‘To be a Scotsman receiving a French award in Germany—it keeps people guessing’

Douglas Gordon explains why he asked to receive France’s highest honour in Berlin


At a ceremony held this week at the French Embassy in Berlin, the Scottish artist Douglas Gordon formally accepted France’s highest cultural honour, the Commandeur des Arts et des Lettres. The globetrotting artist also took the opportunity to speak out about his concerns about the political situation in Europe, as well as express his surprise at receiving the title, first given to him in 2012.

The timing of the ceremony was crucial for Gordon, who wanted to receive the award while the current French administration under President François Hollande was still in power. The artist confessed to having “a bit of anxiety” about the forthcoming elections in April. The turmoil surrounding Britain’s exit from the European Union “has obviously made a big difference to the stability of Europe,” he told The Art Newspaper, “and if a larger country like France makes a similar move, then that really is a step into the unknown”.

The Glassgow-born, but Berlin- and Paris-based artist says he has a long relationship with France, citing the early influence of French film-makers such as François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Éric Rohmer, but the choice of location for the ceremony was “a tough one”. Gordon travels to Scotland several times a year, including for political events such as the Scottish Independence and Brexit votes, so he considered accepting the medal in Paris, London, or Scotland. In the end, Gordon preferred Berlin. “To be a Scotsman receiving a French award in Germany—it keeps people guessing,” he said. “It’s fine to pin a medal on, but you don’t want to be pinned down.”

The artist also wondered at the changing tides of public opinion. “I’ve gone from being called a mad Scottish axe man,” he said, referring to an incident at the Manchester International Festival, where he took an axe to the wall of the Home theatre, after his play Neck of the Woods opened to poor reviews, “to Commander of the Republic within the space of a year and a half.”

Gordon is due to have a two-person show with Lawrence Weiner at Gagosian Gallery in Athens in April, running parallel to the opening of Documenta 14 in the Greek capital.