Ross Birrell The Athens Kassel Ride 2017  The Transit Of Hermes At Cca Glasgow  Photography By Alan Dimmick
'The Athens-Kassel Ride' Ross Birrell 2017. Photo: Alan Dimmick

‘To invite the animal to art entails a particular sort of hospitality. Hospitality here means the ability to host all sorts of unexpected guests, not always wanted, with their particular demands and eccentricities and to allow them to flourish outside one’s own expectations.’ [1] 

The Transit of Hermes comprises two works, or extended actions, presented through various documentations. The first, from which the exhibition takes its title, ‘The Athens-Kassel Ride: The Transit of Hermes’ (2017), mimics a journey made by Aimé Félix Tschiffely on horseback from South to North America during the 1920s, and transplants it to Europe. The bookends to the journey were formed by a dual-city Documenta 14, Learning from Athens, for which Birrell’s work was commissioned. The second, ‘Criollo’ (2017), documents the journey of a horse to three different statues of José de San Martín in Buenos Aires, Washington D.C. and New York. 

The first work encountered in the show is ‘Criollo’In the piece, a horse is filmed standing by the Artists’ Gate leading to the Avenue of the Americas in New York, a situation where it is compellingly othered as a non-human body. At a key point in the film the camera takes us from the avenue, a site of commerce, technology and architectural grandeur, to focussed attention on the horse: the movement of its ears, its shivering muscles and flaring nostrils. We are invited to enter into a sympathetic, intimate relationship with the animal and its anachronistic placement in the city.  Focus is here both a formal device and a question of politics: what is protagonist, and what is background? The film is accompanied by various photographs of the horse with different statues of Jose de San Martín; the horse without a rider has become the new revolutionary figure and focus of art.

‘The Athens-Kassel Ride’ places great emphasis on the logistics of the journey; photographs and monitors show the cleaning of hooves, brushing down of the equine coats, and repairing of equipment alongside the beautiful landscapes encountered on the ride. A horse trailer full of equipment is parked in the gallery, and hay bales are dotted throughout the exhibition. The smell of practical matters permeates the room and the reception of the work. 

Both projects have wide poetic, symbolic and intellectual scope encompassing the passing of time, crossing of borders and interactions of histories, but can appear to offer only generalised responses to these issues. ‘The Athens-Kassel Ride’, for example, could be read in light of the critique of Documenta 14 developed by iLiana Fokianaki and Yanis Varoufakis, which explored the festival’s neo-colonial practices and the casting of Greece as representative of the plight of Global South for the purposes of the festival.[2] 

However, the felicitous poetic behind both works is developed by the detail and reality of their enactments; it is clear that language limited to the current economic and cultural moment is insufficient to describe them. Their focus is not an overt neoliberal critique or comment on the plight of migrants moving from South to North and thus, perhaps, Northern European economic policy and attitudes (such as those described by Varoufakis). Instead, it posits a different set of values focused on human-animal relations beside these concerns.

Importantly, Birrell did not himself participate in the ride, thus avoiding placing an emphatic macho stamp on the work. This distance, between the artist and the work, also allowed the pieces to develop outside of his control and for the things which happen between idea and execution to be foregrounded, such as the tender and nuanced gestures of care between human and animal in ‘The Athens-Kassel Ride’ and the meditative focus on the horse in ‘Criollo.’

The pedagogical power of the exhibition results from the specificities of works which focus on logistical realities, extended durations, and distinctly non-cinematic vignettes such as those present in the film ‘The Transit of Hermes’. Thus, one can draw compelling analogies which serve to illuminate ideas related to ecology, philosophy and animal welfare, with the hope of engendering empathy and hospitality.

[1] Ron Broglio and Ross Birrell, ‘Art and The Animal Revolution’, Art and Research: A Journal of Ideas, Contexts and Methods, vol. 4, 2011, p. 2.

[2] See iLiana Fokianaki and Yanis Varoufakis’s discussion and critique Documenta 14. ‘“We Come Bearing Gifts”—iLiana Fokianaki and Yanis Varoufakis on Documenta 14 Athens’, E-flux, 2017

The Transit of Hermes. Ross Birrell. CCA. 20 April - 3 June

Giml 0418 0031 Mark Leckey Enlarge
'Nobodaddy' installation view, Mark Leckey 2018. Photo: Keith Hunter

How long will you say these things, and the words of your mouth be a great wind? – Job 8:2

Job is a man whose faith is tested by God through suffering terrible material losses: his family, his property and his health. Indeed, there is a sense in which Job came as close to the immaterial as any while placing his faith in the divine. This concern with immateriality, faith and the desire for understanding hold much relevance for Mark Leckey’s Nobodaddy, the centre piece of which is an enlarged statuette of Job from The Wellcome Collection, London. 

