A bird in the head

Rieko Akatsuka  Marc Beattie  Yoav Ben-David  Mujeeb Bhatti  Simon Costin  Benjamin Dawton  Katie Deith  Dunhill and O'Brien  Geraint Evans  Freya Gabie  Oona Grimes  Ole Hagen  Derek Hampson  Tania Kovats  Helen Maurer  Kim L Pace  Nicholas Pace  Brothers Quay  Heather Ross  Helen Sturgess  Peter Suchin  David Webster  Alan Woodfine  Sarah Woodfine

David Webster  Thirty Three Crows  2016  lambda c-type print on aluminium  42 x 59 x 1 cm

Peter Suchin  A Box with a Hole on a Pole: Entrances and Exits in ‘A bird in the head’

In the closing scene of Jacques Tourneur’s fantastic 1957 film Night of the Demon a small piece of parchment marked with runic signs carrying a curse, one apparently leading to the recipient’s inevitable death at the hands – or, more exactly the birdlike claws – of the eponymous winged demon – is seen to display an uncanny ability to flit away, again somewhat like a bird, from its assigned subject. The little parchment slips along the corridor of a train and down a railway track, only to burn to bits before the victim can grasp and retain it in an effort to redirect the curse. Earlier in the film are several other scenes in which the terrible text makes a break for it, displaying an amazing ability to take what is an almost avian form in its determination to escape being restored to the person whose doom it effectively assigns.(1)

The present exhibition, with its ostensible yet determinedly fluid 'fixation' on birds is, similarly, both tightly defined and elusive. A bird in the head as a catch-all conceit might call up the motif of a single, unique creature or of, conversely, a conflagration of mixed and multiple species, of birds in all their diversity and generality. But the phrase also suggests something insistent, nagging or inspired, a temptation, trap, trope or idée fixe. Perhaps, even, a kind of curse, a threatening thing concocted by another in relation to yourself, put into motion strictly without your consent. This exhibition is, in the end, not so much a show 'about' birds, those most resilient and omnipresent carriers of mythological allusion; it is, rather, more akin to a research dossier of investigations relating to thoughts and actions triggered by birds’ seemingly perpetual presence in human life. The metaphor of the bird has been considerably extended here, into, in some cases, 'birdlike' animals which are not in fact technically birds at all; bats, for example, put in an appearance, but bats, despite their ability to fly, are, unlike birds, mammals, gliding through the air on webbed forelimbs – which are, however, still technically defined as wings. But bats might be connected with birds through what Ludwig Wittgenstein named 'family resemblance' (not to be confused with resemblance in a literal or genetic sense).(2) Wittgenstein employed this term for situations in which otherwise distinct objects share at least one common element, with enough parity in the relation to allow the two things to be coherently classified within a broader set. A child, for example, may have eyes close in colour, shape and disposition to his mother but 'his father’s' mouth or ears, whilst in another child from the same parents what is shared with the mother is the shape or alignment of the nose. Wittgenstein asks why so many superficially diverse practices are frequently classified as in fact related. He notes that what we call 'games' may at first glance lack any plausible connecting thread; not all games employ a court or field or board, or printed cards, counters or balls. Why, then, do we utilise this collective label to cover such a widespread range of things? The piecemeal nature of connectivity and overlap suggested by the notion of family resemblance helps us to see that what is at stake is not a matter of an essence present within every item in the group, but involves, rather, a more subtle range of micro-connections which nonetheless allow one to recognise parallels across multiple forms. Cricket, football, tennis, ping pong, billiards and a number of other games all centre on balls; that is where the overlap lies; chess does not involve a ball but it has, like draughts and solitaire, a board and a fixed number of pieces. Snakes and Ladders requires a board with two moveable pieces and a dice. Gambling involves dice but not necessarily a board. The proof of the relation is to be found through a series of grouped commonalities but these are only apparent from a broader perspective. A bird in the head operates in a manner approximating this productive analogy. The curatorial core of the show may be 'birds' or 'a nagging concern' but such open themes are merely points of departure for a collective operation in which the viewer must also play a considerably active role.

Birds conventionally function as metaphors of freedom, being completely elusive creatures, truly free. But an equally pressing case can be made for precisely the opposite stance: the trapped bird as freedom curtailed, delayed, or completely destroyed. One could easily draw out comparisons with the artist, who potentially still remains relatively free in an increasingly controlled world, one in which the 'default' definition of value is money. It is not merely a cliché to point out the often penniless position occupied by artists and their related refusal to relinquish what are often very hard won intellectual and artistic freedoms. On the negative side, impoverishment is isolating and unproductive: a trap. Birds signify both ends of the spectrum; might they themselves be artists? Tim Ingold has interestingly argued that this is probably the case.(3) Birds have certainly been sacrificed in relation to human creativity: for centuries their feathers were transformed into quill pens, a practice that continues today.(4) They are mysterious, semi-domesticated creatures, visiting gardens or bird-boxes in order to feed, vanishing only to return again and again. To be birdlike, then, may be to be inherently evasive, flitting about hither and thither 'without a care in the world'; but the expression also implies fragility and perhaps inconsequentiality. Might this recall another model of the artist too?

