Three art exhibitions that I’ve been to see recently have threaded similar content, and a topic that I’m always pacing around: our relationship with, and perception of, animals and birds, and more pressingly their vanishing, their extinction.
All these exhibitions have questioned how we look after, rescue and attend to animals and birds and their habitats, which of course we share and participate in – and there lies the heart of the matter. And in relationship to the garden, and the porosity of that term in relation to the earth, to nature, the birds and animals are all joined up with the plants – they move through, they fly in and out, they sing, eat, wee and shit, live and die; we’re all in this together.
Katri Suonion’s ‘Lintusairaala’, ‘Bird Hospital’ in Kuopio’s Art Museum (which rather brilliantly used to be a bank until it was converted into an art gallery) in Finland in October 2011 was an exceptionally powerful installation of taxidermied birds in specially made beds. I have found precious little information either about the artist or the work on the web, so am not able to enlarge upon the background of the work, or the exhibition it was part of which was all about birds, with art works across media and era.
A room in the gallery was lined with small handmade beds each with a different bird, lightweight wooden boxes with a diversity of bedding: felts, layers of cottons and wools, exquisitely stitched blankets, embroidery, fabrics carefully edged – the detail was finer the closer you looked. These beds provided such comfort and care, such a powerful anthropomorphic environment. But instead of their power as objects being undone and diminished by it, the opposite occurred: the birds appeared regal, staturesque, honourable and honoured.
A golden eagle in a children’s iron bedstead, owls tucked in, birds of all kinds, and above each one a ‘plaque’ with chalk on slate giving some details with a drawing. To see such awareness and detailed work was extraordinarily moving – I tiptoed around barely breathing, wide-eyed.
The collection of hospital beds for the birds seems to have been assembled together as a ‘book’, or in relation to a series of stories. Here is a section from the information available at the Art Museum run through ‘translate’, a comment about the work from the artist Katri Suonion. Some of the translation clearly isn’t working, but I like that as it reflects the tenderness of the work, and lack of language to express the complexity of it all.
“The idea of the book was born a few years ago, when I got to the museum’s collections of birds as a model for art classes. They seemed to me to be similar to the window flown, and tuupertunut kestrel, the little girl I found on the balcony. I put it when the doll’s bed under the covers pitsilakanoihin sleep. I thought it still flying, but that did not happen. Now, these birds have their own bed. Bird Hospital is one of the encounter between man and nature.”
‘The Museum of Safety Gear for Small Animals’ is part of the lifelong work of Canadian artist Bill Burns.
“It is an itinerant museum in three parts: the safety gear collection, the multi-media programme, and the publishing house. Central to the museum’s collection are 19 pieces of scale model safety and rescue gear.” (Museum Show Guide for Safety Gear for Small Animals, Arnolfini 2011)
“The exhibition looks at issues such as the status of the habitat conditions of small animals around the globe. It also inquires into, and makes imaginative proposals for, potential animal rescue, relocation and rehabilitation scenarios. By providing this opportunity to think about the conditions in which small animals live, Burns also strivesto make us better informed about species extinction and endangerment. And he invites each of us to consider becoming personally involved in resolving these global problems.”
(from the Catalogue ‘Safety Gear for Small Animals’, co-published by Tom Thomson Memorial Gallery and 8 other galleries, Canada, 2005 and edited by Annette Hurtig).
An exploratory visit to the website Safety Gear for Small Animals is essential to understand both the directness and complexity of the work in relation to wildlife rescue, environmental degradation and capitalism. Bill Burns, along with his collaborators, have made such engaging, moving and powerful work.
The accompanying hardback catalogue contains excellent essays including the profoundly astute and articulate “The Paradoxes of Protection” by Beth Seaton, which covers ground around humans and wildlife rescue, territory that I was completely absorbed in during a performance project ‘It is for the tiger‘.
