Beautiful Bird Exhibit Spotted At Smithsonian

Feb 4, 2015
Originally published on February 4, 2015 11:22 am

It's been a cold winter in Washington, D.C., but over at the Smithsonian's American Art Museum, there's a flutter of exotic real and imaginary birds, created by 12 contemporary artists, in an exhibit called "The Singing and the Silence: Birds in Contemporary Art."

You can almost hear the winged creatures in the museum's galleries — they're so vividly and variously on view. A few — in photographs by Barbara Bosworth — are barely visible. In one photo, the teeny head of a blue-winged warbler pokes out between two fingers of a woman's hand — she's banding the bird with a migration tracker before setting it free.

"It's an incredibly intimate moment of contact between humans and birds, which are actually so rare when you think about it," says exhibit curator Joanna Marsh.

We're often removed from our environment — especially in cities. Marsh says birds are an easy way to connect to the natural world. The Fish and Wildlife Service says bird-watching is the fastest-growing form of outdoor recreation in this country.

You don't need birders binoculars for Lorna Bieber's Bird Portrait — an extreme close-up of an unknown bird's eye and beak. "It looks massive because the image has been enlarged tremendously," Marsh explains. "Bieber works with photography but isn't actually a photographer herself. All the materials she uses are found images from books, catalogs, field guides, and she manipulates the source images by enlarging them."

The result is a huge, striking image rendered in black and white. Seeing it this close, it's troubling, and a bit scary.

Equally troubling is Rachel Berwick's sculpture of a jaunty tree, its branches laden with orange birds made of resin. The birds are translucent, and, lit from above, they seem to glow.

"These birds are like a specimen frozen in amber," Marsh says. "These orange birds are actually casts of passenger pigeons. And as you walk around the piece, the tree and the birds appear to multiply as if we're looking at a forest."

The 100th anniversary of the extinction of passenger pigeons was Marsh's inspiration for the show. Once the most populous birds in North America, they migrated in flocks of billions. But in just 50 or 60 years, they were gone — habitats were destroyed, hunters were voracious.

Words from Toni Morrison adorn one wall of the exhibit: "I don't know whether the bird you're holding is dead or alive, but what I do know is that it is in your hands. It is in your hands."

So, the show wraps a moral around these beautiful sculptures and paintings and photographs of creatures that can soar.

As for soaring — when you take a bird out of the sky and put it onto a canvas, something gets lost.

"I think that's so much about what this exhibition revolves around," Marsh says. "Even the title of the exhibition, 'The Singing and the Silence,' it's about abundance and extinction, about life and death — these dichotomies. When you capture a bird in a photograph or a painting, you do ... lose their ability to fly."

If you can, fly over to the Smithsonian American Art Museum to see this knockout of a show — it closes on Feb. 22.

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Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

In the middle of winter, the Smithsonian's American Art Museum in Washington, D.C. is aflutter of exotic birds, real and imaginary. They are part of an exhibition called "The Singing And The Silence: Birds In Contemporary Art," with works by a dozen artists. NPR special correspondent Susan Stamberg says it's a gorgeous gathering of winged creatures.

(SOUNDBITE OF BIRDS CHIRPING)

SUSAN STAMBERG, BYLINE: You can almost hear them in the museum's galleries. They are so vividly and variously on view. A few, in photographs by Barbara Bosworth, are barely visible. A blue-winged warbler, a common yellow throat, are being banded so their migrations can be tracked. In one photo, a woman's hand looks enormous because poking out between two of her fingers...

JOANNA MARSH: The tiny head of this blue-winged warbler.

STAMBERG: Joanna Marsh curated the exhibit.

MARSH: It's an incredibly intimate moment of contact between humans and birds.

STAMBERG: The Fish and Wildlife Service says bird-watching is the fastest growing form of outdoor recreation in this country. You don't need birders binoculars for Lorna Bieber's "Bird/Portrait," an extreme close-up of an unknown but very large bird's eye and beak.

MARSH: It looks massive because the image has been enlarged tremendously. Lorna Bieber isn't actually a photographer herself. All of the material she uses are found images, and she manipulates the source images by enlarging them.

STAMBERG: She's xeroxing, and it's black and white. But it's enormously striking because it's so huge. And you never get to see a real bird of this size or at this level.

MARSH: Exactly. And it's an intense close-up.

STAMBERG: Troubling and a bit scary seeing it this close. Troubling too once you study it, a jaunty tree, its branches laden with orange birds made of resin. The birds are translucent, and lit from above, they seem to glow. Rachel Berwick's sculpture is beautiful, but...

MARSH: These birds are like a specimen frozen in amber. These birds - these orange birds - are actually casts of passenger pigeons. And as you walk around the piece, the tree and the birds appear to multiply as if we're looking at a forest.

STAMBERG: The hundredth anniversary of the extinction of passenger pigeons was curator Joanna Marsh's inspiration. Once, they migrated in flocks of billions. They were the most populous bird in North America. But in just 50 or 60 years, they were gone. Habitats were destroyed, hunters were voracious. On a wall at the American Art Museum, these words by Toni Morrison - I don't know whether the bird you're holding is dead or alive, but what I do know is that it is in your hands. It is in your hands. So the show wraps a moral around these beautiful sculptures and paintings and photographs of creatures that can soar. But here's the thing. They fly, and that's what fascinates us. Then you go capture them in a photograph or in a canvas, and you've lost their bird-ness.

(SOUNDBITE OF BIRDS CHIRPING)

MARSH: And I think that's so much about what this exhibition revolves around. Even the title of the exhibition, "The Singing And The Silence," it's about abundance and extinction, about life and death. And when you capture a bird in a photograph or in a painting, you do; you lose their ability to fly.

STAMBERG: Well, if you can, fly over to the Smithsonian American Art Museum to see this knockout of a show. Flying is the operative word. The show closes on February 22. I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.