Our 'feathered friends' are often victims of imprisonment, there being several cage-like frameworks in A bird in the head, partly in a nod to the Surrealists’ use of this device. Another prospect of interaction is, however, the bird-box, functioning both as a shelter for visiting birds and as an occasion for the display of human imagination.(5) Such curious structures, although made with a practical purpose in mind, are complex aesthetic objects in their own right, nicely bringing out the paradoxical relationship between things done entirely for their own sake (the maker of bird-boxes often being an amateur or hobbyist), and a conscious functionality.(6) Bird-boxes project onto the creatures they are intended for a kindly consideration, anthropomorphising them whilst allowing the birds to come and go as they please. Such homes-from-home are 'user-friendly' and often ecologically-friendly too, being made from recycled materials in one’s own spare time. The boxes occupy, as it were, the mid-ground between the total freedom of the birds and their 'privatisation' as pets. The bird-box, furthermore, reminds one of the garden shed or workshop in which they have often been constructed, spaces of ambiguity and invention akin to the artist’s studio. Both sheds and studios are places in which one might get trapped, should one become convinced that something needs to be urgently expressed. They also are ideal places in which to reinvent oneself, as are too the shamanic bird costumes which two of the artists in A bird in the head have opted to employ.


1. Jacques Tourneur, Night of the Demon, Columbia Pictures, 1957, DVD issued by Mediumrare Entertainment, 2010. On the subject of birds and the occult numerous superstitions abound. One example: 'It is fear alone…that saves a swallow from injury, for it is…well known that every swallow has in him three drops of the devil’s blood.' W R Le Fanu, Seventy Years of Irish Life, 1894, p. 41, quoted in Frederick Thomas Elworthy, The Evil Eye: An Account of this Ancient and Widespread Superstition, John Murray, 1895, p. 90. Elworthy also makes reference to ancient amulets bearing images of birds with women’s faces and other human/bird combinations (Chapter X). On the alleged procedures for the flights of witches in eighteenth-century Europe, including contemporary illustrations, see Emile Grillot de Givry, Picture Museum of Sorcery, Magic & Alchemy, 1929, University Books, 1963 (Chapter VI).

2. Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, Basil Blackwell,1953.

3. For a discussion of birdsong as a potential artform see Tim Ingold, 'Totemism, Animism, and the Depiction of Animals', in Marketta Seppala, Jari-Pekka Vanhalla, and Linda Weintraub (Eds.), Animal, Anima, Animus, Pori Art Museum, Finland, 1998. The volume also contains documentation of bird-boxes by the artist Colin Beatty, one of which was included in the exhibition to which this publication relates.

4. As Joyce Irene Whalley observed in 1975, the quill pen 'was to remain the instrument used by nearly all writers, professional or amateur, from the early medieval period until just over a hundred years ago. The quill pen was made from one of the primary feathers taken from the wing of a bird – preferably a goose, but sometimes a raven, turkey, or swan. The reason for using a bird’s feather was largely governed by its availability in the various European countries. But its flexibility was an important factor and it could be sharpened to such a point that quite small writing was possible – an effect less easy to achieve with the stiffer reed – and yet the edge was not sharp enough to pierce the writing surface.'
Whalley adds further details to her account, even showing that the very name of this commonplace writing instrument relates to birds: 'The remarkable thing about the quill pen was that it changed so little over the centuries: the angle of the nib may have varied; the feathers may have been goose, turkey, or even crow; the position of the chosen feather may have differed – nevertheless, the instrument [throughout the centuries remained] much the same...'. And she notes that 'The word “pen”, which we associate with the complete object held in the hand, originally had a much more limited meaning: it comes from the Latin “penna”, a feather. The pointed end was the “nib”, or neb, a form which was taken over when the steel pen became common. In order to make the feather suitable for writing, a number of processes were required. Some of these were carried out by the penman himself…Nevertheless, it was often more convenient for the ordinary writer to make his own quill, and instructions for doing this became part of writing manuals.'
Joyce Irene Whalley, Writing Implements and Accessories, David & Charles, 1975 (reissued 1980), pp. 16, 18 and 20 respectively.

5. Alan Woodfine’s remarkable self-portrait-as-owl bird-box was a key starting point for the present show.

6. See Peter Suchin, 'The Destruction of Art as an Institution: The Role of the Amateur', in Stewart Home (Ed.), The Art Strike Handbook, London, 1989. For an account of site-specific bird-related artworks commissioned for the rural setting of Wysing in Cambridgeshire, see Peter Suchin, 'Avian Translations', included in the exhibition catalogue Wider View, Wysing Arts, 2000.

Peter Suchin is an artist, critic and curator who has contributed to many publications, including Art Monthly, Art Press, Frieze, The Guardian, Variant, and Uniformagazine.

This text had been written on the occasion of the exhibition A bird in the head curated by Sarah Woddfine and Danielle Arnaud.