Céleste Boursier-Mougenot

Barbican—The Curve

Zebra finches are small, variously colored birds native to central Australia. They live in groups, enjoy plentiful singing, and often exhibit elaborate striped plumage and fanciful markings. In artist and sometime musician Céleste Boursier-Mougenot’s recent commission, forty zebra finches occupied one end of the Curve, the Barbican’s semicircular, corridor-like gallery wrapped around the outside of a vast concert hall. Revisiting an idea explored in some of his earlier works, Boursier-Mougenot provided the birds with food, water, and grass—plus nine electric guitars and three basses, all plugged in and amplified, lying flat and fastened onto metal stands about four feet off the ground. The birds flew freely, inadvertently making music when they landed on the horizontal strings, offering random plucking, brusque staccato riffs, or maybe a thunderous power-rock chord when a small flock of them settled at once on an instrument’s neck.

As these delicate birds—with their garish orange beaks and speckled plumes—inadvertently jammed together, one began to see them as a troupe of slightly stupid, minuscule glam rockers, a species that also tends to gather in groups, enjoy plentiful singing, and don fanciful garb. With the concert hall just on the other side of the wall, we sensed that we might be backstage watching a bunch of nervous, overdressed hopefuls before their big debut. But the finches seemed happy to remain behind the scenes; they were perfectly content twittering about, socializing on perches, pecking at the electrified strings or the birdseed on offer in upturned cymbals, and building nests out of the grasses and sticks provided—sometimes in fire-extinguisher niches or atop emergency exit signs. Between their perpetual nest building and the constant sound track that approximated the tentative clatter of a band tuning up, the impression is one of endless preparation, a permanent state of becoming on the verge of yielding something even greater than this magical secret landscape hidden at the end of a bizarre tunnel.

Just twenty-five people at a time were permitted into this enchanting ecosystem. On my visit I found a line of visitors waiting outside, perhaps drawn by the surprise hit YouTube clip of the chirpy birds. The sense of excited expectation mounting outside the gallery transformed into reverential silence as the art visitors–cum-birdwatchers, mesmerized by the close proximity, observed these tiny winged creatures living their productive lives: gathering twigs, pruning feathers, rockin’ out. The finches were not caged but remained in the illuminated end of the gallery, instinctively averse to venturing into the dark of the long, curving entranceway. The music might have sounded like heavy metal but everything here was light—from the brightly lit, cage-free aviary to the almost weightless birds themselves. These unassuming birds’ uncanny production of rock ’n’ roll refuted anthropologist Mary Douglas’s famous definition of dirt as “matter out of place.” Here everything was out of place—guitars abandoned on their backs, birds flying loose in an urban art gallery, grass growing behind a theater—but the result was a clean and shadowless stage for an almost sacred encounter with art and nature.

Gilda Williams