London-based artist Tan Gillies’ book is a deeply personal and sprawling exploration on domestic abuse, trauma, and mental health
Each winter, the crosses that inhabit the sprawling cemeteries of Iceland are illuminated as a mark of respect for the dead. “I’ve always found it very comforting and beautiful, and it makes me feel close to my family and friends that are buried there,” reflects Tan Gillies. His new film Trauma Hurts takes place in west Iceland, a healing and mystical landscape that serves as the backdrop for a hypnotic stream of consciousness, where Gillies grapples with thoughts on sobriety, mental health, and domestic violence. Pulled from his own personal experiences of addiction, the film pulls from the past, connecting the thick and foggy memories to move towards a more hopeful future.
To accompany the release of the film, Gillies is launching a second run of his book Cold Bones, originally released last year. With an additional 30 unseen pages, and a new foreword, the London-based artist and writer offers an unflinching look at unresolved trauma and the dark world of addiction.
Below, we speak to Gillies on the launch of Trauma Hurts and Cold Bones, his experiences in Iceland, and his hopes for the future.
Why was writing Cold Bones important to you?
Tan Gillies: I wouldn’t say I really ‘wrote’ it, it was more something that just happened naturally over time without me knowing I was doing it. Most of the actual writing in it was torn out of notebooks from years back that I have kept, more often than not scribbled down whilst in various states of intoxication as a form of therapy to try and work through the horrific things that would play out in my mind. It’s a scrapbook really, photos, paintings, documents, ramblings – just a cluster fuck of stuff that I had created and kept over the years.
I didn’t really think about it too much at the time as I was still using, but I think it was also subconsciously a massive cry for help. It’s very hard to still tell people you don’t have a problem when you’ve printed a book that looks like this. Something had to give in my life, I needed a change, I needed to do something drastic, symbolically burn the bridges to my old life and go into something else.
My whole life I always felt like I should be making art or making music full time – it always bugged me, and I just about got the satisfaction from graffiti, at least I mean I had a frantic outlet to create and destroy at night but it wasn’t enough. I now know I need to be making shit full time 24/7, and even that isn’t enough time. It might sound ridiculous but I feel like my life purpose is to create things with no parameters. I take photos, I write shit, I paint, I’ve made jewellery, I’ve made clothes, I’ve made a film, I want to make music at some point. I see zero restrictions in terms of how I can output my feelings these days. Life is short so I’m just doing what I love full time from now on.
What messages do you want to convey in Cold Bones?
Tan Gillies: The message is warning and then, hopefully, hope. That you can go through some mad shit and make it out the other side. Life is crazy and childhood trauma can manifest itself in so many sketchy and dangerous behaviours as you get older.
I’ve buried or cremated way too many close friends who lived a very similar life to me, and I myself have been far too close to dying too many times due to my chaotic coping mechanisms. But what I’ve found out is there is another way, it took me a long long time to figure out what that was and that’s clearly evident in the book.
It may seem in the book that I’m an out-and-out junkie, but what’s in there could easily be your son or brother who you think is maybe just partying a bit too much. I hid the degree of my using successfully for a long time. Operating within society, I went to work most days and then lay in bed praying not to overdose at night. Drug use is beyond normalised in pretty much every social circle – especially in London.
What do you hope people take away from it?
Tan Gillies: I hope people start talking about things more openly, from mental health to abuse to drug addiction. I think that things have gotten better in this area in the last 20 years but they could get much better still. Domestic violence and abuse is not acceptable in any shape or form and the repercussions from early trauma on children can be very dark. Around 50 women were murdered in the first lockdown in the UK at the hands of male abusers alone and that number is actually probably much higher in reality.
My mum was hospitalised several times and my dad had a criminal record for domestic violence and was well-known by the police for violence against my mum, but nothing was done to protect her or us in those times. She is very lucky to be alive today. If I can help prevent that from happening to someone else then it will all be worth it. There is lots of really good support out there such as Crossroads Women’s Centre in Kentish Town, a place of safety for vulnerable and low-income women of all backgrounds run by some incredible women I am extremely lucky to have in my life.
“I see zero restrictions in terms of how I can output my feelings these days. Life is short so I’m just doing what I love full time from now on” – Tan Gillies
What was the process like when writing the book?
Tan Gillies: At the start of 2020, my ex-girlfriend had gone to rehab and there were a lot of eyes on me to maybe do the same, which I wasn’t prepared to do at the time. But I did really try to stay semi clean for about six weeks, during which I was just ripping pages out of notebooks, looking through old phones for photos, printing things off, laying it all over the floor of my then studio, and just making a mad book like some possessed person.
(When the book) came out and I nose dived badly, the first lockdown arrived. As an addict, isolation is one of the worst things that can happen to you. I was just using every day in my flat, spiraling down deeper using different dissociative drugs, wormholing on nostalgia, and going quite mad really.
The height of the first lockdown was when people’s addictions were skyrocketing, and domestic violence was through the roof. So, it made perfect sense that the book came out when it did. People were messaging me and I saw the power in it in those moments. Honest conversations started but I couldn’t really continue them too much the way I was living then.
