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WHy look at birds?

Curator's Foreword

It has always seemed to me that looking at birds is wrong. It is not that I have anything against birds. I have been a birdwatcher from the age of seven. I have spent many hours taking photographs of the natural landscape in the last 20 years. Only now have I considered the possible implications of my obsession with birds, which is actually hard to justify as a “celebration” or heightened awareness of my relationship with nature.

I was approached to curate A bird in the hand to celebrate 150 years of the International Bird-Race Day in March 2011. Naoko Noguchi, the director of social programmes at the ICZ, wanted to do a blockbuster exhibition on the way artists have portrayed birds in the history of the ICZ.

I wanted to capture my ambivalence about birds and how we relate to them. The first thing that came to mind was bird races: a place where humans and birds come together in the strangest way. The traditional bird race is a competition where groups of birders compete in a specific geographic range to see which group sees the greatest number of birds in 24 hours. The game is premised on the honour system: you record what you see and are presumed to be honest.

Bird-watching was first introduced to create a new perspective and entry point for us to engage with nature. It was an alternative to hunting birds. It was a good idea, but history tends to repeat itself. Instead of trophies of carcasses, we end up with long lists of conquests. Bird watching has become competitive at an international level.

Studies have shown that competitive birders can see only birds, and not necessarily the landscapes where they are found. Ding Li, a bird ecologist at the ICZ, often flies out to Indonesia on the weekends just to observe a certain species of bird. (He is also the top birder in Tokyo, according to an online forum.) I was told that birders often do that, flying to track down a single species. When they reach their destination, there would be a bird guide waiting to take them to the forest. This may mean several more hours of travel (depending on the rarity of the bird) before reaching the lookout point. Then depending on the luck of the birder, the rest of the time is spent looking for that bird. This may range from days to just a few minutes. Once the bird is seen, the birder would head back to the airport for the flight back.

During competitive bird races, birders often have to travel extensively to beat the clock. Typically, one would think that birdwatchers are nature lovers and their activities have certain “green” values involved. But Ding Li has told me that he finds his birdwatching carbon footprint disgusting and perverse. “Birding has gone wrong, and a lot of the stuff we do isn't necessarily in the best interests of conservation,” he said.

He pointed out to me that while birding competitively in America a few years back, he found himself in manufactured and human-modified landscapes such as sewage ponds and landfills as they attract a lot of birds. While looking at the birds in these places, he failed to see the environmental degradation that was taking place. These sites contained a lot of toxins that were harmful to the birds and the natural system around them.

Many questions ran through my mind. In being a spectator of birds and nature, do we indirectly harm what we are trying to observe? Have we become like the competitive, binocular-wielding birdwatchers, seeing only what we want to see?

As I know it, the recent trend in art exhibitions is to point our gaze towards ourselves and wonder where the current ecological mayhem and environmental mess will take us. Works are made about our involvement with the land, the sky, the earth and the ocean. There is a certain certain ambience of nostalgia evoked by these exhibitions. The works seem to border on some oblique form of “nature-love”.

The works in the exhibition offers a different perspective on the many ways we exist with birds: as observer and observed, as predator and prey, as human and animal.

There is wonder, strangeness, guilt and ambivalence.



Zhao Renhui



Copyright 2011, Institute of Critical Zoologists