Contact theSOPAbout theSOPSupport theSOPWritersEditorsManaging Editors
theSOP logo
Published:January 29th, 2010 12:40 EST
Judyth Piazza chats with Martin Firrell, Hero: the future of gods, icons and heroes

Judyth Piazza chats with Martin Firrell, Hero: the future of gods, icons and heroes

By Judyth Piazza CEO (Editor)

Martin Firrell (born April 4, 1963 Paris, France) 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 ageing, 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 Gallery in London, the Houses of Parliament, the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, and Tate Britain.

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-"lysées outside what is now Sephora. He was educated in England 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 Soho, London and a large proportion of his work is created at Soho patisserie, 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.

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 Anais 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.

Security is no replacement for liberty... digital projection, Tate Britain, London, 2006


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. Hero ( invites the contribution of ideas, experiences and opinons which form the greater proportion of the project as it evolves on the internet.

In 2008, Firrell will develop a work with the Chapter, congregation and visitors of St Paul`s Cathedral to coincide with the building`s 300th anniversary. The project will begin with a global invitation to contribute personal views about the meaning and value of the cathedral as a spiritual centre.

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.

Recent projects Hero: the future of gods, icons and heroes with Nathan Fillion (internet, cinemas, newsprint, t-shirts, webcasting, largescale public projection) 2007-8

Hamlyn Foundation/Royal Opera House Power is always temporary (digital projection to the Royal Opera House main stage) 2007

Royal Opera House It`s Passion that Binds Us... (digital projection onto the Covent Garden elevation of the Royal Opera House) 2007

Curzon Cinemas Different is not Wrong (35mm projection, cinema screens) 2006-7

Campaign Against Climate Change How ironic to live in fear of terrorism and die because of climate change (xenon projection to St Pancras Station, Battersea Power Station and Parliament) 2006

National Gallery, London I want to live in a city where... (digital projection onto the Trafalgar Square elevation of the National Gallery) 2006

The Guardian When the world`s run by fools it`s the duty of intelligence to disobey (projection onto Parliament) 2006

Tate Britain All men are dangerous (words of wisdom projected onto the Duveen Gallery walls, commissioned by Amy Lamé for Duckie) 2006