apartment on her own … so Monica said to her: “Gudrun, Herr Miller is looking for a place to live. Johanes is moving in with his girlfriend in the west, so this could be good for you, good for him.” As I was a regular, I’d told Monica that I was at that time living in an unofficial safe house for underage runaway prostitutes. I didn’t qualify to be there on any score.
JD: Was that harrowing?
HM: Was it harrowing? Yeah, it probably was in a way. No, I mean it was, of course it was, but it’s funny how you accept situations when you are in them. I was a little desperate myself looking for a place to live, and Fergus, a friend I was sharing the studio with, said: “I know someone who’ll fix you up old bean.” He spoke like that, so he took me to this unofficial safe house. He hadn't exactly told me that’s what it was. I only really realised that when we arrived. It became clear that to get a room in the house I had to go through a vetting process. This took place in the kitchen, which was narrow and freezing and there was nowhere to sit. Michael, who ran the place, had this one girl with him the whole time – someone he’d obviously rescued and who wouldn’t let him out of her sight. She was probably very damaged and had good reason to hate men – apart from Michael that is. She was protective of him and suspicious of me and Fergus. She had this very blunted-off expression and didn’t acknowledge us at all. It was winter and brutal and she was in a high-cut skimpy bomber jacket and low-slung jeans. She was sitting on a chair backwards with her arms folded over the chair back in a method acting style and, as my mum would say, “showing all her midriff”. I was, meanwhile, wearing a vest jumper coat and hat and I was still shivering my way through this vetting process, and Fergus with this ridiculous fur coat on and Kitchener moustache was doing his best to promote the flow of conversation but it wasn’t going well. Michael and the girl were quite monosyllabic and focused on getting a joint together. Fergus was pacing. I had heaved myself up on to the draining board by the sink, the tap dripping cold water – it was the only place to sit, and I was thinking I have got to get out of here. It had a strange load of graffiti – everywhere you looked it said “Burn Russia.” Everywhere! If it was a wooden surface, it would be carved in to it. It was finger written into the dirt on the window panes. Obviously one of the runaway girls had a grudge against Russia and this was her mantra. She was a talented artist and as well as the casual graffiti she had also spray painted murals of St Petersburg on fire. I got handed this joint and took a drag of it, just to show willing – to be honest, I didn't really want to get out of it at 11am – but I took a few drags and handed it back and, for something to say, said: “That’s a good vibe.” I would have forgotten I said precisely this, but for the memory of Michael taking the joint back from me and saying in his very serious German accent: “Yes, and I am getting a good vibe from you too my friend.” And that was it, I was in. I was given this really cold room, but it did have one of these amazing spray paint murals of St Petersburg on fire complete with the old Burn Russia legend underneath. I told myself it was only a stop-gap.
I spent as little time there as possible. There was a club I used to frequent called 90 Degrees, it was a fun gay club. I was probably attracted to the idea of heat implicit in the club’s name. I used to get home from there around 4am, always really drunk, and then I’d just fall into some alcoholic coma. I remember I woke up one time with water jetting on to me. As I was coming to, the streetlight lit up the silhouette of a man. I thought it was a leak and the man was a plumber or it was Michael, but I quickly realised that it was neither and the man was pissing on me. I leapt up and started shouting. The man was a drunk or a bum who had just wandered in off the street. I assumed that when I’d come in I hadn’t closed the door behind me properly, which was a real no-no, because security was a huge thing in the house. Anyway, I got him out the door and slammed it shut, but it just bounced right back at me. The lock had been wrenched off and the bolts too, the wood was all splintered. I started sobering up fast then and noticed that the windows were smashed and there were other signs of destruction. I thought, Jesus what’s going on; because the people in this house were paranoid and frightened people – hearing the racket I’d just been making, they would have been locking themselves in their rooms or coming out on to the landing with makeshift weapons to defend themselves, but there was no noise, no sound at all. I went back upstairs calling out for Michael, but he didn’t answer. His door was open and his room had been ransacked. I knocked on the girl’s rooms, but they weren't there either – their doors were smashed open like the front door and their were completely trashed.
