Boston

Henrik Håkansson

Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum

Swedish artist Henrik Håkansson, who gained attention in the 1990s for organizing a techno rave for the benefit of twenty-odd frogs (Frog For e.s.t. [eternal sonic trance], 1995) and amplifying the sound of chirping crickets to concertlike volume levels (The Monsters of Rock Tour, 1996) has lately turned his talents to documenting the Spix’s macaw, one of the world’s most endangered birds. “Henrik Håkansson: Cyanopsitta spixii Case Study #001,” Håkansson’s US solo museum debut, was dedicated to turning the macaw’s extinction in the wild into a multimedia project layered with innumerable disturbing and provocative facts about this particular feathered friend and, of course, by extension, to nature as a whole.

Central to Håkansson’s installation is a long-dead and taxidermied macaw on loan from Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology. Placed legs-up in a glass case at the center of the installation, the faded blue specimen, which dates from circa 1824, is accompanied by an official document detailing the conditions of its loan. This cites an insurance evaluation of $100,000 for the remains of a bird of which fewer than one hundred survive in captivity. Although Håkansson avoids overt moralizing, it is clear that he disapproves of the kind of unchecked collecting—whether of endangered birds or expensive art—that inflates the price of rare artifacts. Curator Pieranna Cavalchini suggested to me that the idea of the loss of a species could be equated with that suffered by the Gardner in 1990 when several extremely valuable paintings, including three Rembrandts and a Vermeer, were stolen.

Håkansson has faithfully reproduced the call of the Spix’s macaw using a recording, downloaded from the Web, of a single live bird. This lone creature’s voice has been heart-wrenchingly doubled to imitate the communication between a pair: “Craa, craa” screeches emanate intermittently, at different volume levels, from two speakers placed below a prominently displayed reel-to-reel tape recorder, effecting a high-tech substitute for natural avian dialogue. Also included in the show was printed documentation, including a map of Brazil on which a red pin indicates the narrow area in northern Bahia to which the macaw was once endemic. A printed timeline spans the years 1818, when the bird was first collected in Bahia by the European scientist Johan Baptist von Spix, to 2006, when a dozen of them were successfully reared in captivity in Al Wabra, Qatar, by Sheikh Saud al-Thani. The timeline describes a tale of human intervention that eventually led to the disappearance of the last bird from its natural habitat in 2000.

Besides employing the objective format of the timeline, Håkansson also included four bulletin boards covered with sheets of often emotionally charged web chatter, in several languages, bemoaning the fate of the macaw. The installation closes with the artist’s poignant 2003 photograph of a pair of tiny, confused-looking birds in a Spanish breeding cage. “Cyanopsitta spixii Case Study #001” is replete with ironies both obvious and subtle. Håkansson guides us to make connections not only between the theft of a species and the theft of art but, more cogently, to current political realities. Although not mentioned in the Gardner show, London’s Daily Telegraph reported in 2005 that al-Thani, who owns the majority of the surviving macaws, was also the most extravagant art buyer in the world.

Francine Koslow Miller