Here is a lengthy quote from Beth Seaton’s superb essay about ‘nature’:
“What allows us to know, and yet to ignore, the consequences of our selfish desires? How do we regulate environmental matters to the periphery of our concerns?
The answer lies in our idea of nature itself: that nature is an idea. As Raymond Williams has argued, nature has carried with it, “over a very long period, many of the major variations of human thought.” Far from inhabiting a realm apart from humanity, the objects, creatures and landscapes we describe as “natural” are deeply entangled in the words, images and ideas we use to describe them. Like all cultures, we reach toward what is most outside us – the natural world – to make meaning for ourselves. Hence nature can be dangerous, red in tooth and claw, or it can be an embodiment of the sublime and the sacred. And one of the most important implications of the word “nature” is that the thing it describes is supposedly not of our own making. Nature above all is deemed ahistorical, universal and unaltered by the ravages of time. … It is this temporal stasis attributed to nature that allows us to absolve ourselves for its fate.
The alienation produced by such distancing also facilitates the logic of nature as commodity, as an isolated thing that is exchanged for something else and that is, in the process, transformed. The very expression “preserving nature” – essentially the corporate mandate of SGSA – connotes nature’s status as something that is engineered and managed by humans. It is this logic that allows for the industrial production of domestic animal life and the removal, relocation or rescue of wild animals from their ecological life cycles, whether for protection or profit. … Nature is the reality-TV program “When Wild Animals Go Bad” on the Nature Channel.
It has long been commonplace to state that “man (sic) is the symbol-using animal”. It is this capacity to use language, to step outside the crude determinants of survival, that supposedly distinguishes human beings (“the naked apes”) from other animal species. This is our uniqueness then, the capacity for abstraction from both nature and ourselves, in which we are no longer creatures of immediate needs but signs of ourselves. Culture is part of our nature.
Yet the claim that culture is unique to human beings is no longer assured. It is now recognized that birdsong, whalesong, and dolphin ‘clicks’ are forms of animal language. Moreover, such languages are found to be culturally specific. The clicks, chirps, squeaks and whistles of the Orinus Orca, an endangered group of killer whales resident in the southern part of B.C.’s Georgia Strait, are quite unlike those of the northern resident population. And different again is the language of the non-resident or transient orcas ….”
(from “The Paradoxes of Protection” by Beth Seaton, in ‘Safety Gear for Small Animals’ Catalogue, Canada, 2005 and edited by Annette Hurtig).
Beth Seaton’s writing is entirely relevant to the third exhibition Ghosts of Gone Birds at the Rochelle School in East London (until 23rd November 2011).
The exhibition curated by Ceri Levy features “over 120 artists, writers and musicians contributing work to the London phase of the project”. Each artist has “adopted an extinct species and breathed life back into it through their creative talents”, (quoted from the website information).
Stephen’s Island Wren, Great Auk, Ivory Billed Woodpecker, Passenger Pigeon, Chatham Island Fernbird, Tahiti Rail, Pink Headed Ducks, Rodrigues Starling … all particular to their nature-culture. And no longer.
Andra Roe: ‘Last Song, Grand Cayman Thrush’
Rob Ryan: ‘If Only’
A remarkable and very emotional exhibition of works that convey the brilliance of individuality, uniqueness of species, specificity of habitat. It documents the haphazard, inevitable and clumsy forces of destruction – rats, cats, climate change, a bird that can’t fly, a bird that’s too small, one left with no cover, another eating too much plastic.
Little Theatre of Dolls: ‘Bush Wren’
The exhibition – the collection of work of so many different artists “celebrates their diversity through paintings & sculpture, talks & poetry, installations & live music. Plus a series of Ghosts stories that shed light on front line conservation work being done around the world to prevent any more birds migrating to gone status.”
The Ghosts of Gone Birds project is “raising a creative army for conservation through a series of multimedia exhibitions and events that will breathe artistic life back into extinct birds species” and raising both money and awareness for Birdlife International’s Preventing Extinction programme.
Phil Knott: ‘Kill Everything’.