Joanna Hogg's third feature film, Exhibition, 2013, beautifully describes both the working and personal relationship between two married, childless, mid-career artists, 'D' played by former Slits singer Viv Albertine and 'H' played by artist Liam Gillick, as they negotiate the shared physical and emotional space of their creative lives. Set largely within the characters' home, a very particular modernist London house, the insecurities and complexities of their relationship to each other, and to their own creativity, are heightened through the contradictory emotions they go through as they initiate the process of selling the house - the container for their shared life but also a space from which they now need to move on.
ArtReview: There are almost three main characters in the film – the artist couple (D and H) and the house in which they live, designed by architect James Melvin. What is the story behind the house and what is its particular significance for you?
Joanna Hogg: I met James and Elsa Melvin in the early 1990’s through a childhood friend. Their home immediately struck me – there was a warmth and sensuality in its mid-century modernism. Melvin had built the house in 1969 for himself and his wife after their children had grown up. His architectural practice Gollins Melvin Ward designed mostly commercial buildings like the central campus of Sheffield University and Castrol House on Marylebone Road, but this was a rare example of a private dwelling.
When I was conceiving Exhibition, I thought of the Melvin’s house as a perfect location for my ideas. I saw the house as a sponge that could absorb my ideas about creativity and relationships – a container for all the complexity and contradiction I wanted to express. Its modernism seemed like the perfect arena for my chamber play of encounter and emotion; it’s uncluttered and clear and has a theatricality about it. It becomes a stage for D and H’s interior worlds but also acts as a fortification against the crazy world outside.
By the time we made the film the house had undergone a redesign by Berlin architects Sauerbruch Hutton. In the mid 1990’s they added details like the pink sliding doors and wooden floors to replace the white thick pile carpets of the original. I think their additions only added to the theatricality and sensuality of the space in the film.
AR: Neither of your two leads – former Slits singer Viv Albertine and artist Liam Gilick are actors – you have known Albertine for some time but didn’t know Gillick before casting. Why work with non actors and why these two in particular?
JH: It is a challenge to represent artists in cinema. I didn’t want actors to play at being artists – it had to be real and come from within. Like it or not, the work that D is creating, is literally unfolding as we watch her. Viv is in a creative trance, forgetting the camera is there. She isn’t acting, she’s doing. It’s a process of exploration and discovery. Creativity is a turn-on and it was an ambiguity between what is her work and what is her life, that I wanted to explore.
I met actors, dancers, artists, real-life couples, but no one felt right or inspired me. I wanted to find two strong personalities who could embody the rational versus instinctive dynamic I had conceived. I had planned for my couple to live in the house and get to know each other before filming, but I found Viv and Liam at the last possible moment. They had to get to know each other as the film was being shot. It added a tension and a reality to the film. It’s risky but very exciting.
AR: What is it about the creative artist couple that interested you in making them your central characters?
It is difficult maintaining a relationship whilst developing a fulfilling creative life. There have been times when my creativity has suffered and I have allowed my husband’s work to take precedence. Now we have established a better balance but it is always changing and there’s always an element of push me pull you. Any relationship has this, especially between two artists.
But it's a mistake to read the film as autobiography. It is personal but I am also exploring my imagination. I am interested in dreams and memory and representing a more fragmented perception of life.
AR: Their personal relationship in the film is incredibly nuanced, natural and believable. How did you go about creating that?
JH: Viv and Liam lived in the house during the shoot and it was also filmed in chronological order. This gave them continuity in both a practical and an emotional sense. It also means I can adapt the process as I go along. I can change the storyline or invent new ideas to connect to the reality in front of me. Anything that happens can be used. The road works outside the house weren’t planned by us, so we had to make it part of the story. The film shoot becomes the container for the ideas and I give myself the freedom to change my mind at any time.
AR: It's very difficult to portray artists on screen, The dialogue between H and D, in relation to each other and each other’s work, does convince. How tightly scripted was it and did Gillick or Albertine write or improvise any of their own dialogue?
JH: The document I write for my films is more like a novella. It is a very detailed description of the story illustrated by photographs. It has dialogue, but more in the style of the dialogue you find in a novel. Viv and Liam never saw this document. They were brave enough to agree to my plan without really knowing it. But as the filming progressed I began to write some of the scenes in more detail. Sometimes half an hour before shooting a particular scene, I would show them what I had written. Not long enough for them to learn the lines and start worrying about it, but giving them a clear map of what I wanted – then I allowed them to interpret the scene in their own words and bring to it their individual experiences.
But really what I have just described is a simplification of my process – it changes from day to day and I’m constantly challenging perceived ideas of how to make a film.
AR: There are passages in the film without much dialogue but not without sound – birdsong, trees rustling in the wind, children playing in the distance, traffic, roadworks, rain, a dog barking, car alarms, all seem heightened. Why give sound such an important emphasis?
JH: I am hyper aware of sounds in everyday life. My ears work harder than my eyes. I am fascinated by how imagination is triggered by sound. This can also create anxiety - often an un-nameable anxiety because there is no eyewitness to these stories. It was these ideas I wanted to express inside D’s head. The house is sponge-like not only visually but also aurally. A sound coming from outside the house, like a door closing or a person speaking, can appear to be coming from within the house. At night this can be frightening for D.
It is challenging to try and express what I perceive through my own ears. I work with a brilliant sound designer Jovan Ajder, and together we experiment. With Exhibition we worked hard at creating a kind of musique concrète out of the natural sounds.
AR: There are strong narrative elements in the film but also scenes and images that could relate to dreams, thoughts or flashbacks. How much is that to do with portraying a sense of the characters’ inner as much as outer worlds?
JH: I was trying to push my imagination further. I wanted the film to make less sense and to work on a more unconscious level. So the connections would be more free associated and less linear. I wanted to go further into dream-like territory and the connections between different levels of reality, and by doing this make it possible for the audience to get inside the character’s head.
AR: Much of the imagery is seen through reflections. In what ways does that also relate to a sense of inside/outside, natural/urban and personal/private space?
JH: It is a house of projections or even a house of cinema itself. It forces you to look inside. You can be looking out towards the garden, but then your gaze is forced inwards with a reflection of yourself sitting on a chair suspended in a tree – the house directs you inside. This house/film has a fluid relationship between interior and exterior but also between man/woman and house. I was inspired by Jean-Luc Godard’s depiction of Casa Malaparte in Le Mepris but also by Louise Bourgeois’ Femme Maison series, and I tried to find ways to turn my film into the embodiment of this idea of home as refuge and temple but also prison.
AR: At the end of the film the house has new occupants - a family with children. Do you know who lives in the actual house now, and whether it still exists as it did in the film?
JH: When I make a film I throw so much into it. Not all of it I understand. I don’t watch my films after I’ve made them and I don’t revisit the locations either. A house has it’s own life and I have to move on. It’s like shedding a skin. I lose track of what is fiction and what is reality. Maybe this house doesn’t exist at all.