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?