New York

Rachel Berwick

Wooster Gardens

Rachel Berwick’s may-por-é, 1997, is a streamlined sculptural installation enveloped in an elaborate narrative that addresses the interplay of natural history and science. The objects are inextricably linked to the accompanying textual documentation; both objects and text circulate in larger schemes of assumptions and associations. If this sounds rather Conceptual, it is, and like many Conceptualists Berwick uses language as the basis for her investigation. Her interest, however, is not so much semantic as poetic. She aims not to deconstruct or to educate but to gaze, which makes the work both affecting and frustrating.

In the darkened gallery stood a tall, cylindrical enclosure of translucent white plastic. From its lighted interior issued sounds of the rain forest—burbling water, squawks of jungle birds. Visible in silhouette on the cylinder’s screenlike walls, two parrots perched amid palm branches. It took a moment to assure oneself that the birds were in fact alive, and that they were adding their spontaneous calls to the recorded sounds of other birds. In that interval of uncertainty, Berwick introduced the idea that the cylinder might contain a hoax, that the viewer’s belief in a living presence beyond the screen might be mistaken; that uncertainty of how to interpret may-por-é is central to its concerns.

A wall text set the context for the installation, referring to a legend, attributed to a contemporary, surrounding the German naturalist Alexander von Humboldt. In 1799, on an expedition in Venezuela, Humboldt acquired a parrot from a tribe of Carib Indians. The parrot spoke, and Humboldt discerned that its vocabulary differed from the Caribs’; it had originally belonged to the Maypure people, whom the Caribs had exterminated. The parrot was therefore, as Berwick tells it, “the sole conduit through which an entire tribe’s existence could be traced.” Humboldt had made phonetic transcriptions of the forty-odd words in the parrot’s lexicon, and with the help of a team of bird trainers, Berwick used his rendering to teach the parrots in her sculptural aviary to “speak” Maypure.

The romanticism of Berwick’s narrative is a double-edged strategy in the context of linguistically based art, which typically eschews the lures of beauty, favoring analysis of language as system. Could such a story be true? The great white hunters who scoured the globe with taxonomic fervor in the eighteenth century were certainly mythographers as well as scientists, so how do we know that the “Maypure” language wasn’t an invention of Humboldt’s? But if the story is true, how powerful a metaphor it is for the simultaneous fragility and tenacity of language, the literalness of its function as sign of identity, its ability to migrate, metamorphose, and bear witness.

Ultimately, however, the metaphor and the story are too powerful for Berwick. Her manipulations—imaginative and conceptual—do not match the raw material of the narrative itself. Like Lothar Baumgarten (who has undertaken several projects in which the names of indigenous tribes of the Americas have been inscribed, in a kind of memorial, on public buildings), Berwick here contemplates ways in which native cultures have been transmitted and catalogued by “science” while being wiped out. Her approach is more sensual than Baumgarten’s, and her central visual idea strong—the milky walls of the aviary glow like a magic lantern with their evocative shadows, capricious and fluid as historical truth. But in terms of content, where Baumgarten’s tendency is toward the didactic, Berwick slips in the opposite direction, toward something a little too pat and pretty to hit home.

A suite of three computer-generated prints on vellum installed beside the aviary, depicting Humboldt’s hand-drawn maps overlaid with the parrot silhouette, are the strongest example of her work’s proclivity for decorative exoticism. Some supporting material external to the piece, however, including a CD reproducing segments of the trainers’ lessons with the parrots, hints at deeper levels of aesthetic engagement, at which Berwick’s facility with materials, including sound, could have yielded the more layered commentary her complex subject requires.

Frances Richard