Ross Birrell and David Harding


‘Lento’ from Gorecki’s 3rd Symphony

Documenta 14

‘Lento’ performed by the Syrian soprano Racha Rizk from the Athens concert in the Megaron Concert Hall opening Documenta 14, April 2017.

This three channel video is exhibited in Kassel as part of D14 part 2 which opened in June 2017.Lento 3 channel high res 1

Athens Documenta 14 Daybook. Map Booklet


Near the Athens war museum and the Evangelismo Metro Station, a green oasis of exclusively Mediterranean flora is situated between two busy avenues. The plants were bequeathed in 1844 by Giorgios Rizaris, a former member of the Society of Friends, perhaps the most important of the secret associations formed in the struggle for Greece’s independence from the Ottoman Empire. Rizaris’s wish was for a garden in the city centre for the recreation of its youth. David Harding has paved a ‘desire line’ cutting across the park embedding a couplet on love from Samuel Beckett’s 1936 poem Cascando: ‘If you do not love me I shall not be loved. If I do not love you I shall not love.’ Harding’s recent research on Beckett has found a report that noted: ‘New Irish Offshore Patrol Vessels named the Samuel Beckett Class.’ In the past year, the PV Samuel Beckett has been patrolling the sea off the coast of Libya rescuing refugees.

Documenta 14 – Athens and Kassel 2017

‘If you do not love me………………….’


Some ‘rough’ pathways are made by people usually across a space where architects/planners have made a right-angled, paved footpath.  The paths made by people are ‘desire lines’. I want to find possible, appropriate ‘desire line’ locations in or around the d14 venues in Athens and Kassel.  There could be more than one location in both cities.  If suitably chosen, and agreed, one or more of these poetic ‘desire lines’ in both cities could remain in situ when d14 has finished.

The text in Greek and English for Athens and German and English for Kassel, is a couplet from the Samuel Beckett love poem, Cascando

 ‘If you do not love me, I shall not be loved.

If I do not love you, I shall not love.’


Path Poem 5 P1000785 Path Poem 1 Sam sandy me at footpathIt will immediately become apparent that ‘desire lines’ have been made by the movement of peoples from Syria and other parts into Europe and that, what is in short supply, is love.  Beckett’s words, written in 1936 to a woman he had fallen in love with, are like a puzzle carrying a certain obscurity as if he could not quite come out and say, ‘I love you’.  However he does set up a necessary reciprocation where love is concerned – that we are dependent on each other for love to flourish.





New, permanent path in Rizari Park Athens.




with Sam Ainsley and Sandy Moffat.





Prog for 3rd symphony MegaronSymphony of  Sorrowful Songs

A project by Ross Birrell David Harding

“The 3rd Symphony of Henryk Gorecki, performed by members of the Athens State Orchestra and the Syrian Expat Philharmonic Orchestra at Megaron the Athens Concert Hall, offers a response to the widespread suffering caused by the Syrian Civil War.

It is important that the concert is hosted in Greece, a country which has borne witness,

more than any other country in Europe, to the devastating humanitarian impact of the Syrian conflict, a challenge it has met with dignity and generosity whilst simultaneously facing its own economic hardships and political tensions. As artists we humbly respond to weapons of brutality and bloodshed with works of solidarity and beauty. In common with other aesthetic forms, classical music has the capacity to combine emotional power, intellectual vitality, and political resonance and, as such, this concert might offer a legitimate response to an ongoing war. We are grateful to the Athens Concert Hall and the Athens State Orchestra whose hospitality provides a platform for fellow musicians to perform as creative individuals and professionals as opposed to being cast in the collective role of a political problem. We are grateful to the several Syrian musicians who have travelled from across Europe for their generous commitment to the development of this concert. The concert is not offered as a solution to an intractable conflict. But, in the spirit of hospitality, collaboration and co-existence which has shaped its development, we might find the seeds of such solutions in the future. Music is the groundwork of a politics of listening.”

