John James Audubon said of Liverpool, “When I landed it was raining. Yet the outward appearance of the city was agreeable. But no sooner had I entered it than the smoke from coal fires was so oppressive on my lungs that I could scarcely breathe.” When Audubon arrived in Britain from the frontiers of 1826 America he was treated like a celebrity because – fresh from the Wild West – he wore his hair long and dressed like a woodsman. His mission was to publish and then promote his book Birds of America; which was an attempt to observe and record in paint all the bird species of the uncharted continent. Artist Robert Peterson says that Audubon has become part of “American identity making” and suggests that there are two people to examine here: Audubon the man and Audubon the myth.
Peterson is one of the artists in new exhibition Spectacle of the Lost at Victoria Gallery & Museum, Liverpool (VG&M). Due to the role that Liverpool played in Audubon’s story, VG&M holds the largest collection of original oil paintings by the artist outside of America. Guest curator Laura Robertson conceived of this show, which she asserts “had to happen”, when talking to Liverpool-based artist Jon Barraclough about their mutual fascination with the 19th-century artist and naturalist. Barraclough, Peterson and Alexandra Wolkowicz make up the Birds Ear View Collective, a group who produce contemporary art as a response to the millions of birds who die each year as a consequence of flying into skyscrapers in New York City. Audubon has given his name to the network of ecological conservation societies in America – skyscrapers are the particular problem facing the NYC branch. For Spectacle of the Lost, Birds Ear View Collective are presenting new pieces produced in Liverpool alongside existing work.
Understanding the complex layers and relationships going on within and outwith this exhibition is important. However, like Audubon’s minutely observed paintings (his Black and White Warbler is pictured), there is much to enjoy here in aesthetic and formal as well as conceptual terms. Presented alongside some of Audubon’s prints, the artists have used “installation, photography, drawing, performance, sculpture, film and sound”, to produce an exhibition that is surprisingly tranquil and reflective – perhaps because of the undercurrent of death. Barraclough’s enormous drawings hang in space at opposite ends of a large gallery; unlike ordinary road kill, these bird corpses are impossible to ignore. Giclée photographic prints with titles like ‘Fallen Dark-Eyed Juno” contribute to the stillness. In the centre of the gallery, the film ‘Birds Ear View NYC and Liverpool’ is projected onto the ceiling and can only be properly enjoyed by lying back on a bean bag. And elsewhere Peterson’s sound-work intervenes in the permanent Audubon display.
Audubon shot and killed birds in order to see them up close. Laura Robertson admits that this practise might have contributed to the extinction of some bird species, and it adds another dimension to a character she calls an “anti-hero and “a charlatan”. For the American artists (Peterson and Wolkowicz) examining Audubon is also a way of unpicking the legends of the Wild West and questioning the values of America today. Whether this exhibition really gets under the skin of this intriguing character, I am not sure, but it is a great introduction to this historical figure for the uninitiated. The exhibition seems to contain an ecological message (the cryptic title ‘Spectacle of the Lost’ I interpret as a reference to mankind’s attraction to nature, only to persistently ruin habitats and waste natural resources) but communicates it subtly, allowing the artworks to exist in their own right.
Interestingly, this isn’t the only occasion this year that VG&M has chosen to reinterpret taxidermy; as part of ‘Light Night’ in May the gallery hosted contemporary artist and taxidermist Polly Morgan, who stuffed a starling in front of a live audience. The Light Night event and this new exhibition have bought a contemporary strand to the programming at VG&M, which curator Moira Lindsey hopes will attract a new audience as well as offering something new for regular visitors. She says that Spectacle of the Lost has bought a “different and contemporary perspective to the permanent Audubon display” which seems appropriate as Audubon contributed to the history of the modern museum institution through his obsessive collecting and classification of bird specimens.
Spectacle of the Lost came about because of a chance conversation and a meeting of minds; however, it seems to have been destined to happen. This exhibition optimises the current collaborative trend in contemporary art practise; while at the same time the specific dialogues between the artists, spaces, collections and historical narrative have created something unique. For those who have never visited Victoria Gallery & Museum before – this is a good excuse to go.
Exhibition continues until 30 August 2012
First published June 2012