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An Interview with Ross Birrell

When walking into the CCA you don’t expect the smell of hay. At the moment it comes to greet you when passing the bookshop, before you even enter the exhibition. Inside, great stacks of the stuff dividing walls and providing seats for visitors. As an icebreaker, I mention the smell to Ross Birrell when we begin to walk round his show. I am told that importantly and emblematically it is straw rather than hay—straw is used for horses’ bedding and hay for food. This is a sign of things to come; every element a balancing act between the actual and the metaphorical.   

In an auditorium built of straw we sit to watch the first film, Criollo. A horse appears at the threshold to Central Park, in the background is the bustling Sixth Avenue. The mesmerising cinematic apparition of the horse excludes the adversity inherent in achieving the shot; the horse was transported to three different statues of Cuban patriot José Martí in Buenos Aires, Washington D.C and finally, New York City. The second work, the titular The Athens-Kassel Ride: The Transit of Hermes, was similarly arduous—a one hundred day ride from Athens to Kassel orchestrated by Birrell and commissioned for Documenta 14. Both were inspired by Tschiffely’s Ride, a 10,000 mile journey undertaken from Buenos Aires to New York (1925–1928) by Aimé Félix Tschiffely and two Argentine criollo horses.

I ask the artist why he chose to work with horses. It is not something that he has done before;  the work evolved from the pages of a book, read whilst researching another project. This approach has led to a web of interwoven references and far too many underpinning theories for one exhibition leaflet to contain; a visitor would be better supplied with a bibliography. But is it necessary to know the theoretical grounding to gain value from the work? I hope not, because it is certainly not on show. The films and accompanying photographs act as documentation for both journeys; rather than objective, the view they reflect is fragmented and selective. We are not told, for example, that Hermes is a Greek arravani horse - one without a studbook and therefore not recognized as a breed at all. If we were, analogies could be made to illuminate ideas such as Giorgio Agamben’s definition of a state defined ‘qualified life’.

When discussing its absence in his work, Ross Birrell substitutes theoretical context for rocket boosters. They are needed to go up but once the rocket’s in place, they fall back to the ground. Whilst writing this article I’ve thought of a couple more metaphors: this exhibition is like a ZIP file, or a duck – whose furiously paddling flippers are called things like John Berger or Rosi Braidotti. In asking us to look at the duck rather than its flippers, Ross Birrell seems to be exercising Susan Sontag’s dictum that ‘In place of a hermeneutics we need an erotics of art’. Sontag continues, ‘Our task is not to find the maximum amount of content in a work of art… our task is to cut back content so that we can see the thing at all’.|1| It would appear that this is what Ross Birrell asks of us here.  

It is a privilege, I think, for an artist to be able to ask the audience to look at their work to the exclusion of their own identity. It is sometimes also what happens when an artist removes their ego from the work via the anonymity brought on by collaboration. In both Criollo and The Transit of Hermes, Birrell worked with others; for the second with long distance horse riders and a film crew. Crucially, whilst he joined the riders for parts, he did not complete the journey. Even the documentation of The Transit of Hermes is taken by the riders and film crew. Someone told me the other day that they don’t like digital art because the planning involved does not allow for what can happen when a material doesn’t do what you thought it would. But I guess that in abdicating responsibility, Ross Birrell managed to achieve accident of sorts in the shots we see in the exhibition.

At points during our interview, I ask Ross Birrell questions that I hope might possibly have deeply philosophical answers. Many times I am disappointed with a plain old practical one. The eponymous Hermes began the journey as a logistical necessity—a packhorse to carry the belongings of the riders. And to borrow from the modernist tenet—form followed function, as it tends to throughout the exhibition. As the work progressed, Hermes became title character and symbol; several symbols—Hermes is the messenger of the Gods, and the god of border crossings, he is a gift horse and a parasite. Reality unfolds in the plot of Criollo and The Transit of Hermes, and meaning is attached in real time. When embarking on the Criollo project, the team faced legal obstacles associated with filming the horse in public spaces—a problem when attempting to document Ahi (the horse) in Washington D.C, Plaza San Martín and Central Park. What follows is the nuanced introduction of themes of social exclusion and the contemporary biopolitical position of animals.  

To find the beginning of the unraveling timelines that constitute both projects we must look far before the events themselves. The Transit of Hermes was initially commissioned for and shown at Documenta 14 last year, and before that, I am told that the project was three years in the planning. Whilst not a long distance ride in itself, the three years nonetheless took stamina. We discuss that maybe the endurance of the artist is analogous to the endurance needed for the journey. We don’t talk about it but beyond this project, it’s hard being an artist: ‘free labour and rampant exploitation are the invisible dark matter that keeps the cultural sector going’.|2| Much has been said recently about the difficulty of finding a taxonomy for the work of artists. And put simply, it’s time that artists got paid for the work they do.  