Ross Birrell, David Harding,

invited artists documenta 14

More information:

documenta 14 E ( .r ‘,r. lliil:,T‘,-MEGARON

Where Language Ends – exhibition text

Where Language Ends

Imprisoned in a Nazi detention centre in Nice, Rev. Donald Caskie heard a fellow prisoner being tortured. Once the torture had ceased the man, a member of the French Resistance, made an effort to sing. Slowly, Caskie was able to recognise Bach’s Passion Chorale, sung by the man in its original language, the language of his captors’. As Caskie described it, “the chorale of the gentle Bach was giving heart to a victim of the musician’s own race … in a garden on the most beautiful coast that God has created for the joy of man.”

This story is a small but indicative part of Ross Birrell and David Harding’s where language ends. It is one of many references carefully woven into the spectacular coloured window installations, sculptural objects, prints and video works. During their 10-year collaboration, Birrell and Harding’s body of works have explored the thresholds between music and politics, poetry and place, composition and colour. Through video and installations they weave complex layers of history into poetic acts of translation and transposition. In where language ends, music emerges as a redemptive force, though one never far from brutality and violence.


In many video works the virtuosity of a musical performance is captured in a single-take, whilst allusion to the musicians’ background highlights dangerous, underlying social and political circumstances. In Quartet (2012) four female members of the Ezperanza Azteca Orquestra de Ciudad Juarez , dressed in blue, sing Madre, la de los primores (“first among Mothers”). This is the only existing musical work by the celebrated 17th century female poet Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz, ‘Mexico’s tenth muse’. Four male members of the orchestra, dressed in red, play Haydn’s ‘Il Terremoto’ (The Earthquake). The film was shot in Juarez, one of the most dangerous cities in the world with a terrifying culture of violence against women. The piece strikes a fraught balance between themes of survival and destruction, the music formed by and forming the musicians who play together in time and in harmony. The capacity of people to hope for resolution against the complexity of real life situations is similarly captured by Duet (2011) in which overlaid performances by a Palestinian and an Israeli musician, of the same musical piece, approach coalescence but remain just out of time and dissonant. Birrell’s composition for Duet was derived from the last spoken words of Keats, “Lift me up for I am dying”, an ode to the loss of young life. Encountered in the stairwell leading up to the Gallery the work Guantanamera (2010) reveals the political appropriation of specific pieces of music. The words of Cuba’s most famous song, “Guantanamera” are derived from the verses of the country’s national poet and revolutionary martyr, Jose Marti, a figure claimed by socialists in Cuba and right wing exiles in the USA alike. In an echo of the political divisions which surround Marti, Birrell and Harding’s Guantanamera audio installation in the stairwell features two ’a capella’ versions recorded separately in Guantanamo and Miami.


A series of colour installations transform the Gallery’s windows, skylights and cupolas, infusing the exhibition spaces with variations of blue, red and gold. These works reference composers – often living in exile themselves – who used modern techniques such as ‘serialisation’ and abstract systems of transposition. Birrell’s method of composition, where letters from lines of text are transposed into notational systems, draws from this tradition. The blue windows in Gallery 1 allude to Conlon Nancarrow, a pioneer of works for the piano player or pianola. Nancarrow had to leave his native United States to live in Mexico following his involvement in the Spanish Civil War. His archive is now in the Paul Sacher Foundation in Basel and includes the composer’s collection of Little Blue Books, a series of pamphlets produced by the socialist publisher E. Haldeman-Julius and which provide inspiration for the ceiling composition, Nancarrow Sky (2015). The musical pieces played by pianola in the exhibition (playing at 12noon and 4pm each day), Olinka Variations (2013), are related to the name ‘Nahui Olin’, the Aztec symbol of renewal and earthquakes and the alias of Carmen Mondragon, the name from which the score derives, a revolutionary Mexican poet who composed pieces of music that were never recorded. Notes for an unmade film about an unrealised place – Dr Atl’s ‘Olinka’ references the mythical place created by the Mexican writer and painter Dr Atl, partner of Mondragon who gave her that alias.

