The idea that conferences or parliaments of birds can generate wisdom with wider relevance has a long history, featuring for example in the twelfth and fourteenth Centuries in classic literary works by Attar of Nishapur and Chaucer respectively.
Contemporary artist Marcus Coates also seeks insights from non-human species, through a practice that embraces shamanism, visual media and performance. In titling his new collaborative installation Conference ‘for’ the Birds, there is perhaps a hint that this relationship should work both ways.
The National Trust property at Cherryburn in Northumberland, as the birthplace of Georgian engraver and naturalist Thomas Bewick, is a fitting host for this final commission in the multi-partner ‘Contemporary Art in the Heritage Experience’ project. (All five previous commissions have also been reviewed by Corridor8).
The artist and six wildlife experts each chose a different bird from the engravings in Bewick’s 1797 book ‘A History of British Birds’, and assumed its identity in an improvised and recorded group discussion about mating, migration, family relationships, territory and the impacts of humans on the environment. The recording is played on a loop in the restored Bewick dwelling, where visitors can sit and listen, surrounded by huge ‘engraved’ sculptural heads of the species concerned.
Coates’ projects frequently criss-cross the threshold between humankind and other life-forms, questioning notions of interspecies empathy, knowability and relatedness. In synch with writer David Abram and thinkers Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, he is absorbed by the idea of ‘becoming animal’.
The artist’s sincerity of approach to this seems to have inspired his collaborators to enter so intently into playing their parts that the veil of characterisation hardly ever slips, moral quandaries jostle with humour and poignancy, and this review could easily have been all about dramatic talent! Geoff Sample’s wistfully articulate blackbird in particular is masterful.
Mention must be made of excellent curatorial touches added by Cherryburn; including a video and other discreetly separated interpretation, and a range of printed accompaniments featuring the seven birds.
Conference for the Birds honours the ethics of ‘philosophical animism’ as espoused by the late Val Plumwood, and it succeeds in being an exercise in ‘becoming’, rather than imitation. Audience feedback indicates that for many, it will stimulate empathy with the non-human world, and will suggest insights into other ways of being.
That, however, is only part of the story. Any projection of human framings on to the natural world risks exacerbating an anthropocentric hubris. The real import of this work lies in the opposite sense, of how an animal’s experience can make us re-examine our own. The discussions in the ‘conference’ are not so much a human enactment of bird concerns, as a set of reflections back to ourselves, which we may assimilate more readily when they emerge from these ‘othered’ voices.
From a non-human encounter, then, something wise, useful and perhaps even healing is brought back to the human realm. This is exactly the function of the shaman.
Western artists who have adopted the shamanic role, notably Joseph Beuys and Coates himself, may be accused of misappropriating a cultural tradition from elsewhere. Coates defuses this with a disarming transparency and humour of approach, and by making no pretence at ‘authenticity’.
Perhaps that’s what the birds are discussing now…
Conference for the Birds is showing at Cherryburn until 3 November 2019. For more information visit the National Trust website.
Find out more about ‘Mapping Contemporary Art in the Heritage Experience’ here.
Dave Pritchard is an independent consultant based in Northumberland.