Luke Fowler interview: Up close and personal

AWARD-WINNING artist Luke Fowler has gone through the keyhole with a fascinating film insight into the different lives and stories unfolding within the walls of a Glasgow tenement, writes Moira Jeffrey

THE artist Luke Fowler and I meet in his tenement flat. It is a sunny evening and the light streams on to the kitchen table. The view of Glasgow from the top floor on one of the highest streets in the city's West End is stunning. We're eating toasted Chelsea buns and drinking tea with such enthusiasm that when I play back our interview the first half of our conversation is overshadowed by munching and slurping.

Tea and toast in a tenement. It's pretty ordinary Glaswegian stuff, going on in thousands of homes across the city, but Fowler has translated mundane tenement life into visual poetry, to be broadcast on mainstream television next week.

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His four new short films Anna, Helen, David and Lester will be aired in Channel 4's Three-Minute Wonder slot from April 20. They're set in the West End close Fowler has just moved on from.

Each film is an elusive visual portrait of an individual tenement dweller, but instead of conventional documentary the films light on the tiny textural details of tenement life: light moving across a room, dust on a sill. Outside are the serried ranks of red sandstone, inside a hidden domestic world glimpsed obliquely. "It's about these very uniform outsides and what's going on inside: the layers of time in the flats, in all the furniture and the fittings. When I made the films I was fascinated by how completely different every flat was, yet it's the same light that goes through all the windows, the same street noise."

The 31-year-old, who grew up in a tenement and returned to one as soon as he left the "Barratt home" he shared at art college in Dundee, is fascinated by the hidden nature of life in a close. "In tenements we have to live with each other but we often don't need to have much to do with each other. There are these very basic tacit rules, say, that you don't throw your rubbish in the close. The way that you actually experience people is through the noise that you hear through the walls. When I lived there I was listening to all this completely weird far-out music. They must have been thinking 'what is he doing in there because that sounded like a plane lifting off'. Meanwhile, I'm lying in bed trying to get to sleep, constructing all these narratives from the noise I'm hearing."

He didn't know all his neighbours well when he knocked on their doors and asked if he could film them. "The tenement has been there for 100 years, some of the tenants for 40 years, some like me for just five. I tried to get to know these people better through this act. This is what I do, what do you do? As an artist you have exhibitions to show people what you've been up to. You don't just hoard it away. I think art is essentially about the relationship between people."

The relationships between people and the thorny question of what drives them emotionally and creatively have led to a remarkable series of films by Fowler about artistic and social experiments including unconventional portraits of the Scottish psychiatrist RD Laing, the idealistic English composer Cornelius Cardew and the elusive rock musician Xentos Jones.

The Channel 4 commission is part of Fowler's 2008 Derek Jarman award. Co-sponsored by Film London, the award recognises work in the risk-taking spirit of the late avant-garde filmmaker. The judges, who included the artist Isaac Julien and the writer Ali Smith, singled out Fowler's "vision and ambition".

"The recognition for a body of work is quite incredible," he says. "You are your own harshest critic and I didn't think I'd ever really produced anything of significance. People in Glasgow have always been very reserved with feedback. They don't want you to get a big head."

But if his local peers remain tight-lipped, his international reputation is already assured. He shows with Glasgow's Modern Institute, had a major museum show recently in Zurich and on May 7 will open a solo show at London's prestigious Serpentine Gallery.

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He grew up in a West End tenement, his parents were both academics, and he became immersed in the alternative music scene. He has a band, Rude Pravo, currently "so sporadic as to be almost non-existent", and runs a bedroom record label Shadazz.

He came to prominence with his film 'What You See Is Where You're At', drawing on archive footage of RD Laing's Kingsley Hall therapeutic experiment, where conventional hierarchies between psychiatrist and patient were broken down. He had already been drawn to Laing ("as a Glaswegian he's part of our intellectual heritage") when his sister suggested looking at Kingsley Hall.

"Then things started to happen in my family – breakdowns – and the subject became a way of seeking solace, although it would be disingenuous to say it was just that. I had been looking at similar issues in my work, social experiments and art and life started to blur and break down."

His struggle to come to terms with his own father's psychiatric treatment affected his work. "Something that I had been looking at, a reference point in my work, suddenly became quite pertinent and round about that time my Dad died. There was a very critical attitude towards the kind of psychiatric institutions we had been encountering in the family, and I was feeling angry. The piece came out of a kind of angry research."

His early films were characterised by deep immersion in his subject and the hard work he says he was "programmed" for as a child. "I saw my mum working from when I got home. She'd make the dinner and she'd continue to sit in the kitchen, write, mark papers and research until way after we'd gone back again. There were no breaks, she only watched the television if she was doing the ironing at the same time."

The new films are remarkably different in tone – short, diaristic and intimate – but they are no less driven by ideals. "A lot of what's on Channel 4 now is either about aspiration, humiliation or sensation. There's a very patronising, condescending view of people's intelligence. I wanted to give a space for people to think about these small phenomenal things that happen in their own lives, rather than escapism."

Luke Fowler's Anna, Helen, David and Lester will premiere on Channel 4 over four consecutive nights at 7.55pm from Monday April 20.