Bird after Bird
15 July - 10 September 2017
The exhibition Bird after Bird features six artists, each in their different ways entranced by the fragility of birds, exploring them in life and death. Each of the artists has spent countless hours researching watching, waiting for the right moments to observe, thinking about their relationships with their subjects. While they have used their skills and roles as artists to get closer to different species, in no case has there been a conventional desire to seek any literal means to portray them, rather they have sought a kind of visual poetry of representation. It is the fleeting nature of their subject, its elusiveness which is the compelling thing, the fact that bird life is secret, and even a relatively tame bird is wary of human presence.
At the heart of the exhibition and giving it its title is the work of Norfolk-based artist, Jayne Ivimey. The Red List of bird species that are threatened and endangered grows with depressing speed, day by day. Jayne presents us with a moving tribute in the form of a dramatic installation of white bisque-fired stoneware effigies of dead birds, presented ‘bird after bird’, limp bodied, heads hanging loose in death, wings folded and without purpose, feet crossed over, a label tied to the legs giving the date, name and provenance. The project involved months and months of research, observation, drawing in archives, at the Rothschild museum in Tring, and Norwich Castle Museum. As she says, "I want to express their beauty and vulnerability as we begin to comprehend the unravelling tragedy." Her work is timely; this year, the number of endangered British birds rose by 20, bringing the total to a staggering 70 birds on the Red List.
Milo Newman, based in Bristol at Spike Island, has spent many hours at dusk photographing pink-footed geese who migrate each winter to the Norfolk coastline from the Arctic region, Svalbard, Iceland and Greenland. Newman works in the half-light when the birds don’t see him, but also because at this time of day, his perception is heightened. We see the flight patterns of the birds constantly changing, highlighting a sense of freedom:
“With the loss of the light there’s a narrowing of the brilliance of sight, until one is forced to pay the world more attention in order to make out forms. The restriction of vision focuses perception in on specific things; the more attention you give something, the deeper the involvement or connection with it. [This way], one enters into a relationship with it … Through this deep concentration on sensory perception, the physical barrier between the mind and the world dissolves. The mind has a way of leaking out from the body, mingling with the world around it.”
Black against black, his images examine the beauty in arcs of movement, as the birds complete their almost secret feeding rituals. He described the making of these images as an unutterable experience, a fleeting moment in which a force is expressed. His purpose is not to provide documentary evidence, but to achieve ‘sort of joining with things’, a sense of structure within a process of flux, and more so, to find empathy with another way of being, paying it close attention.
Sculptor Patrick Haines MRBS, is based at Spike Island artist studios in Bristol. Using a diverse range of materials and found objects, his artworks explore alliances between the natural and manmade world which are often unsettling. At first glance, his compositions seem uncontentious and almost straightforward but, on closer inspection, reveal eerie content and disturbing narratives. Birds, pecking at test-tubes and books, appear to be attacking the body of scientific knowledge, which both traps and frees them. Hints of death, spirituality and references from myth weave subtly and consciously throughout his artworks. Nature becomes a little bit creepy and menacing, with, for example, the ominous waiting movement of ravens caught tantalisingly in bronze. Haines trained in horticulture before studying fine art at North Staffs College of Art. Currently a lecturer in Sculpture at Bath Spa University, Haines’s past work includes special effects work, for Spitting Image, BBC wildlife and Aardman animations, and working at Arteffects, London, sculpting to commission for other artists, including Antony Gormley, David Mach, Mark Quinn.
Suky Best’s “Observation of Flight” film, originally commissioned by artisancam in 2010, is one of the fruits of her academic research, leading to an MPhil, on experiments with movement of birds in early film. It begins and ends on black, then turning to blue and white as a flapping bird conducts its life’s journey trapped in an endless loop. The piece returns to black because it is a fragment, referencing the bird studies of French doctor and physiologist Etienne-Jules Marey (1830-1904). He was part of a pioneering circle of scientists interested in phenomena of movement and its representation, and it was really Marey, foremost among them with his bird studies, which led him to experiment with cinematography and ultimately to the development of the cinema camera.
Suky, based in London, works with print, animation and installation, and has been commissioned for film projects by many organisations including Channel 4, Arts Council, Film and Video Umbrella. She has a busy schedule teaching regularly at various art schools including the Royal College of Art and Central St Martins. She exhibits nationally and internationally, formerly at Baltic, Gateshead and Tate Britain. She jointly won the first prize for the John Kobal Photographic Portrait Award International Award for Photography at the National Portrait Gallery in London, among numerous others.
‘During winter, the Schaopedobbe nature reserve in the northern Dutch province of Friesland is inhabited by a single Great Grey Shrike (Lanius excubitor). Unaccompanied by other members of its species, it spends the winter there alone. It appears space is lacking for more Great Grey Shrikes; the Schaopedobbe is only a small feeding territory. The Sentinel, as the Great Grey Shrike is also known, is well acquainted with Martin Brandsma, a keen observer like the bird itself. Brandsma followed this Shrike faithfully from its arrival in autumn 2015 until it left the area in mid-April 2016 to breed in Scandinavia.’
Tijs Goldschmidt (transl Sherry MacDonald), 2016:
Dutch artist Martin Brandsma has created an entire series of work, focusing on this single bird, scarcely seen: the Great Grey Shrike. Brandsma’s fascination with the Shrike has extended to studies of their feeding, their rituals, their sounds, to his own empathetic performance in Lapland, with eyes painted black like a Shrike, leaping into a tree and chattering like the bird, alert to signs of prey, peering over landscape. His “Identities” collection features 152 different morphological drawings of the Shrike, to highlight their differences, both from a scientific standpoint and as unique, individual birds. He devised this systematic, minutely observed drawing method to enable a detailed record of presences, relating to bar codes and DNA profiles because, he says, “our identity is nowadays increasingly constructed and registered on the basis of printing, bar codes and biometrics.”
Brandsma was nominated for the Ronmandos Young Blood Award in 2012.
Nessie Stonebridge’s paintings have for many years drawn inspiration from the wild and wind-battered Norfolk coastline. She paints the enormous range of lurid colours in nature, balancing movement and structure. At the heart of her current series of swan paintings, is the fury of beaks, encircled by fanlike, semi-abstracted wings. The result, she says, is an aviary of attack and defence, which has grandeur in this case, but is intimating the basic fight-or-flight behaviour of all birds.
The aim of the exhibition is not only to raise our awareness of birds and of all the dangers they face, but to recognise the extent to which the artists have brought, and continue to bring, extraordinary new visions of them. These artists are helping us to get close to birds, to see them differently, to notice their familiarity and their strangeness.