Ross Birrell on film inspired by the GSA fire

ROSS Birrell tells Moira Jeffrey why the fire at the Glasgow School of Art – where he teaches – inspired the film that is the centrepiece of his new show

Ross Birrell exhibition at the Talbot Rice Gallery. Picture: Contributed

On 24 May last year, the morning after fire had ripped through the historic Mackintosh Building at the Glasgow School of Art, the artist Ross Birrell found himself among a group of staff who were helping move items that had been salvaged from the destruction. “There was a call-out for help for 12 people,” he recalls. “A hundred turned up. We were working as a chain, passing things from hand to hand. We were all in there.”

Birrell teaches contemporary art practice and critical theory at the school and as an artist often works with collaborator David Harding, combining musical composition, sculpture and film. “I was looking around us and I thought that this is equally a composition: something that had been made by an act of improvisation.”

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Later that Sunday, still reeling from the shock, some staff felt that what they had taken part in was a kind of wake for the building. But amid the destruction, Birrell says many people also felt hope. “It was just an overwhelming sense of solidarity,” he says. “It was really emotional: you saw your friends and colleagues, staff from architecture, design, all pockets of the school. I’d worked in the Mac for 20 years. In that time I was often moving flats and now I’m living in the country. But during all that time it was literally my second home.”

This month Birrell will share his new film, A Beautiful Living Thing, with the staff and students of the School of Art. It will have its first public showing at Edinburgh University’s Playfair Library on 23 April as part of an exhibition with Harding called where language ends, at Talbot Rice Gallery.

Filmed inside the remains of the Mackintosh Library and Mackintosh Building in late December 2014 and early January 2015, Birrell’s film is named A Beautiful Living Thing after a phrase that Charles Rennie Mackintosh used to describe a work of art. It features Bill Chandler, a violinist with the RSNO who performed a recital in the Mackintosh Library before the fire.

In the film, Chandler plays music composed by Birrell for solo violin and written specifically for the fire-ravaged library, widely acknowledged to be Mackintosh’s great masterpiece and the school’s most significant loss. “The music sounds at first like a lament,” he says. “But it does have also have an element that is uplifting.”

Such was the depth of feeling about the fire that the artist knew when he first had the idea of making the film that there was a responsibility to come up with something that worked on an emotional level. “But also the priority has to be the reclamation and the restoration,” he explains. This spring the school will hold a symposium to discuss the cultural questions that arise from the restoration of the lost library in particular.

After negotiations on health and safety and discussions with Historic Scotland, Birrell gained access to the building with Jo Crotch from the Mackintosh School of Architecture and with the artist and cameraman Hugh Watt. It was the depths of winter, when the site and the surrounding school was at its quietest.

“It was brutally cold,” he recalls, “but it remains visually stunning and really emotional. You are just looking at things in sheer amazement. The light was extraordinary even though there is a very shallow and limited timespan at that time of year.” The film consists of slow tracking shots in the library, the adjacent corridor and the loggia on the approach to the famous Hen Run and is dedicated to the Fire and Rescue Services and to the staff and students of The Glasgow School of Art. “The Scottish Fire and Rescue kept it as a beautiful living thing,” Birrell says. “Through their skills and their own creativity, their knowledge of the building.”

It was at Glasgow School of Art that Birrell met David Harding, the influential artist who was a pioneer of public art and who founded Glasgow’s Department of Environmental Art in 1985, a course that became a crucible for the city’s contemporary artists.

Ten years ago, during a meal at the Cove Park, the artists’ residency centre near Kilcreggan in Argyll where Birrell now lives, the pair were standing outside on the balcony and Harding was talking about a recent visit to Port Bou, the border village in the French Pyrenees where the great intellectual and German Jewish refugee Walter Benjamin killed himself in September 1940 after being refused entry into Spain.

“It was the 65th anniversary of Benjamin’s death and David suggested we go there and make a film about his memorial,” Birrell explains. “David had this longstanding interest in public sculpture, me in site-specific film. We just recorded my walk in the Pyrenees and David’s visit to the monument.”

Port Bou: 18 Fragments for Walter Benjamin was to become the first of many collaborations. “David always seems to me to like the condition of possibility,” says Birrell, “the richness of his life, his interest in history, politics and music. It’s a lot of fun and laughter, lots of stories.” Even Birrell’s solo works such as Sonata, made in Rome and drawn from the last words of the poet John Keats, are made with the collaboration in mind. “When I made it, I wanted David to be in the audience. He’s always the first audience for the work.”

Pat Fisher, director of the Talbot Rice Gallery who has organised the exhibition as part of the gallery’s 40th anniversary programme, explains she is fascinated by the way that the two artists work together. “I try to avoid the cult of youth,” she says (Birrell is now 45 and Harding is 77). “And I’m really tired of the fact that often at home we only see David, on the television for example, in relation to his teaching and his influence on the Glasgow Art Scene. He’s such an important figure in his own right, the work he has done as an artist.”

In a decade the pair have made work in locations across the world and, like that first border they encountered together, their art often marks the collision of place and politics and the role of art and music in articulating the costs of conflict. In Cuba, under the shadow of Guantanamo Bay, they recorded the famous song Guantanamera, written by the poet José Martí. Later they recorded the same song in Miami, home of many Cuban émigrés.

The Ta;bot Rice exhibition will also include two sculptures entitled Ursus Arctos Syriacus, which refer to Wojtek, the Syrian brown bear, who in the Second World War had been a mascot for Polish units fighting with Allied forces during the Battle of Monte Cassino in 1944. Harding saw the bear, after he had been gifted to Edinburgh Zoo, at the end of the 1940s and had made a sculpture of him in 1973.

“When I realised the bear was Syrian,” explains Birrell, “it had a new and different resonance for me. When we were asked to make an exhibition for Basel in 2014, my first thought was ‘Let’s do the bears, David.’ ”

Where language ends: Ross Birrell and David Harding is at Talbot Rice Gallery, Edinburgh, from 14 March until 2 May