Sense and Sensibility. Ross Birrell and David Harding
Winter Line is a cooperation between Scottish artists Ross Birrell and David Harding. They began to work together in 2005, with the film Port Bou: 18 Fragments for Walter Benjamin, which was first shown publicly the following year at Kunsthalle Basel. They subsequently participated in further group shows at the Kunsthalle, such as Strange Comfort (Afforded by the Profession) in 2010, and a modified version of that exhibition also travelled to Rome during the same year.
The title of their current solo presentation is multi-layered, and as such it proclaims their artistic programme. Winter Line was the English term used for the German defence fortifications constructed by Organisation Todt right across the Italian peninsula north of Naples during the Second World War. The city of Cassino stood on one of these lines, namely the Gustav Line, as did the Benedictine monastery, Monte Cassino, which was destroyed during the four-month Battle of Monte Cassino. The Polish troops that fought in this battle, which began seventy years ago this January, were accompanied by a Syrian brown bear called Wojtek; it ended up in Edinburgh Zoo after the war, and David Harding (born in 1937) remembers seeing it there during his childhood (two life-size polyester resin bears in the Basel exhibition commemorate it). Winter Line also stirs up associations with Schubert’s Winterreise (Winter Journey) particularly as music and travel are central to the exhibition as motifs and media.
Birrell and Harding adopt a conceptual and context-related approach in their work, with the context encompassing both the place where each piece is created and the exhibition venue (although their works have little in common with 1990s contextual art, for the contextual connections they establish seem more idiosyncratic and poetic). Heavily laden though the works are with historical, philosophical, political, geographical, literary, musical and autobiographical references – underscored emphatically both in the works’ titles and in the room guide – they do not collapse or shatter under this load: thanks to the careful, confident way in which they are set in relation to the Kunsthalle’s spaces. Paradoxically a sense of freedom thus arises in the midst of the mesh of references and levels of reading, which is shot through with a predominantly melancholy ambience and thematic focus, coloured by loss, exile and conflict. The presentation created here evokes a sensation that it is one of various possible forms of an exhibition.
The first room in the show looks deceptively simple. Two double projections on large screens depict a man and a woman performing the Cuban classic Guantanamera. It only seems to be a duet. The film was made in different locations; the male singer, José Andrés Ramírez, was filmed in Guantánamo, while the footage of his female counterpart, Renee Barrios, was recorded in Miami. The song’s lyrics come from the poetry collection Versos sencillos (Simple Verses), which Cuban poet and national hero José Martí wrote during one of his periods in exile. The catchy song was a hit all over the world and the poet became an iconic figure, both in Cuba and in the exile community in Miami.
In the second room Duet (2013) also brings together various moments in history, geographical locations and political camps, although the references seem more complex and the conflicts intractable. Duet is based on two superimposed recordings of Ross Birrell’s composition Lift Me up for I Am Dying (2010), which refers to the last words of English poet John Keats, who died when he was just 26. On the 65th anniversary of the foundation of Israel /the Palestinian Nakba (Arabic for “the catastrophe”, the “disaster“), the artists created a sound installation set against the backdrop of the sombre paintings in the Rothko Chapel in Houston. It presents two virtually identical interpretations of this composition, varying only in the tempo, which were recorded in Berlin, and played on the viola: one by a male Israeli, one by a female Palestinian violist. The resulting film alternates between utopia and elegy: the possibility of harmonious cooperation and reconciliation seems to be possible in or through music, yet death and remembrance of the many people who have died are equally present. While mourning probably drowns out hope in Duet, a film projected in the next room seems more optimistic. In Quartet (2012) two pieces of music are performed by young Mexican members of the Orquesta Sinfónica Esperanza Azteca Ciudad Juárez; the orchestra was founded in 2009 in response to the murders of a number of women and widespread violence, which Roberto Bolaño also describes in his novel 2666.
Music reappears as a component and subject of further works in this room. A text in gold letters on the wall commemorates the performance To Music, performed in January 2014 at Basel’s tripoint, the “Dreiländereck” at the border junction between Germany, France and Switzerland. It involved David Harding reciting Rilke’s poem An die Musik (To Music), then flinging the pages from the book into the Rhine. As in the other three exhibition rooms, the ceiling is also incorporated here. The skylights are covered with films, with the configuration and colour scheme alluding to New Music composers. The light arrangement in this room is dedicated to Arvo Pärt. I cannot recall ever having seen the ceilings in the lower Kunsthalle spaces used like this, nor can I remember having been so consciously aware of them previously. An impressive solution is also found for orchestration of the light in all the rooms in the exhibition – moving from dark to light to dark to blue to red. However, the problematic work, The Hand of Paolo Virno (2011), in my view the weakest piece in the exhibition, is on show in the same room too. This is the most explicit tribute to a philosopher, but it is not the only such reference. In the last room, for example, The Fold (2014) alludes to French thinker Gilles Deleuze. A plywood wall covered with folded black Molton references his text The Fold. Leibniz and the Baroque, yet also functions as a screen dividing the space, creating a room within a room and serving as a projection surface for the 3-channel film installation behind it, Sonata (2013). A plastic resin cast of Virno’s right hand stands in isolation on a white plinth. With the fingers, spread wide in a gesture dripping with pathos, it looks like a relic of the Italian philosopher or some kind of fetish, forming a rather one-dimensional transposition of his thinking on immaterial labour and virtuosity (or perhaps its complexity and irony simply escapes me?). As an art historian it was of course not the philosopher who sprang to mind at first glance, but rather Bruce Nauman’s casts. That raises the overarching question of the role played by recipients (including critics) in this exhibition. The multiple references and the various modes in which these are interconnected in Birrell and Harding’s presentation is striking, and only a fraction of these can be mentioned in an exhibition review that seeks to move beyond merely enumerating and recounting the show. The implicit or explicit references in the titles and texts unveil the artists’ conceptual and contextual premises and at the same time indicate lines of interpretation, perhaps introducing that the illustrative dimension of the works may be over-emphasised or that they may be read solely along lines traced out in advance. Here of course the question arises of whether “work”, “reference” and “context” can be separated at all or whether this distinction is perhaps obsolete, for any statement forms part of an extended, post-media field.
The artists’ biographies seem to suggest this is indeed the case: Harding was the founder and director of the Environmental Art Department at the Glasgow School of Art, where Birrell, who now teaches at the school’s Forum for Critical Inquiry, was his pupil. With this heady charge of theory, I was nonetheless pleased by the music in many of the films as a “language where languages end”, as a “heart space”: this music, even if it comprises a political component, nonetheless addresses a highly emotional dimension, cannot be reduced to a concept and thus conveys something a note of resistance. The exhibition’s real strength is revealed in this: the music, spatial references, colour etc. make it simultaneously sensual and emotional and contextual and intellectual. The second time I visited the exhibition I was however also pleased to discover a packet of Parisienne cigarettes in a corner of the large hall at the back between Ursus Arctos Syriacus 2, one of the two Syrian brown bears, and the emergency exit. After wondering for a moment whether this was another artwork, I presumed the cigarettes had probably been slipped out of a visitor’s pocket or been dropped by one of the Kunsthalle staff. Nonetheless: two cigarettes had fallen out and lay on the floor, related to one another yet also to the multitude of their colleagues still inside the crumpled package. Who knows what that might mean?
Dora Imhof is an art historian and post-doc at the Institute for the History and Theory of Architecture (gta), ETH Zürich.
Ross Birrell and David Harding, Winter Line, 17 January – 23 March 2014
Photos: Serge Hasenböhler