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).

Exhibition notes by the Kunsthalle Basel

Ross Birrell and David Harding – Winter Line

17 January–23 March 2014

One of the sculptures in the Winter Line exhibition by the two Scottish artists Ross Birrell and David Harding is called The Hand of Paolo Virno (2011). Made by Ross Birrell during a performance, it is a cast of the right hand of Italian phi-losopher Paolo Virno. In his book A Grammar of The Multitude(2004), Virno discusses the concept of “immaterial labour”. The hand hardly springs to mind as a metaphor in this context; indeed, it seems to represent the very opposite when we think of the physical tasks we perform with our hands. But if we see it as the hand of the philosopher, poet or composer, who writes and in so doing records something immaterial, and as the hand of the musician, who uses it to play his instrument and thereby enables us to experience a music that we cannot physically touch, or as the hand of the artist, who produces a material work on the basis of an idea, The Hand of Paolo Virno indeed becomes analogous with this immaterial form of labour.

While this cast of a hand conveys the reality of the person through their direct imprint in the material, it communicates – even more strongly – the presence of an idea in an object. The relationship between idea and object thematized in this object applies to all the works in the show, from the sculptures of bears, the photographs, the films, the pieces of writing and the ceiling light works overhead. For they all take up conditions, facts and individuals from the past and the present. Starting from these facts, Ross Birrell and David Harding develop narratives for which their various media serve as visual containers and as symbolic images. On the basis of these narratives, the artists point out relationships between society and history, between thought and language, and between art, music and literature.

The collaboration between Ross Birrell and David Harding began in 2005 with the film Port Bou: 18 Fragments for Walter Benjamin which premiered at Kunsthalle Basel in 2006. Winter Line brings together works that take up and offer variations upon Birrell’s and Harding’s individual interests and earlier works, which are here pursued in dialogue with each other and with the context of the Kunsthalle Basel venue.

Ross Birrell is showing his film Sonata (2013) within an exhibition architecture that references the image of the “fold” used by Gilles Deleuze to describe the philosophy of Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz in relationship to the Baroque epoch. This image of the “fold” can be understood within the exhibition as a thought form and as a way of working:

“The fold winds, grows out of itself and, as fold builds upon fold, forms a moving complexity that is not static but is constant changing. The fold bends, folds up (Latin: com-plicare), but can also un-fold (Latin:ex-plicare); it can pass from a Introduction state of growth to a state of diminution, whereby it retains its diversity and its inherent possibility of creating plurality. In view of these properties, the image of the fold seems to best represent the interweaving and multiform nature of the Baroque power of expression. But this image also plays (…) a central role in our explanation of the world and in the development of contemporary thought.” (1)

In Winter Line the “fold” links the various narratives, draws their motifs together and simultaneously develops them further as individual narrative strands. The artists chart a kind of genealogy of their themes, whose complex history they incorporate into their works as necessary context. Hence the works in Winter Line are not orchestrated as a static formation: the viewer moves forwards and back and follows the narratives to different places and to diff erent moments in history.

In 1985 David Harding founded the Department of Environmental Art at the Glasgow School of Art. Harding’s focus upon art for public spaces caused him to move away from a medium-oriented concept of the artwork and to view the context of the artwork as a component of equal if not greater importance. The media become possibilities and strategies depending on the specific context. (2)

The multi-layered context in which the artists embed their works is heard in the title Winter Line. In the English-speaking sphere, the Winter Line is known as the name of a military front in the Second World War. It ran across Italy south of Rome and included the German fortifications at Monte Cassino. During the Battle of Monte Cassino in 1944, the Polish units fighting on the Allied side were aided by Wojtek, a Syrian brown bear who had become their mascot. At the end of the war Wojtek was given to Edinburgh Zoo where David Harding saw him for the first time at the end of the 1940s. In 1973 he created a sculpture of Wojtek, which was later presented to the Polish Institute in London. The artists offer a memorial to this same bear in Winter Line, albeit not in the form of a classic commemorative sculpture on a plinth with an inscription, but as two life-size bears, Ursus Arctos Syriacus 1 and 2(2014), placed directly on the ground.

Winter Line stands not just for the historical front but for a place of confrontation in general: a line that, as a result of conflict, constantly moves, shifts and must be renegotiated. In the exhibition, the films Duet (2012) andGuantanamera (2010), which respectively make reference to the conflict between Israel and Palestine and between the USA and Cuba, employ music to point towards ideological antagonisms. The film Sonata (2013) and the mural piece To Music (2014) trace the theme of meeting at a metaphorical level in literature, and thereby asks questions about the possibilities of translation and consequently of understanding through the medium of language.

The exhibition title also invokes associations with Franz Schubert’sWinterreise (1827), a composition that can be read politically and which, in its theme of a journey, contains a motif that surfaces repeatedly in the show and which, for the artists, is frequently part of the work process. It is taken up in the photographs Winter in Marseille, 46, rue de Forbin (2014) andVoices in the Villa Lynwood, Nice (2014) as the theme of emigration. Following the German invasion of France, Church of Scotland minister Reverend Dr. Donald Currie Caskie helped countless Allied soldiers and civilians facing persecution on political grounds to escape the country, funneling them along the same route to Spain by which philosopher and literary critic Walter Benjamin reached Port Bou in 1940. Emigration and political persecution are also the biographical parallels in the lives of the four composers, exponents of new music, acknowledged by the artists in their colours for the skylights. These give the whole exhibition a framework. Like the films, they are a reference to the political and sociological backgrounds to the composition, performance and reception of music. They represent the visual transposition of a musical notation.

In music, the score of a piece is not the piece per se, but simply the record that allows it to be realised in sound. (3) Birrell and Harding combine various narratives – recorded in history books, art works, poems, architecture and other artefacts – into a sort of polyphonic notation that creates relationships and receives its “performance” in the different works.

(1) Renato Christin, Le pli. Leibniz et le baroqueby Gilles Deleuze, in: Studia Leibnitiana, vol. 23, no. 1 (1991), pp. 120-123.
(2) Further reading
(3) Heidy Zimmermann, Notationen Neuer Musik zwischen Funktionalität und Ästhetik, in: Hubertus von Amelunxen et al., Notation. Kalkül und Form in den Künsten, Berlin: Akademie der Künste, 2008, p. 198.





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