Martin Firrell

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Martin Firrell, photographed in 2000
Occupationwriter, public artist, campaigner
Notable work(s)The Question Mark Inside, St Paul's Cathedral
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Martin Firrell, photographed in 2000
Occupationwriter, public artist, campaigner
Notable work(s)The Question Mark Inside, St Paul's Cathedral
Complete Hero: War Is Always A Failure, digital text and video projection, the Guards Chapel, Wellington Barracks, London 2009

Martin Firrell (born April 4, 1963, Paris, France) has been described variously as a cultural activist, a campaigner,[1] a public artist, or benevolent provocateur, stimulating debate 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, gender equality, faith, climate change, masculinity, what constitutes a meaningful and purposeful life, hero worship, fair and truthful government, and the quality of human lived experience.

He has used cinema screens, newsprint, the internet, portraiture and video interviews of culturally significant figures like Howard Jacobson, April Ashley, Johnson Beharry VC, and A C Grayling, and large-scale digital projection onto the Guards Chapel, spiritual home of the Household Division of the British Army,[2] the National Gallery in London,[3] the Houses of Parliament, the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden,[4] Tate Britain,[5] and St Paul's Cathedral.[6]

The Question Mark Inside: I Don't Think This Is What God Intended, digital projections, West Front, St Paul's Cathedral, London, 2008

Firrell has worked with complex and influential organisations including the Church of England (St Paul's Cathedral 2008) and The British Army (Household Division 2009). Canon Martin Warner, commissioner of Firrell's work for St Paul's stated in the cathedral's 2008 Annual Report that Firrell possesses "a genius for creating partnerships".[7] Arguably, it's this ability that has enabled organisations to engage confidently with audacious, self-questioning project content including "I don't think this is what God intended" (West Front, St Paul's Cathedral) and "War is always a failure" (North elevation, Guards Chapel).

Firrell allowed cameras to record his creative process for the first time in 2008. The Question Mark Inside,[8] a television documentary produced by Simon Channing Williams and Colin Burrows was broadcast by Sky Arts 1 on October 29, 2009, and provided new insights into Firrell's opinions, aims, daily life and practice.

Firrell's body of work includes investigations into portraiture (Text Portrait of Howard Jacobson, Booker Prize winner, 2010) and explorations of the power of mass popular culture to propagate socially useful ideas, in particular, the science fiction genre.[9]

Writing in The Independent, Howard Jacobson stated, “I like words on public buildings and Firrell is a master at gauging their power.” [10]

Caitlin Moran for The Times described Firrell's work as being built on “huge, open-chord statements that make your ears ring”.[11]

Firrell was born in Paris, unexpectedly, on the Champs-Élysées outside what is now Sephora. He lives and works in Soho, 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.[12]

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.

Keep the Faith: All Men Are Dangerous, digital projection, Tate Britain, London, 2006

Early life[edit]

Firrell was educated in England but left school unofficially at 14[13] because he “had no more use for it”. He educated himself during his absence from school by 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.

“In a very early work, (The Beautiful and The Grave, Providence Press, published 1992) almost twenty years ago, I wrote that art should be a force for good, and I have stuck faithfully to that premise. As I have grown older I have become more adamant that my purpose is to campaign in some way for change, using my works as a medium for catalysing debate. If you can raise debate, eventually change will follow.”

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.[14]

The Question Mark Inside: Think… digital projection to the dome of St Paul's Cathedral, London, 2008


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 invited the contribution of ideas, experiences and opinions which formed the greater proportion of the project as it evolved on the internet.

Firrell has held that the purpose of existence is to develop the richness and meaning of lived experience, that art and culture in general should be key contributors to this central project and that their success or otherwise can be measured against this criterion.

Complete Hero, featuring Nathan Fillion, digital projection, The Guards Chapel, London 2009
The Question Mark Inside: I Want To Live In A City Where The Police Don't Shoot You, digital projection to the Whispering Gallery of St Paul's Cathedral, London, 2008

In the Sky Arts documentary, The Question Mark Inside, Firrell discussed his view that contemporary art has lost its way, serving a self-elected elite, rather than the wider interests of humanity. He further claimed that art's proper place is at the centre of everyday life as a powerful force for good, that it should be a joyous expression of our shared humanity, and that his personal motto is "why settle for the art world when you can have the whole world?"

