New York

Corin Hewitt, A Parrot in Parallel Proposes, 2020. Performance view.

Corin Hewitt, A Parrot in Parallel Proposes, 2020. Performance view.

Corin Hewitt


The setup of Corin Hewitt’s new work was as pristine as a thought experiment. A Parrot in Parallel Proposes, 2020, comprised two birds, one fluttering in a cage inside Motel’s modest storefront, the other in a similar situation in the apartment next door, just on the other side of the gallery’s north-facing wall. Both parrots actually live together in the flat, but for a few hours each week, they were artistically intervened into this new schema. Art lovers, fowl fanciers, and other freaks signed up for brief small-group encounters with the bird in the gallery—ten minutes of sitting in contemplative silence, and then ten minutes with talking allowed.

The bird’s name is Kenny.

In its almost formalist intellectualism, Hewitt’s work feels like classic Conceptual art, a precision-engineered machine for thinking. That makes A Parrot in Parallel Proposes a rara avis at a moment where more narrative and embodied practices hold sway. The ramifications, similes, and queries that take form as you tilt it in the mind’s eye are shimmeringly many. Start with the one thing we all know about parrots: They can talk. Is Hewitt’s piece thus an attempt to spark Cthulucene understanding, a relational aesthetics of the birdcage? Or is it a parody of such notions, a cage aux folies? Note, too, that the creatures are Quaker parrots, and the work’s structure of silence followed by speech puns on Quaker religious practices, whereby the congregation meets in silence until its members, one by one, are moved to monologue by the Inward Light. Is this reverential device meant to earnestly invoke our search for God or to spoof the idea of the oracular—of auguries from the hopping and pacing of a bird inside a cage? The piece’s framework is so bald that it obliterates definitive interpretations, and with them the possibility of adjudging irony, the effect is as old as Pop and as contemporary as Twitter.

If that weren’t enough to think about, let’s ponder the work’s other donnée. There is a Kenny and a not-Kenny, one parrot seen and the other invisible. Visitors are informed that the birds can hear each other through the wall between them. What does the situation say about realities that lie beyond our human senses? Without evidence, can we even take for granted that there’s a second bird? When my first appointment to see the show was stymied by a shuttered storefront, I liked A Parrot in Parallel Proposes even more. “Demonstration of the void in the thing and the thing in the void. . . . Easy come easy go,” to cite Jill Johnston in Bruce Hainley’s brilliant study of Sturtevant, Under the Sign of [sic]: Sturtevant’s Volte-Face (2013). I felt like I’d been Relâched, the way a Sturtevant audience was juked with a canceled performance in 1967.

On my second try, I found that Kenny was no mere ideation. But he was smaller than I’d expected, green, a little nervous, and unkempt. He squawked—to us, or to the alleged bird next door?—as I entered Motel with some other visitors, yet once we took our seats he fell as silent as we did. The ten minutes of quiet revealed itself not to be a period of psychic communication with God or bird (though I tried, reader, I tried). Rather, it was a cunning period of reception built into the artwork itself, an interval when the project has time to ramify inside your brain. The metaphors metastasize. Are the birds, like Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s clocks, a rhyme for love? What does Hewitt’s project say about being with and apart, connections across distance, about being in or out of sync? What does the animals’ separation—their very transmutation into metaphor—encode about the way we treat our pets, our playthings? What does the work metabolize about borders and cages? What is the difference between a thought experiment and a parable?

One mark of a good artwork is how long you think about it afterward. Baiting you with the colorful plumage of a little beast who just might grace you with a few miraculous words, Hewitt locks you down for at least ten minutes of reflection, a tidy sum in this (information) economy. When you walk away, the oscillation between binaries—and the idea of binarism itself—stays ringing in your ears.