Get our free newsletter
A year ago, the Smithsonian American Art Museum opened “The Singing and the Silence: Birds in Contemporary Art”—a multimedia spectacle using birds in contemporary art. The exhibit, made me question the visual fascination with these avian creatures; even in recent years they’ve been a popular motif in fashion and interior design, showing up on everything from t-shirts to throw pillows. The inspirational thrust behind “The Singing and the Silence” was the anniversaries of both The Wilderness Act and the extinction of the Passenger Pigeon. The curatorial selection sometimes bordered on fetishization of birds, even as it sought to memorialize them.
But a new avian-themed exhibition at George Mason’s School of Art shifts its central focus to an obvious yet understated threat to our flying friends that many Americans miss altogether: Crashing into buildings.
According to the Audubon Society, half of our bird population is in decline due to climate changes, habitat destruction, and—as provocatively explored in this exhibition—collisions with manmade structures. According to curator Lynne Parks, “birds don’t strike windows for lack of intelligence; it’s just that drastic human imprint on the natural world outpaces their ancient instincts for navigation.” It’s estimated that, each year in the U.S., one billion birds fatally fly headlong into both residential and towering skyscraper windows.
In the exhibition, Miranda Brandon’s large-scale photographs of post-collision birds become hyperrealized vanitas when printed to six times the specimen’s actual size. At that scale, the lush and colorful details of the bird carcass contrast sharply to its ghostly outline, mirrored back in the reflective surface on which the artist has placed it. When it’s mounted, Brandon orients the print on its side, and the resulting image is reminiscent of a post-mortem transcendence, or of the metaphoric association of wings. But Brandon’s memorial goes beyond the mere symbolic, underscoring the tragedy at hand as the bird’s body is pressed to the transparent surface.
It’s difficult to move past our cultural relationship to birds as metaphors and symbols; Parks both recognizes this while selecting works that adopt an inventive, activist model towards change. Installations become interventions here, with artists Elsabé Dixon and Lisa Moren utilizing the windows available to the GMU gallery to offer alternative spaces where birds and humans, art and science, may coalesce into new potentialities. Dixon’s “Requiem of the Songbird” uses strips of colored tape to deter birds from navigating into the glass, based on the 2×4” parameter by which birds visualize fly-through space. Birds can’t see glass, so in Moren’s “A Purple for the Birds,” she formulates a vinyl material to their UV spectrum that they can recognize. Though, human eyes can only see Moren’s pattern in the dark with special lighting.
It’s this sort of creative problem solving—where the hand-wrought vision of the artist shares a positive space within the migratory landscape of birds—that are the strongest and most arresting in “Unfriendly Skies.” This includes the shared spaces of fieldwork and studio, wherein Elisabeth Pellathy poetically, if not scientifically, replicates and catalogs—in both drawing and 3D-printed sculpture—a visualization of the sound patterns of different bird species.
Installed under bell-shaped latrines, their tactility as objects mirrors our marred history with birds as curiosity specimen. Andrew Yang’s “Flying Gardens of Maybe” is a scientific/multimedia art project that salvages seeds from the stomachs of birds after their death by collision, planting them in handmade ceramic pots. Yang’s project notes that the ecological role birds play as the passengers of seeds is also lost in their collision genocide. It’s a conceptual work that combines traditional object-making with the documentarian usages of photography and graphic design to underscore the complex web of interaction between nature and culture, and realize potentials for agency—even if only imaginary.
Edgar Endress and Chris Rackley surpass our limited viewpoints of birds as symbols and metaphors of human experience, empowering them with their own sense of agency. But this, too, is imaginary if not whimsical—and also imbued with cultural references. Their colorful Audubon-esque illustrations—inkjet printed to the scale of those 19th century watercolors—place Alfred Hitchcock’s iconic The Birds as its original framework. Rather than the horror of erratic birds terrorizing human space, their revisionist narrative positions the birds as heroes aggressively reclaiming their territory.
A minimalist installation by curator and artist Lynne Parks, an avid birder who volunteers with Lights Out Baltimore, offers a fine coda to the exhibition. In a grid-like pattern, she places reflectors used in distracting birds from windows next to illustrated vintage cards of the bird species that most often perish.
What troubled me most about the American Art Museum’s exhibition, as strong as much of the work was, was that the birds were too often reduced to objects of visual consumption, much like those appliqués that satisfy our contemporary, everyday design aesthetic. “Unfriendly Skies” leaves viewers with a greater sense of urgency that, someday, some bird species won’t be found in the wild but only printed on coasters or sewn onto bed sheets.