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Complete Hero, internet/digital projections onto the Guards Chapel, Wellington Barracks, artist’s impression, London 2009


Martin Firrell (born April 4, 1963, Parismarker, Francemarker) has been described as a cultural activist, placing text in public space to promote positive social change.

Firrell has raised questions about the politics of aging, individual liberty, the right to personal idiosyncrasy, cultural diversity, faith, climate change, masculinity, hero worship, and fair and truthful government.

He has used cinema screens, newsprint, the internet and large-scale digital projection onto the National Gallerymarker in London, the Houses of Parliamentmarker, the Royal Opera Housemarker, Covent Garden, Tate Britainmarker, and St Paul's Cathedralmarker.

I want to live in a city where… digital projection, National Gallery, London, 2006


Writing in The Independent, Howard Jacobson stated, “I like words on public buildings and Firrell is a master at gauging their power.”

Caitlin Moran for The Times described Firrell's work as being built on “huge, open-chord statements that make your ears ring”.

Firrell was born in Paris, unexpectedly, on the Champs-Élysées outside what is now Sephora. He was educated in Englandmarker but left school unofficially at 14 because he “had no more use for it”. He educated himself during his absence from school by walking and reading.

He lives in Sohomarker, London and a large proportion of his work is created at Soho pâtisserie, Maison Bertaux, which acts as his “studio, canteen and campaign HQ”.

Firrell is also London Cultural Ambassador for the International Herald Tribune and he curated the newspaper’s first London Arts Season in 2005, titled ‘Breathless…’ after Jean-Luc Godard’s nouvelle vague film of the same title.

Firrell trained originally as an advertising copywriter, and in his current work he can be seen to redeploy those commercial skills to more socially valuable ends.

All men are dangerous… digital projection, Tate Britain, London, 2006


Early life

Firrell educated himself, walking and reading in the Norfolk countryside. He read early 20th century literature extensively citing the works of Virginia Woolf, Gertrude Stein, and the French writer Marguerite Duras (with whom he shares his birthday and a high degree of political sympathy) as key influences on his later development.

It was a passage in Anaïs Nin’s novel The Four Chambered Heart that set Firrell on the path of socially engaged public works. In the passage in question, the novel’s protagonist declares that literature fails to prepare us for, or guide us through, the calamities or challenges of life, and is therefore worthless.

Firrell sets out to remedy Nin’s ‘worthlessness’ of words by using language to raise provocative questions about society, relevant to the vast majority of people and freely available in public.

Think… digital projection to the dome of St Paul's Cathedral, London, 2008


Practice

In most of Firrell’s works it becomes apparent that uppermost is the belief in the redemptive power of ideas, directed at extending or protecting the right of the individual to create his or her own unique way of life and to live it accordingly without interference.

Consistent with this aim is a greater emphasis on participation in recent works. Complete Hero invites the contribution of ideas, experiences and opinions which form the greater proportion of the project as it evolves on the internet.

Sometimes I think life is unsalvageably sad… digital projection to the West Front of St Paul's Cathedral, London, 2008
Sacred orders… digital projection to the Whispering Gallery of St Paul's Cathedral, London, 2008


Firrell is currently Public Artist in Residence with the Household Division 2009 developing Complete Hero for projection onto the Guards Chapel in November 2009.

Complete Hero explores and celebrates contemporary ideas of heroism based on interviews with members of the Household Division and wider Army who have experience of active service including Lance Corporal Johnson Beharry VC; with writers, thinkers and performers including actor Nathan Fillion speaking of the contemporary male hero in cult popular culture, novelist Howard Jacobson and writer Adam Nicolson speaking of the hero in literature, with the iconic writer and speaker April Ashley, comedian Shazia Mirza, and philosopher A C Grayling.

Members of the public can contribute their own views of the meaning and significance of heroism in their lives at the Complete Hero blog.

In 2008, Firrell was Public Artist in Residence at St Paul's Cathedralmarker. This residency culminated in The Question Mark inside, digital text projections based on blog contributions from members of the public, interviews conducted by the artist with some of the UK's most respected thinkers, and the artist's own observations.

Commissioned by Dean and Chapter of St Paul's to celebrate the 300th anniversary of the topping-out of Christopher Wren's cathedral building, the project aimed to answer the questions: “what are the things that make like meaningful and purposeful, and what does St Paul's Cathedral mean in that contemporary context?”

A stream of possible answers, from the domestic to the sublime, appeared as text projections onto the south elevation of the cathedral dome, the West Front at Ludgate Hill and inside onto the Whispering Gallery. Comments about these projections can be posted on the project blog.

Whilst the means and aesthetics may be very different, Firrell’s works can be regarded as the logical descendants of paintings like Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People.

Power is always temporary… digital projection to main stage of the Royal Opera House, London, 2007


Recent projects



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