BY Dominic Eichler in Reviews | 10 OCT 03
Featured in
Issue 78

Ross Birrell

BüroFriedrich, Berlin, Germany

BY Dominic Eichler in Reviews | 10 OCT 03

The mistreatment or, even worse, the destruction of books remains the thinking person's taboo. But in his recent no-frills exhibition 'Envoy' Ross Birrell showed how breaking this unwritten law might actually promote further reading and become good Conceptual art.

'Envoy' consisted of a series of actions, some of them documented by plain short video or snapshots and others simply described by vinyl lettering wall texts stuck on monochrome coloured walls. It is apparent that for the past few years one of the more provocative things Birrell and his invited collaborators have been up to is to toss books into oceans and rivers - turning brain food into fish food. It's an approach that recalls Yves Klein's Zones of Immaterial Pictorial Sensibility (1959). Klein sold off his 'intangible zones' for arbitrary prices and required the transfer certificate to be burnt and half of the gold payment to be thrown in the Seine. However, nearly 50 years on Birrell's work isn't focused on the dematerialization of the artwork or a critique of value, although a Conceptualist's bent obviously underpins his art-making.

The activities of Birrell and his envoys aren't confined to disposal; nor are they malicious. On the contrary, entering the exhibition space the first wall texts that you encountered suggested wholly altruistic motives - on walls coloured United Nations (rather than Yves Klein) blue were the statements: 'A copy of Thomas More's Utopia is gifted to the International Court of Justice, the Hague' (ENVOY: International Court of Justice The Hague, 2000) and 'A copy of Thomas More's Utopia is gifted to the United Nations' (ENVOY: United Nations, 2000). While it seems unlikely that Birrell would subscribe to More's ideas about a classless community of agrarian Christians, or believe that his gifting to single employees in these institutions, as he did for one piece, would have any real influence or effect, he nevertheless suggests that part of an artist's role remains the promulgation of utopian ideas and aspirations.

Immediately around the corner, on the riverside of the exhibition space Birrell's work became more whimsical - allowing for both a hint of self-irony at his own straight-faced artistic high-mindedness and more than a touch of Romanticism (lone sensitive traveller, letters, ocean, that kind of stuff). Here were some of his oceanic disposal actions including a copy of Desiderius Erasmus' In Praise of Folly (1509) thrown into the North Sea (In Praise of Folly, North Sea, 2000). Incidentally, Erasmus' book was dedicated to More, who was his lifelong friend. There is also dry humour in the videos Walden (2001), in which the artist reads Henry David Thoreau's classic text beside a Nordic hut, and Reading the I Ching: Democracy Square Gwangju, Korea (2002), in which he loses the book on purpose.

Other actions, such as The Package (1998), are more pointed. Documented in a series of photographs, the work entailed the sending of a sealed package containing an edition of The Collected Writings of Marx and Engels to an envoy who was requested to cast it from a St Petersburg bridge into the River Neva opposite the Winter Palace. This seems more akin to previous works such as the staging of an 'accidental' loss of a flag bearing the stars and stripes from a Staten Island ferry documented in a shaky video but presented in this exhibition as a still image and a wall text (both works ENVOY: Stars and Stripes New York, 2000).

Aside from the lean presentation of his show, one of Birrell's best ideas is to offer us the envoy - a duplicitous roaming carrier of messages, a go-between, a figure of multiple identities who serves two masters - as a role model for a contemporary artist. Meanwhile his work questions what the effect of a political message delivered as art might be - perhaps just a metaphoric drop in the ocean? If that seems depressing, just try and imagine an ocean with no drops in it, or one whose surface can't be rippled.

Dominic Eichler is a Berlin-based writer, former contributing editor of frieze and now co-director of Silberkuppe, Berlin.