The notes conclude with the suggestion that this mythical place could well be found in the city of Juarez where the young people perform in the film Quartet. The red coloured panels in the Georgian interior of Gallery 2 – once known as ‘the Red Gallery’ – are entitled Louange pour Messiaen et Mahmood Darwish (2015). They refer to the influential French composer Olivier Messiaen, whose work Quartet at the End of Time was first performed in Stalag 8A, a Nazi prison camp; and the Palestinian poet Mahmood Darwish, whose poetry describes the experience of being expropriated from his country at the age of seven (sneaking back in to become – in the words used by those in power – a ‘present-absent alien’). Messiaen was synaesthetic and therefore saw music as a series of colours and described his compositions as producing a ‘stained-glass window effect’. Gallery 2 also features the video Sonata (2013) a three-channel installation based upon a composition developed by Birrell over 3 years and based upon lines by poets John Keats, Percy Bysshe Shelley and Gregory Corso and filmed in the non-Catholic Cemetery in Rome, where the three poets are buried. Sonata is performed by Tony Moffat, the Leader of the Orchestra of Scottish Opera, Robert Irvine, Head of Chamber Music, Royal Scottish Conservatoire, and Mario Montore, Leader of the Avos Quartet in Rome. Like Quartet, the video is housed within a structure referred to by the artists as The Fold and bares resemblance to the Rothko Chapel where some of Birrell and Harding’s works were filmed whilst also alluding to the partitioning of music (the French word for score is ‘partition’). Arvo Pärt and Iannis Xenakis, composers caught in similar fraught political struggles, are referenced through gold and black coloured window installations: Arrangement for Arvo Pärt (2015) and Mosaic for Xenakis (2015) respectively.


Two sculptures, Ursus Arcros Syriacus 1 & 2 (2014) in ghostly white, derive from archival images of the Syrian Brown bear known as Wojtek. The name means ‘he who loves battles’ or ‘the smiling warrior’. In 1942 Stalin released the Polish Army from captivity in Siberia and, making their way to the Middle East to join the Allied forces, a Polish Artillery Unit acquired a bear cub. To enable Wojtek to join them in the Allied invasion of Italy he was formally enlisted in the Polish Army and ‘fought’ with his companions at the Battle of Monte Cassino. After the war Wojtek came to the Scottish Borders and, with the demobilisation of the Polish soldiers, he ended up in Edinburgh Zoo dying there in 1963. In 1973 Harding was commissioned to make a sculpture of Wojtek.


The prints Omniun Isolation and Villa Linwood (both c. 1950) refer to Rev. Donald Caskie. The former shows the former British and American Seaman’s Mission in Marseilles where Caskie established a secret refuge in 1940 for escaping Allied servicemen; the latter the villa in Nice where Caskie was later imprisoned by the Gestapo. You Like This Garden?… Portikus, Garden Wall (2012) shows a work made by Birrell and Harding at the Portikus exhibition hall which references Malcolm Lowry’s novel Under the Volcano (Birrell and Harding had followed in Lowry’s footsteps, travelling to Mexico). In this novel the central protagonist is an alcoholic and his wild overgrown garden is a reflection of his life as well as being symbolic of the Garden of Eden. While drinking he mistranslates a sign, “You like this garden? Why is it yours? We evict those who destroy!”


The Cast Hand of Paulo Virno (2011) suggests a potential theoretical link between works in the exhibition. The philosopher argued that society has moved away from the Fordist model of production based on material goods, to one of immaterial labour: labour that seeks to affect changes in subjectivities and even to propagate new worlds. Musicians, poets or philosophers are the producers of this kind of labour and the cast hand is therefore a paradoxical, solid object alluding to the symbolic transformation brought about through writing or performing.


The exhibition title comes from Rainer Maria Rilke’s poem ‘To Music’ and forms the basis of an installation in Gallery 3. In this poem Rilke described music simply as a threshold space, the place where language ends (2015).



Short Introduction to the exhibition Winter Line by Birrell and Harding for the Kunsthalle Basel website. 17/1/14 to 23/3/14

Since 2005, Birrell and Harding have been working on collaborative projects while on the same time maintaining their individual practice. Their diverse artistic production includes films – developed individually or concertedly, sculptures, installations, textual work, sound installations and musical compositions. Both are closely related to the Glasgow School of Art: David Harding as founder and former head of the Department of Environmental Art with graduates like Douglas Gordon and Martin Boyce; Ross Birrell as lecturer at the Forum for Critical Inquiry. The exhibition at Kunsthalle Basel will be the first solo exhibition of the two Scottish artists and will combine new productions with previous works.

