27th February 2010 — 23rd May 2010
The recent preoccupation with birds in my practice was primarily what lead me to the Barbican Curve's new commission by Céleste Boursier-Mougenot. Hailed by the Gallery as being one of the 'most watched clips' on YouTube, my expectations for the work were pretty high. And I was not to be disappointed.
Joining the small queue on Thursday evening (which bode well as I had heard the exhibition works better when the gallery is full), I was let in to the space after about 10mins and walked down the long curve of the gallery. Up ahead were animated projections featuring close-ups of hands playing electric guitars in black and white, a pretty unimpressive start. However, the sound of birds chirping in the distance drew me in, plus the bizarre little islands cut out of the garden decking now covering the floor of the Curve. Not to mention light at the end (of the tunnel).
In the lit open space I was greeted by small islands of sand and foliage with bass guitars, cymbals and other musical objects, hooked up to amplifiers. Amongst them all were the most beautiful little creatures, Zebra Finches apparently, flying around. These aren't the menacing birds of Hitchcock, though I did almost scream out loud as two swooped down from behind my shoulder, but the smallest most beautifully formed birds you will see in a gallery.
I had read a review where the reviewer had observed the humour of the work, for example one bird stalks up behind another 'creating its own sinister theme music as it does so'. There was definitely this element, but the personality of these birds, their twitching and hopping about, was something I could have watched all day (this may be down to the fact that I must be a suppressed ornithologist). Watching these birds was endlessly fascinating, their movement across the instruments, and around the gallery was both beautiful and poetic, whilst at the same time funny and pointless. Though trapped, you never get the sense that the birds are going crazy without daylight, (as I was after only 5mins in the exhibition). Added with the bizarrely new plastic-fantastic decking, the space felt very unnatural and off kilter to me.
However, what slowly dawned on me as I moved around the exhibition was how odd the visitors were watching these birds. The birds continue with their daily lives, oblivious to us, the spectators, watching them. We humans stop and stare, lean over and peer, mesmerized by the movements of these creatures. The exhibition is meant to comment on daily life and routine activities, but what I found more interesting was observing the relationship between the behaviour of the birds and the behaviour of the humans. We are in their space and in a funny way Boursier-Mougenot subverts our position. The objects that belong to us; the guitars and cymbals; have become strange objects, turned on their side to become perches and ledges for the birds; one cymbal is a bird feeder, the other a water trough. It is the humans that become peculiar, wandering around silently; half scared half enthralled by the animals. Whether it is because they highlight our otherness, or whether it is because we recognise our own animal nature in the birds, I felt this work was an ode to the strangeness of humans. Stepping outside the gallery we might return to our human world, but beyond our towns and cities we're back to the animal, to the kingdom we've so carefully tried to push back and hold at bay. And this is where I feel the work comes alive: the musical soundtrack that Boursier-Mougenot's work creates, of random discordant notes, is the perfect score to accompany this strange reality. Boursier-Mougenot might aim to 'create[s] works by drawing on the rhythms of daily life to produce sound in unexpected ways' but for me it was seeing the unexpected reversal of human and animal that really made this exhibition worth a visit!
Barbican Art Gallery
London EC2Y 8D
Late night first Thurs, 11am-10pm