Leckey’s Job appears as a kind of cerebral rave casualty meditating on his state of being. Wounds in the body of the sculpture contain speakers which emit sections of dialogue commenting on technical matters and metaphysical ideas. Simultaneously, a screen standing before the sculpture projects various images: at times an image of the sculpture within the Tramway space and at others different spaces, full of light, plant life or office furniture. These virtual images appear to echo the speech emitted from the sculpture or interrupt it and speak over it. The identity of the sculpture as a distinct object, with a settled identity and voice becomes confused and more associated with the screened or virtual version. 

The work’s title is taken from a poem by William Blake, who also produced a series of engravings of the Book of Job. The term, ‘Nobodaddy’, in Blake’s mythology, refers to ‘the idea of God the father of no one, but also the man with no body’; a play of presence and absence. Leckey’s sculpture is a frustrated object pontificating on relations material and immaterial. Frustrated because it is confused by its various levels of existence or projection. This is a Job of the internet, where the virtual has substance and voice. 

Mark Lewis has commented on the artist’s work, ‘Leckey stages confrontations at the cusp of discursive intelligibility, at the very moment when the relationship between forms begins to blur.’ [1] Nobodaddy continues in this manner, pushing Leckey into a realm of strange multimedia melodrama. Proclaiming at the end of a long and interrupted soliloquy ‘To be matter!’ as euphoric chords wash through the dark space, Leckey’s Job suffers in a state of looped becoming. This does not inspire pity due to the hyperbole and obscurity of the sentiments in the work, but the ideas are relatable, if generic, in a time when ‘the Age of the Internet provides a whole new funfair of existential provocations.’ [2] He is an afflicted Pinocchio, desirous of true substance, but overwhelmed by the presence of his own virtuality. 

[1] Mark Lewis, ‘Mark Leckey: Formal Love’,Afterall, vol. 33, 2013, p. 49

[2] Andrew O’Hagan, The Secret Life, (London: Faber and Faber, 2017),p.6

Nobodaddy. Mark Leckey. Tramway. 20 April - 1 July

Installation View Michael White Highway To Nothing At Oxford House  Image Courtesy Of The Artist Enlarge
'Highway To Nothing' installation view, Michael White 2018. Courtesy Michael White

‘74% of the billboard audience commutes by car: our billboard channel is a unique way to reach and influence these people. Especially as 70% of the billboard audience are light radio listeners and 71% are light TV viewers (less than 3 hours a week).’ – JCDecaux website. 

On the first floor of Oxford House, past the modest corridors and offices of the ground floor, a large dilapidated room contains a full-sized JCDecaux billboard unit, a piece of metropolitan furniture hidden from the street. 

This company’s advertising infrastructure is omnipresent throughout Glasgow, promoting products and brand consciousness. In contrast, it is the disappearance of content that Michael White’s mock-billboard achieves in Highway to Nothing. It mimics the empty ambience and white noise of consumerism rather than the specificity and targeted action of adverts. 

White’s billboard image comprises a room of shallow pictorial space occupied by three mirror-bodied female mannequins in various printed textile dresses. The figures are all without heads or hands. One stands in the foreground, one in the middleground and one in the background. To either side are two pieces of patterned furniture, a sofa and a pseudo-modernist chair. The background to this stage set is a red, green and blue ‘step and repeat’ pattern. The floor is carpeted with a rhythmic yellow and black web of lines. 

The room is claustrophobic and although the image is clear, no part of it provides the relief of familiarity, humanity or comfort. This uncanny feeling stems from the textiles which are all culled from the logos of political groups and multinationals associated with late-capitalism, neoliberalism and the political right: World Trade Organisation, International Monetary Fund, UKIP, Cambridge Analytica, News Corp, Lockheed Martin and Mossack Fonseca. The image on the carpet is derived from photographs of graffiti painted during the Arab Spring. 

The nihilism of this sad display speaks to a recent history of successive political disappointments and leaked revelations and a moment where it is increasingly difficult to situate, access or perhaps imagine, a progressive political future under the umbrella of powerful organisations, editing and reviewing the social and political space. This is not an exit. 

Highway to Nothing. Michael White. Oxford House. 20 April - 7 May              

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Calum Sutherland is an artist living in Glasgow. His work and writing can be found on his website