I knew I had done something good for myself. I didn’t quite know what to do next but that did eventually become clear. Now, as I sit here alive and well, I’m very proud and grateful of the journey that got me here. After I went to rehab, got clean, and started to piece things back together again, I had a chance meeting with Rough Trade and they said they wanted to put it out again, but properly this time. I went to work on the new pages and with a clearer vision of how it might help myself and others in the future who have relatable stories.
Could you tell us a bit about the unseen pages and foreword in this edition?
Tan Gillies: The foreword was needed this time, I don’t think it was initially but now I got to explain myself a little bit and give some context to the book and my journey. Reflect and show gratitude for the people that helped me when I was at my worst.
How does the book comment on mental health in young men? Why was it important to highlight this?
Tan Gillies: The whole thing is a snapshot of mental health. If I look back at my life and my friends’ lives we have all been so fucked from so young, just doing our best to medicate ourselves and navigate our ways through what is a essentially a fucking minefield of pressures, traumas, and triggers, using whatever external thing we could get our hands on.
As a kid, things happen around you that you have no control over. You take this stuff on whether you know it or not and it comes back to get you if you don’t address it properly. There should be mandatory mental health classes in all schools. It’s fucking bizarre that there isn’t we need to start educating the next generation that it’s normal to talk about this stuff ASAP.
Could you tell us what inspired your film, Trauma Hurts?
Tan Gillies: After my dad died in the first lockdown, I managed to get out to Iceland to see my mum and sister. I was trying to detox and set up a mini studio in my uncle’s boat house in the harbour of my mum’s village, just painting weird stuff and messing around. Somewhere in that time, I decided I wanted to make a piece of moving image based on what Iceland meant to me growing up and how it saved me and my sister in many ways.
My dad was very abusive to my mum when we were growing up. A horrible bully and very violent you know, he wasn’t really around much as he was a touring musician but when he was he just drank and completely terrorised my mum. But my mum is fucking amazing and she got through it somehow she has more strength than anyone I know. It was pretty fucked up. Obviously growing up in that kind of an environment is traumatic. But, to be honest, I never really thought of it like that too much. Trauma Hurts came out of that really, to put those thoughts down like that and analyse really how I was feeling about it all clean for the first time and just cling on to creating shit whilst I recalibrated to life clean and sober.
“The more time I get away from those days, the more I see how the truth really does set you free, and that it is possible to change how you view the world and your past experiences for the better“ – Tan Gillies
What was the process like of making the film?
Tan Gillies: After that first time in Iceland, I came home to London and just fell straight back into all the shit I was doing before, so I wasn’t in a good way at all. But I managed to convince my very good friend Will Robson Scott to come back to Iceland with me for 11 days just to mess around and take photos so I could try and film some stuff. He lent me an old Hi8 camera and we just drove around Iceland camping, drinking beers, and taking mushrooms. I really thought that was going to be enough footage but it became clear it was nowhere near enough.
After I got clean, I went back on my own and spent five days in the winter driving around all the mad cemeteries on the west of Iceland in the freezing cold, shooting the lit-up crosses, which is something that happens at Christmas to show respect for the dead. I then wrote the narrative back in London, I had no idea what I wanted to say and the more I thought about it the harder it was. Then one day, it just came out and I didn’t even edit after I scribbled it down.
Why was it important to focus on Iceland and London?
Tan Gillies: My mum is Icelandic and I grew up in and around London. It looks at that juxtaposition of chaos and safety that I had as a child, but never noticed until much later in my life. I love London and I love Iceland so to be able to make a piece of work that reflects that is amazing.
When I was a kid my mum would take us to Iceland every summer to see my grandmother and uncles and cousins. She was a single mum so wherever she went we had to go too. I remember as I got into my teens and started to be out in the evenings, I really resented that I would have to go there for six weeks in the summer holidays. I just wanted to be in the park smoking weed, skating, and chasing girls with my mates. But once I was there, I always loved it and it was a huge part in forming the person I am now. I feel like the good side of me is the Icelandic side. It’s truly a magical place. Something happens to me when I am there, my energy shifts.
What have you taken away from the project?
Tan Gillies: I feel lighter in myself and more calm. It’s been amazing to be able to throw myself into this and try and process the grief from the losses in the last year. I feel like I got a lot of shit off my chest and I really love that so many people have started to talk to me about the issues that the book and film raise. The more time I get away from those days, the more I see how the truth really does set you free, and that it is possible to change how you view the world and your past experiences for the better. I feel extremely blessed to be not only alive but doing what I love right now.
What are you looking forward to in the future?
Tan Gillies: Really just living clean, enjoying time with my family and friends, and making art with honesty. I have an amazing studio and I paint pretty much every day, which helps me massively at the moment. I will be showing some of my studio work at some point in the near future, but for now, I’m genuinely happy just focusing on the process and trying not to project too much into the future.
I want to keep trying to raise awareness around domestic violence and abuse, and hopefully do more work around the Benzodiazepine epidemic in the UK and beyond.
You can purchase Cold Bones on the Rough Trade website
Trauma Hurts is screening at Everyman Cinema on June 30