“Contemporary art, particularly in the UK, has become fixated with novelty. This is probably because one of the UK’s most influential collectors began in advertising - an activity devoid of substance but dominated by novelty. This fixation with novelty has become a dominant stream of thought in contemporary art, backed by money, so you see administrators and curators, and other collectors, falling into line. The problem with placing such a high value on novelty is that novelty always fails, in the sense that it disappoints in every instance other than the initial viewing. Its value collapses as soon as it is no longer mint new - like a secondhand car.”

Royal Opera House Creative Director Deborah Bull said of Firrell, "Yes he’s a provocateur if you like, but the underlying message is very rarely 'life’s rubbish and you’re all a bunch of sharks'.... He’s seeking to move beyond simple messages to something which provokes in the viewer a new sense of themselves and their place in the world".

On the same topic, Firrell has said: "I felt there was a problem with writing because of narrative - because it unfolds in time necessarily, and I was jealous of the painters where everything in painting is available in a single field. Simply, I wanted to make words work like a picture and that led me to writing aphorisms. When I wrote All Men Are Dangerous,[15] I wrote something of immense truthfulness and importance with all of its meaning entirely available in a single field."

Popular culture[edit]

Firrell has declared his belief that mass, rather than high, culture may well be the more powerful shaper of our ideas about how to live rich and fruitful lives.

"I would argue that popular [science fiction] shows have an immense cultural importance because their popularity makes them powerful 'carriers' of ideas. If you think about Trek, it has been spreading powerful ideas about tolerance (for example) for 50 years or so. Every rerun is a chance to open another person's eyes to the truths that we need each other if we are to live good lives, and that the differences between us, strengthen us. Every rerun of Voyager shows the world that it is unremarkable that a women should be the ultimate authority figure."

The Sci Fi Series project (working title) mines popular American television science fiction for helpful ideas and philosophical truths with direct bearing on the project of enriching lived experience.

Contributors include Kate Mulgrew (aka Captain Kathryn Janeway, Star Trek Voyager), Joe Flanigan (aka Colonel John Sheppard, Stargate Atlantis), Torri Higginson (aka Dr Elizabeth Weir, Stargate Atlantis), Ben Browder (aka Commander John Crichton, Farscape).

Interviewed by SFX Magazine in January 2011, Firrell stated, “I am interested in the power of popular culture to disseminate sound ideas about how to live productive, intriguing and valuable lives. It struck me that popular culture is often looked down on by 'serious' critics or commentators. I wanted to use my privileged position as an artist to counter this by taking a very long, deep and critical view of the ideas in science fiction and their potential value when applied to our daily lives.

"Truth is, I have little or no idea about how to live a good life myself, and my experience suggests that we are all equally baffled and all equally in need of ideas and advice. Science Fiction is as good as source as any, in my opinion - maybe a better source than most. So the Sci Fi Series project is intended to create a platform for thinking about what might be important and helpful to us all."[16]

Maison Bertaux[edit]

Patisserie Maison Bertaux, owned by sisters Michele and Tania Wade, serves as Firrell's studio and poste restante, and the Wades have described Firrell as their permanent artist in residence. Quoted in the Independent on Sunday, 25 July 2004, Firrell described Maison Bertaux as his spiritual home and the café at the epicentre of the civilised world. He credited the café's staff with ensuring his welfare during the planning and production of large, demanding projects.

Firrell's working method is founded on writing a journal daily which “acts as a net” catching the development of his ideas and tracking evolving trains of creative thought. As a project matures, Firrell switches to the use of small pieces of paper: individual statements or visual elements are printed on separate paper slips and laid out in a variety of combinations before Firrell decides on the final structure of the work to be digitally mastered. The majority of Firrell's recent works have been created in this way in the little upstairs tea room at Maison Bertaux where 'hooligan art dealer' Tania Wade also shows artists' work.[17]


Firrell has worked with large institutions that are not customarily associated with bold or controversial public statements. Firrell was Public Artist in Residence with the Household Division of the British Army in 2009, developing Complete Hero for projection onto the Guards Chapel in November 2009.