A lot has changed in four years, and the political landscape we now find ourselves in will inevitably shape how we see the show. For instance, during the planning of the ride from Athens to Kassel, the refugee crisis saw European borders harden. And in the meantime Brexit was voted for; in fact, Article 50 was signed the week before the ride began. So now, when you know that one of the photographs shows Hermes stopped at the border between Serbia and Croatia, waiting to re enter the EU, the work is easily read as a rallying cry for a more liberal, international outlook.  

However, you see that Hermes is waiting, but you don’t know why. You see him standing in a field and in this way, true to form, Ross Birrell reveals nothing under the surface. A better example might be found in Criollo. Ahi was flown to New York within a fortnight of the beginning of Trump’s presidency, under the restrictions imposed by the travel ban. In fact, days before transporting Ahi, the Argentinian gallerist, Juan Garcia Mosqueda, was not allowed back into the US after a short business trip to Buenos Aires. A hint to this situation might be the Trump-owned buildings in the background of Criollo. But most people don’t know this and the hint is relegated to the layers of invisible context that lie beneath the exhibition.

We might also look to the exhibition’s origins in the German festival Documenta 14, which came under scrutiny last year for holding a counterpart festival in Athens for the first time; resulting in Hermes’ travels between the two cities. Complaints were lodged of neo-colonialist practice and the casting of Greece as an interchangeable representative of a Global South. I got the feeling, I may be wrong, that Ross Birrell preferred to hold this exhibition geographically apart from Athens/Kassel and away from the potential for it to be framed as an overt critique; whilst the horses took 100 days to make the journey, free flights were put on for arts professionals between the two cities.|3| Clearly the work is political in its place in the world but not in its intention.

All in all, I am quite glad that The Transit of Hermes is not a run of the mill comment on issues such as European reactions to increased migration. For one it would be only those well versed in art speak who might pick up on it whilst ‘audiences outside that policed universe will need a study guide’.|4| Furthermore, too often easily wrought meaning can seem myopic in what is left unsaid. To declare a work’s content political is often at the expense of examining what the work actually is and does. In many cases this falsely serves to see politics as something that happens elsewhere, and other those that it happens to. All art that is shown, bought or sold today has its own issues within a global politics of production and display and The Transit of Hermes is no different. Hito Steyerl puts it best when she says:

A standard way of relating politics to art assumes that art represents political issues in one way or another. But there is a much more interesting perspective: the politics of the field of art as a place of work. Simply look at what it does  - not what it shows.|5|

So when we look for a political message within The Transit of Hermes, we ought not to project on what we see—after all we won’t see much - but instead examine its position within the flawed support system for artistic production.

I don’t make work that I would consider to carry a pointed politics, but I often struggle with the idea that not to is to take up space that might have a more vital use. I bring this up because The Transit of Hermes sits in an interesting position between where it finds itself and the artist’s initial intention. Does the artist have an obligation to promote alternative, preferable ways of living? And does The Transit of Hermes do this in any way? I think that in its balancing act of formalist presentation and theoretical reference the exhibition demands to be asked this question.

A few days after interviewing Ross Birrell I went to the launch of his new book, Parasite. Old publications were laid out on straw, one of them from a body of work called Envoy. This consists of an ongoing series of actions called things like Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s What is Philosophy? thrown into the Seine, Paris, May 4, 2004 and Martin Heidegger’s Being and Time thrown into the Abyss, Grand Canyon, November 13, 2012, in which the artist does exactly that. They are explicitly political; in The Package (1998), an envoy is given a parcel containing The Collected Writings of Marx and Engels and asked to throw it into the river opposite the Winter Palace. We question the effect of art carrying political message. In a way The Transit of Hermes is a part of the Envoy series, but Hermes is given no message to carry.

I am told that part of the pleasure of undertaking both Criollo and The Transit of Hermes was in the insurmountable challenge. It was in the attempt and the workings out. A simple question might be ‘why bother?’—to transport a horse from Buenos Aires to New York in the name of art seems excessive. But the sheer excess, and the surreality of sitting on straw, watching Ahi watch you is undoubtedly beautiful. The question remains, however—from what beginning and to what end?

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS    The author would like to thank Ross Birrell for the time he gave to this correspondence.

|1| Susan Sontag, ‘Against Interpretation’ in Against Interpretation (London: Vintage, 2001) pp.3-14 (p.14)

|2| Hito Steyerl, Politics of Art: Contemporary Art and the Transition to Post-Democracy, (New York: E-Flux, 2010) Accessed 4th June 2018, Available:

|3| Iliana Fokianaki and YanisVaroufakis, We Come Bearing Gifts, (New York: Art Agenda, 2017), Accessed: Accessed 4th June 2018, Available:

|4| Martha Rosler, ‘Take the Money and Run? Can Political and Socio-critical Art “Survive”?’ in What is Contemporary Art, ed. by Julieta Aranda, Brian Kuan Wood, Anton Vidokie (Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2010) pp.104-140 (p.106).

|5| Hito Steyerl, Politics of Art: Contemporary Art and the Transition to Post-Democracy, (New York: E-Flux, 2010) Accessed: 4th June 2018, Available:

Martha Horn edits Art Review Glasgow.

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