Ross Birrell und David Harding arbeiten seit 2005 an gemeinsamen Projekten, die ihre individuelle Praxis integrieren. Beide sind eng mit der Glasgow School of Art verbunden: David Harding als Begründer und langjähriger Leiter des Environmental Art Departments, zu dessen Absolventen neben anderen Douglas Gordon und Martin Boyce gehören; Ross Birrell als Dozent am dortigen Forum for Critical Inquiry. Die vielfältige Praxis der beiden Künstler schliesst Videos, allein und in Kollaboration, ortspezifische Interventionen, Tonaufnahmen, Soundinstallationen, musikalische Kompositionen und Text-arbeiten mit ein. Die Ausstellung in der Kunsthalle Basel ist die erste umfassende Einzelausstellung der beiden Künstler und kombiniert neue Produktionen mit früheren Arbeiten.

Four Films and Other Work

Ross Birrell & David Harding

Four Films and other works.

On the occasion of the 65th anniversary of Walter Benjamin’s death, in 2005, artists Ross Birrell and David Harding began what would become a series of collaborative projects. The first dealt with the seminal writer and philosopher, and entailed Birrell and Harding walking Benjamin’s tragic route over the Pyrenees to Port Bou, where he committed suicide on September 27, 1940. More trips for Birrell and Harding followed: in 2006, they travelled to the Mexican town of Cuernavaca in search of writer Malcolm Lowry, a Kunsthalle Basel commission for the 2006 exhibition “Quauhnahuac—Die Gerade ist eine Utopie”. In 2008 and 2009, they travelled to Cuba and Miami for “Guantanamera”, a project they developed to mark the 50th anniversary of the Cuban Revolution. Composed of a film installation and a recording, the project focuses on Cuba´s noted patriotic song of the same title, which was popularized by Pete Seeger in a famous recording made at Carnegie Hall in New York in 1963.

Although “Guantanamera” has become internationally famous and something of a tourist cliché, it is less known that the lyrics are derived from the Versos Sencillos by Cuban nationalist poet, revolutionary and martyr, José Martí, who is claimed by both pro-Castro and anti-Castro Cubans alike (Havana’s airport is called José Martí International, and a right-wing radio station in Miami is also called Radio Martí). For their project, Birrell and Harding selected two interpreters of the song: Jose Andres Ramirez in Guantanamo, and Renee Barrios in Miami. The twin-screen film installation (featuring one singer on each screen) is exhibited in the Rome edition of “Strange Comfort (Afforded by the Profession)”. The acapella recordings can also be heard in Basel, on a double A-side vinyl record, which symbolically unites and maintains the ideological separation between two singers from Cuba and Miami. As Theodor W. Adorno wrote: “The ideological essence of music … lies merely in the fact that it is a voice lifted up, that it is music at all.”

The films have been shown variously as features and installations in exhibitions in Basel, Rome Liverpool, Glasgow, New York and most recently all together at Portikus, Frankfurt, Nov 2011 – Jan 2012.

Music is the focus of two further works on view at Kunsthalle Basel. The new composition “Lift Me Up For I Am Dying”, features music composed by Birrell using the last words spoken by the poet John Keats, who died in Rome in 1821. As recorded in Malcolm Lowry’s short story “Strange Comfort Afforded by the Profession”, Keats’s words were addressed to his friend Joseph Severin: “Severin – lift me up for I am dying – I shall die easy – don’t be frightened, I thank God it has come.” The music for viola was first performed by Giorgia Franceschi, at Keats’s grave, and was also filmed at the Villa Maraini, Rome. In Basel, the filmed hands of the viola player are paired with five casts of the left hand of violinist Tony Moffat, whose hands are cast in the playing position for the five notes from the title of the music (F E A D# G#). This work picks up on the “sinister line” that Sigbjorn Wlderness (the central character in Lowry’s story) observes in Severin’s letter relating Keats’s death: “On Saturday a gentleman came to cast his hand and foot – that is the most sinister line to me. Who is this gentleman?” Might there be a strange parallel between this ghostly, disappearing figure in Lowry’s story and the voice of a singer, the performance of a musician, and the identity of artists themselves as they intervene momentarily in international, social and political contexts and situations?

May 2012