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Ross Birrell: The Transit of Hermes

Horses are coming in from all directions in The Transit of Hermes, Ross Birrell’s new show for this year’s edition of Glasgow International, being shown at the city’s Centre of Contemporary Arts following its premiere at documenta 14 in 2017. At the show’s heart are two films that chart a series of heroic journeys across land and sea that bond human with animal, history with myth and nation with nation as they transverse continents and borders both physical, political and metaphorical.

In Criolo (2017), a solitary horse is filmed at the threshold of Central Park in New York. Accompanying images document the horse’s journey as it is photographed in three different cities – Buenos Aires, Washington DC and New York - beside three identical equestrian statues in honour of Argentine revolutionary, Jose de San Martin. The Athens-Kassel Ride: The Transit of Hermes (2017) documents an epic 100-day ride undertaken by a team of long riders between the two cities where documenta 14 was held. Accompanied by a Greek Arravani breed of horse gifted to Birrell which he named Hermes, after the Greek god of border crossings, the 3,000km trail moved travelled from Greece to Germany, passing through Macedonia, Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia and Austria en route in a symbolic evocation of exile, migration and perpetual movement.

Three years in the making, the title of The Transit of Hermes may stem from Greek myth, but its inspiration draws too from Tschiffely’s Ride, a 10,000-mile journey from Buenos Aires to New York undertaken by Swiss-Argentine professor, writer and adventurer, Aimé Félix Tschiffely. Embarking on his expedition solo in 1925 and taking until 1928 to reach his destination, Tschiffely enlisted two criolo horses, a cross-breed whose mixture of Arab and Barbary breeds draws its name from ‘creole’, a word laced with associations of social and cultural mixing.

Tschiffely’s written account of his journey, originally called From Southern Cross to Pole Star, was published in 1933, the year that Hitler came to power in Germany based on a populist ideology of national and racial purity and a fear of otherness that led to the extermination of millions of Jews. As a counterpoint to this, Tschiffely’s book was dedicated to ‘all lovers of the horse and the wide open spaces; And to many friends of whatever race, nationality or creed – who did their utmost to make rough places smooth.’

“I had this idea about this epic journey,” says Birrell. “I’ve always made bi-locational work, and it just seemed to chime with documenta running at Athens and Kassel. I knew I didn’t want to do a documentary or a re-enactment, but I wanted to make it an event.”

Paisley-born Birrell has form in this respect, mixing and matching classical music inspired compositions with geo-political lines of enquiry to create a deeply personal back-catalogue that is by turns poetic, philosophical, meditative and socially aware in its attempt to transcend borders at every level. Recent films include Duet (2013), a work for two violas performed by Israeli and Palestinian musicians; the Charles Rennie Mackintosh referencing A Beautiful Living Thing (2015), performed and filmed in Glasgow School of Art’s Mackintosh building following the 2014 fire; and Fugue (2017), developed in collaboration with Syrian violinist and composer Ali Moraly, and also seen at documenta 14.

Symphony of Sorrowful Songs (2017) was a collaboration with artist and founder of GSA’s Environmental Art course David Harding that saw the Athens State Orchestra play Henryk Gorecki’s composition of the same name alongside members of the Syrian Expat Philharmonic Orchestra. An earlier work by Birrell and Harding, Port Bou: 18 Fragments for Walter Benjamin, saw Birrell hike across the Pyrenees, following the route of Benjamin’s flight from the Nazis in 1940, while Harding waited for Birrell in the Spanish village of Portbou.

If these were panoramic in execution, Birrell got even more than he bargained for with The Transit of Hermes, which was overtaken by a series of world-changing events. The first of these was when The Transit of Hermes arrived in New York on the day of Donald Trump’s inauguration as President of the United States. Meanwhile, Article 50, the EU legislation required to set Brexit in motion to mark the UK’s departure from Europe, had been triggered the week before. All of which may have been an accident of planning, but such synchronicity lends the work an extra resonance.

“These things hadn’t happened before we began,” Birrell points out. “It just happened that way, so another context to the work began to gather apace, which you can take with you. It kind of evolved in a very conceptual way, but it really needed to evolve in a practical way as well, and for that I needed people who understood animals and who could work together.”

To this end, long riders Peter van der Gugten, David Wewetzer, Zsolt Szabo and Tina Boche were key to the project. As were Birrell’s assistants Mark Wallis and Samuel Devereux, both graduates of Glasgow School of Art, who documented the journey when Birrell was either in Glasgow where he has taught at GSA for twenty years, or else in Athens working on Fugue.

 “The word ‘fugue’ comes from the same etymology as ‘refugee’,” Birrell explains, “and in a way the Athens-Kassel Ride was another way of responding to the crisis of Europe, and to pay testament to the journeys people are making, and looking at that through another lens.”

With the film of The Athens-Kassel Ride seen across two screens in silent slow motion, none of this is made explicit.

“You see Hermes moving through various landscapes,” says Birrell, “but you’re not told it’s Greece and Germany. I think it’s important to encounter something for what it is. “It starts and ends in an indeterminate location. It’s not a linear journey. You see Hermes in a state of continuous movement and continuous displacement, but you never know which direction he’s travelling.”

Ross Birrell: The Transit of Hermes, CCA Glasgow, April 19-June 3

Scottish Art News, Summer 2018

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