What had happened was that the pimps who ran the girls had raided the safe house. They’d either taken everyone away – or as many as they could and everyone else had fled, including Michael. I don’t know what had happened to him, I really don’t. You asked if it was harrowing in the safe house. It was, but the aftermath of that night was truly harrowing. I still feel disturbed when I think back on it – and also realise that I’d narrowly missed being involved in it. That’s when I started to empathise with the reality of that situation. That’s when I got Monica at the bar, to look out for a new place for me to live and she introduced me to Gudrun, who took me to show me the room, which was just off Rosenthaler Strasse in the Hackesche Höfe.
The room was covered in Brecht playbills. She was standing by the door, anxiously looking at me looking at the room. Later, someone explained to me that if you were a “Wessie” (a westerner), “Ossies” (people from the East) worried that their homes … they thought that you thought you were better than them. Well, I certainly wasn’t used to better than this. I said I’d take it, but Gudrun said I had to wait two weeks. I used to go to the bar everyday, and I would see Gudrun there with her son. I must have been slow on the uptake because everyday they came to the bar covered in paint – that speckled effect you get when you use a roller. I just never twigged that during these two weeks I’d been waiting to move in they had been wallpapering over the Brecht posters – with woodchip wallpaper, which was particularly sought after in the east apparently – and then they had painted it white.
As I was going up the stairs, I could smell the fresh paint. And there was this white woodchip room. Instead of the Brecht room that I had hoped to find, it was this room that reminded me of a bed and breakfast place in Scarborough. I lived with Gudrun for a good year and a bit. She was very interesting about life in the old East.
I tried to find her last time I was in Berlin, but her neighbours told me that she’d been very ill and had left the apartment and they didn't know where she had gone. But I wish her well, wherever she is. If a fragment of the press I'm doing for the show reaches her or her son, I would love them to get in touch and they can do so via Blain Southern which is at 77 Potsdamer Strasse.
JD: Did you document your different times? You remember it so well.
HM: Yes, I did. In Berlin, I’d started writing a diary. It was around the time my dad was losing his marbles.
JD: I read that he believed in the power of storytelling / conversation?
HM: Yes, he did, which is why when he got this degenerative illness, losing the power of speech or of making any sense, it was a real tragedy for him. My dad had lots of sayings as well; he was like a self-styled communist, and would always be saying “No wonder the Russians think we’re decadent” about everything. He was full of contradictions, though: for instance, he switched me on to Jackson Pollock, he loved abstract expressionism, trying to paint the subconscious, which would seem to be the very opposite of state-sanctioned art glorifying the whole. I mean he worked in a factory so he had a belly full of that. He began to write to me, dispensing with formality – no Dear Harland or anything, he began straight in: “Not being a qualified pathologist, I’d say the man lying by the side of the road had been dead for two hours, and the mountain to the right, the mountains of Rue were capped with snow, and not being a qualified pathologist, I remember Lily who played the piano so attractively,” he would go on with this almost “cut up” William Burroughs narrative, repetitive as well, because he would forget obviously. I heard someone say, it’s kind of like a stripping away, like an onion, he can’t remember what he did yesterday but he can remember the war. He was an engineer on these flying boats they stationed on the planes in Scotland called Catalinas. He wasn't flying them, he was fixing them, I think, I don’t know exactly. I guess that is where he was in his head when he wrote about the Mountains of Rue being snowcapped and unbeknownst to him I had my binoculars trained on the captain of a submarine as he came through the narrows. I thought it was maybe reality muddled up with films or cheap novels – did we have subs in Scotland? I don't know. I never asked. They were all these things I’d never heard him speak of. It was weird that he was writing to me in Berlin about these planes that may well have flown missions over Berlin – over the house where I was receiving my mail. I couldn't call him and ask him who this dead man was he'd discovered by the roadside because you had to book a phone call with the east German exchange. Even if I could have called him and asked:, “What’s all this with this dead bloke?”, he would have forgotten by then. He wouldn’t have understand what I was referring to. I thought if had kept diaries, these memories wouldn't be lost, so I started to keep diaries in case I went the same way. And I wrote about what was happening in a very detailed way, which is probably how come I remember it all.
• Harland Miller: Tonight We Make History (PS. I Can’t Be There) is at Blain Southern, Berlin, until 30 July 2016.