A GLOBAL outlook rooted in Glasgow School of Art enriches the work of Ross Birrell and David Harding, writes Moira Jeffrey
Ross Birrell and David Harding: where language ends
Talbot Rice Gallery, Edinburgh
Lorna Macintyre: Material Language, Or All Truths Wait In All Things
Mary Mary, Glasgow
A decade ago, in Cuba, I met a writer whose work was banned in his home country. His wife, a prominent choreographer, had long-since fled to Miami to begin her life as an exile in the United States. He had stayed behind, feeling that even if his words could not become public in his home city of Havana they would dry up completely if he left.
One day he took me to see the public monument to Josè Martí, Cuba’s national poet who died in 1895. At a time when it wasn’t possible to be open in speech, my friend had written a poem in which he spoke to the statue and, in turn, the statue spoke back.
Climbing the stairs of the Talbot Rice Gallery in Edinburgh, it is possible to hear Martí’s most famous poem, ‘Guantanamera’, sung in two different versions. One recorded in Cuba, the other in Miami. Many communities, in the homeland and in exile, left wing and right, have claimed the song as their own. And Guantanamo: well it is no longer just famous for its pretty girls.
Is it possible to hear all of this history in a single song? Well I think so. It is precisely what art is, and indeed what it is for.
The art world in Scotland owes much to David Harding, whose example as an avant-garde artist concerned with public art in the Sixties and Seventies set the agenda for a new ethic of sensitivity to people and place. Now retired, Harding’s teaching at Glasgow School of Art was to nurture subsequent generations of contemporary artists. He is now in his seventies and there are more than two decades between him and his collaborator Ross Birrell, who himself teaches at GSA. The pair’s joint enterprise is far more often seen overseas, so their show at Talbot Rice in Edinburgh is a great opportunity to catch sight of what they do and to catch up with ten years of artistic collaboration in film, photography, sculpture and recorded musical performances.
In Ciudad Juárez, the border town in Mexico that is one of the worst cities on the planet for violence against women, the pair work against type by recording two musical quartets in calm and studious recital. Four women sing First Among Mothers, by the 17th century poet Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz. In her only surviving musical work, we hear women’s words as history but also as hope for the future.
In Sonata, a three screen video work, musicians play Birrell’s compositions in the non-Catholic cemetery in Rome, marking the lives and words of poets Keats, Shelley and Gregory Corso. But in this show the crafted lines of dying poets, political revolutionaries and musical revolutionaries are interspersed with the simple yet extraordinary examples of real lives lived. A pair of photographs tells the story of Donald Caskie, a Scots minister who established a refuge and escape route for allied servicemen in southern France in 1940. The anxious, white sculptures of a ghostly bear that sit adrift in the two main galleries tell of Wojtek, the Syrian bear, who became a Polish mascot and a star character in Edinburgh Zoo but also allude to comradeship and suffering in contemporary conflicts.
If the content of this show is characterised by complexity then the installation is gloriously lucid. Using coloured film, each gallery windowpane is transformed into colourful stained glass. Throughout the building the skylights and ceiling lanterns cast a gorgeous red or blue light that is not a pretty pattern but a code in itself. Words are turned into numbers and colours as a form of musical notation. There is a story in everything.
Language seems an implausible way to approach the work of Lorna Macintyre, another artist interested in light. When Macintyre explores the way that light falls on landscape, glass or paper, it is for its delicate metaphysical possibilities rather than its physical properties alone. At Mary Mary in Glasgow her new show hones in on her use of the photographic image.
Once photography was a new and dangerous technology. Now it seems as old as the hills. Macintyre exploits this tension to the full in a series of platinum prints placed modestly on shelves behind glass panes. These are not bravura technical achievements but something else: they draw on the poetry between images rather than within them. There is an attempt to draw a whispered parallel between a stooping beech tree and the figure of a loved one. We see a field of Brussels sprouts, a grid of haystacks, a glimpse of the artist Brancusi’s studio in Paris. When Macintyre captures the stained glass rose window of Notre Dame cathedral she exposes the passage of light as an ancient machine for thinking and transformation.
• Ross Birrell and David Harding until 2 May; Lorna Macintyre until 4 April
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