Complete Hero explored and celebrated 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 contributed their own views of the meaning and significance of heroism in their lives at the Complete Hero blog.[18]

In 2008, Firrell was Public Artist in Residence at St Paul's Cathedral. The residency culminated in The Question Mark inside, digital text projections based on blog contributions from members of the public,[19] 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?”[20]

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.[21]

Firrell is currently developing a 'round table' discussion project with A C Grayling to be hosted monthly at Kettner's, founded in 1867 and one of Soho's oldest and best loved restaurants (and coincidentally opposite Maison Bertaux).

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.

I Want To Live In A City Where Violence Never Works… digital projection, The National Gallery, London, 2006

Selected quotes[edit]

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

Motifs and recurring themes[edit]

A number of themes and campaign positions recurs in Firrell’s works: a plea for the value of things that are different and the point of view that what is different should be investigated for potential rather than rejected as ‘other’ or perceived with suspicion or fear (Celebrate Difference, LED screen, Leicester Square 2001; Different Is Not Wrong, Curzon Cinemas 2006-7; I Want To Live In A City Where People Who Think Differently Command Respect, The National Gallery, London 2006). Firrell has also consistently campaigned for gender equality and from what is customarily regarded as a feminist position (I Want To LIve In A City Where Half The People In Charge Are Women, The National Gallery, London 2006; Why Are Women Still Descriminated Against? The Question Mark Inside, St Paul’s Cathedral, London 2008); Women Are Much More Honourable Than Men, quoting April Ashley, Complete Hero, Guards Chapel, London 2009). The subjects of maleness, violence and war tend to appear in association with one another; war is often commented upon but not necessarily from a purely pacifist perspective (All Men Are Dangerous, War Is A Male Preoccupation, Keep The Faith, Tate Britain 2006; I Don’t Understand Why There Is War, The Question Mark Inside, St Paul’s Cathedral, London 2008; War Is Always A Failure, Complete Hero, Guards Chapel, London 2009).

The majority of Firrell's works include some form of ancillary visual motif. Most common are vertical lines, either scrolling from left to right, or presented as static fields in ‘agitated motion’. Vertical lines are used to back, or underscore text, or to reveal and obscure text. Customarily the lines have been presented as white light. This vertical line motif appeared in every work between 2006 and 2010 with the exception of I Want To Live In A City Where... (The National Gallery, London 2006).

Firrell has also used what he has described (in the Sky Arts documentary, The Question Mark Inside) as ‘Easter Island heads’ - images of Buddha and Hanuman (Keep The Faith, Tate Britain, London 2006) and recently most notably of Canadian actor Nathan Fillion (Complete Hero, Guards Chapel, London 2009). The use of Fillion’s likeness was augmented by those of other contributors including Dr Adam Rutherford, April Ashley, Professor A C Grayling and Lance Corporal Johnson Beharry VC.

The ‘Easter Island Head’ motif is revisited and extended in Firrell's 2011 work the Sci Fi Series. Video portraits of performers who are influential in that subculture express the sociological and philosophical significance of the dramas they have played out in their respective television franchises. “I aimed for extreme simplicity and a tacit monumentality, like the heads of Easter Island. The aesthetic problem was always one of portraiture - how do you make portraiture of these incredible performers (and by extension of the characters they have created) that has a clear point of view, a visual strength and distinctiveness?"


James Alexander: /, Paul Bagshawe founder: Bagshawe Associates, Don Boyd: director / producer, Hilly Boyd: writer, Colin Burrows MD: Special Treats Productions, Annie Channing Williams, Gail Egan: producer, Potboiler Productions, Christine Hill MBE: CEO MediCinema, Graeme Knowles: Dean St Paul's Cathedral, Amy Lamé: writer / presenter / Duckie! co-founder, James Layfield: MD Never Ever Limited, Karen Marshall: Director Curzon Cinemas, William Maughan: creative consultant, Kevin Price: COO Bafta, Nik Ramage: sculptor, Stevie Spring: CEO Future Publishing, Barry Stewart Hunter: writer, Martin Warner: Bishop of Whitby, Lady Helen Weavers: Realworld Planning, Carrie Wicks: Director Firmdale Hotels, Roger Wingate: Owner Curzon Cinemas,

Sourced from official website (January 2009)

Selected projects[edit]

See also[edit]


External links[edit]