An exhibit for the birds

Jess Bowie 9 November 2007

Henrik Hakansson

Kettle’s Yard Gallery

September 29-November 18

The current exhibition at Kettles Yard takes endangered birds as its theme. I was somewhat apprehensive: I always find art a little difficult when it has an overt political or , in this case, environmental message. It’s not that I don’t care about the environment–don’t we all nowadays? Perhaps it’s just that I like subtlety. Nevertheless, I went to Henrik Hakansson’s Three Days of the Condor with an open mind.

The exhibition blurb promises a veritable orgy of mixed media: film, sound works and sculptural installations, which combine “scientific systems of observation and communication with a visual language that makes reference to popular film and music culture”.

The blurb is slightly misleading.

To the right of the entrance is the first ‘installation’: some filing cabinet folders on a rail, documenting 100 of the most endangered bird species in the world. Humorously, the piece is called ‘The Lonely Hearts Club’. (This must be the reference to popular culture, then.)

Other installations include: a retro cassette recorder playing bird calls; a stuffed bird in a glass case, borrowed from the Natural History Museum (does taxidermy count as sculpture?); an entire wall covered with endangered bird-themed print-outs from the internet, pinned onto corkboards; and a couple of maps.

The overwhelming impression one receives is that there is simply not enough material here for an exhibition.

Near the door is a mock-up plywood hut, containing more retro technology. This time, 1960s projectors, which, when they work (most of them didn’t when I went) show grainy footage of birds. Because of the awkward positioning of the equipment, most people didn’t understand what they were supposed to be looking at, and stood in front of the projectors, marvelling at their own silhouettes. On the plus side, this room contains stacks of free vinyls for all you budding ‘dee-jays’ out there. Birdsong vinyls, but vinyls nonetheless.

I suppose the only thing I knew about condors before the exhibition came from the Simon and Garfunkel song “El Condor Pasa” (“they’d rather be a forest than a street. Yes they would. If they could, they surely would”). After Three Days of the Condor I now know that the California Condor is a cousin of the turkey vulture, and its population declined precipitously during the Gold Rush. There is a sad message here: at one point in the 1980s there were just twenty-seven of these birds left in the wild. In that respect the exhibition is informative. But is this art?

Hakansson also focuses on the Spix Macaw, another bird on the brink of extinction. Again, to quote the accompanying literature: “This beautiful, heart-breakingly rare bird and its loss in the natural world reveals the fragility of its very existence-and of nature itself-not unlike the fragility of great works of art that we expect to last forever”.

Great works of art may not last forever, but they’ll doubtless live on in the public mind rather longer than this exhibition.

Jess Bowie