On a sleepy New York Saturday I headed out to Performa 13’s cozy “hub” to attend an artist class titled “Lecture on Nesting”. The lecture was a collaborative presentation by ornithologist Peter Holden and his son Andy Holden, the artist. The lecture proposed to explore the materials, structures, and process involved in the construction of bird nests and how the natural world can open up new ways of thinking about art.
I think of the relationship of science and art as sneaky kissing cousins. Often the milieus of science ‘types’ do not readily marry up with ‘artsy’ types and vice versa. I was curious to see how in this case father and son would weave the two spheres together as they took the stage. Both clad in ‘Bill Nye the science guy’ professorial attire, they jumped right into what felt like an academic slide presentation. Little did I know this ‘class’ was unlike any science class I ever took. This one proved to be mind blowing.
Apparently over the last 2 years, the two of them have researched and traveled widely together, looking at bird nests as part of a ‘Wild Life Protection of Birds’ effort. The rather dry images presented were either taken in situ or at natural history museums where father and son were allowed to forage through museum archives of bird nests. What a sweet premise, I thought, for a father and son to explore the varied ideas of what constitutes a home, especially since Andy, age 30, has been living back at home for the last two years. That’s because despite the wide acclaim for Andy Holden’s sculptures, (shown at Kettle Yard, Cambridge, and in a 2010 solo show at the TATE: Briton ‘Art Now: Andy Holden’), his large sculptures did not sell well. So when Andy moved back to Bedforshire, England, his family home, he started taking walks with his father, and this all began.
Both father and son shared equally in the enthusiasm and wonder of their discoveries throughout the lecture. They deferred to each other collegially, back and forth, over the statistics of bird types and other bird facts. I was riveted by every sacred detail about how and why birds build what they do. Admittedly, for me, there is always a feeling of security and warmth when I happen upon the sight of a bird nest precariously perched in nature.
Allow me here to indulge you with some of the fun facts I learned about bird nest-making during the one hour class. The perfect round cup shape, found at the center of most nests, are formed by the breast of the bird moving around in circles. Birds use their bodies as measuring tools. Puffins build adjoining latrines in their nests to use as toilets. Nest making can be a highly ritualized part of courtship between male and female white ducks. Weaver birds in Africa construct par excellence a long entrance chamber to their dome-shaped nests to prevent snakes from stealing their eggs. The longer the snakes get, the longer the elongation of the closed attached tunnel of their nest. Desert birds make nests with thatched roofs, which provide thermo regulation of warmth during desert nights and cooling shade during the hot days. Down feathers in our clothing come from observing how birds pluck feathers from their own breast to insulate their nests. Ok — here’s my favorite fact: birds delicately use spider webs along with moss and lichen as the fastening bond for hanging heavy nests. That’s how Velcro was discovered.
This begs the question of intelligence in birds. Do birds have a mental image before they build what they want to make? Andy said he feels the answer is no. As he explained it, it’s not a matter of intelligence that drives birds to collect local materials, choose sites and then create wonderfully functional structures. Andy said it’s something taught within each species. He said “it’s like how my dad taught me to tie my shoe laces into a knot.”
And now the bigger question concerning this lecture: what does any of this have to do with art? This talk was a straight up factual foray into bird nest types, nest sites and nest materials. There was a head scratching moment for all when the final slide was shown and the lecture ended as if the end of period bell rang in school. Hands flew in the air but Andy said they would not be taking questions. Done, game over. No mention of art Huh!
How and why would Andy, an accomplished artist, devote so much of his focus on his father’s scientific study of bird behavior? Why, I also wondered, was Performa- a ‘new visual art performance biennial’ hosting a class on bird nests as an artistic performance piece in their venue?
I approached Andy outside the lecture room and asked him how his scientific persona, on display in this lecture, related to his art? He smiled. He said observing the making of bird nests explores how an object comes into the world. How we engage with the elements of site, material and structure embodies the art dialectic. Talking about bird nests allows him to navigate the art conversation. I had an epiphany. Does a bird’s intuitive perfection of fitting form to function in nest construction come from another kind of intelligence? Do humans as a species inherit an intelligence of hand, as well? Is this what makes great art? That night, I stopped and noted the purposeful sensitivity of my hands while chopping vegetables for dinner.
The formal scientific presentation about birds was a hidden way of talking about art, without talking about art. Brilliant performance piece! Without mentioning a word about Andy’s own work, he made me desperately want to jump on a plane to London and see his new show: “Maximum Irony! Maximum Sincerity” It’s a major work commissioned by the Zabludowicz Collection and on view now through December 15th at the Zabludowicz Collection, 176 Prince of Wales Road London NW5 3PT. I am longing to see how Andy Holden’s extensive research of bird’s nesting has hatched into his current artistic expression. If it is anything like the Performa piece it is bound to be clever, sensitive and well done!
Words/Photo: Lizanne Merrill © Artlyst 2013
Zabludowicz /Performa 13 presentation of Andy Holden and Peter Holden “Lecture on Nesting” artist class- November 9- 1pm BIRDS OF A FEATHER Present a Talk Together