Things tend to get personal, at times: I owe my acquaintance with Ross Birrell to Gustav Metzger, whose exhibition In Memoriam, dedicated to Walter Benjamin, I organized at Kunsthalle Basel in 2006. As companion to his show, we asked Metzger to choose a film to screen at the adjacent cinema. He answered that at a recent opening of an exhibition by John Latham, he had met up with his friends Scottish artists Ross Birrell and David Harding (also a friend of Latham’s). They were at that time finishing their new film project on Benjamin. Without further ado, I invited Harding and Birrell to show their film in Basel. Port Bou: 18 Fragments for Walter Benjamin (2006) is composed of several intertwined narratives. Among them is Birrell’s hike across the Pyrenees that follows the route Benjamin took in 1940, trying to flee from the Nazis, to the Spanish village of Portbou where Benjamin took his own life on September 26 of that year. While Birrell (born in 1969) is crossing the mountains, we see David Harding (born in 1937) waiting for him in a café on Portbou central square, sipping on a drink and taking notes—a visual echo of “Old Benjamin” as remembered by Lisa Fittko, who was the writer’s guide during his last hopeful passage. When Birrell and Harding finally reunite, both artists take a stroll through the village, before reaching Benjamin’s memorial, Passages, built in 1994 by Israeli sculptor Dani Karavan—a tunnel with a flight of steps, descending steeply from the cliff to hover just above the whirlpool of sea waves.
18 Fragments is typical of Birrell’s working method, which involves weaving together—while leaving some loose ends—several narratives as part of a practice that is both performative and reminiscent of diary writing, subjective and fragmentary. “Fragment is the intrusion of death into the work. While destroying it, it removes the stain of semblance,” Benjamin’s friend Adorno noted in Aesthetic Theory. Birrell’s ongoing project “Envoy” is critical thought performed as gesture. A book—usually of certain historical weight—is thrown into a body of water or a ravine; most recently, it was Thomas More’s Utopia thrown into the Mediterranean Sea, in Piraeus, on March 11, 2016. The book reaching the apex of its short flight and the thrower standing on firm ground are captured in a photograph. Every project (from the Latin: projicere, to cast forth) is a throw, and there is always an abyss gaping ahead.