After Audubon was a small series of small collages I made in 2009.
Always delighted by the naturalist books I was given as a child, I decided on a whim to take home a biography of John James Audubon (1785-1851) along with some books on flora and fauna that a local library was decommissioning. Turning the pages I was inspired, as always, by the highly detailed images, but increasingly alarmed by the history of ornithology. This science struggled for millennia to capture the essence of a living bird, while detailing all the specificities of its kind – a feat that cannot apparently be achieved through observation alone (most birds move fast). Artists and naturalists sweated over this problem in their drive to create a comprehensive knowledge and visual taxonomy of the winged world.
The answer that Audubon famously found was to kill the bird, stuff it, and arrange it on a wire armature. The wire permitted the artist/murderer to recreate, in death, the bird’s charming turn of the head, or noble profile, as well as the pattern of its wings, or the quality of its tail feathers.
My foray into the world of Audubon coincided with my reading of Elizabeth Grosz’s brilliant 2008 book, Chaos, Territory, Art. Here, she explores the history of naturalism through some of its most divisive and obscure figures. By returning to Charles Darwin, she finds that his ideas about the diversity of species have been (perhaps intentionally) misunderstood. Instead of somehow advocating for the survival of the fittest, as he has often been presumed to have done, Darwin instead, in Grosz’s reading, observes and meditates upon how species seek instead to proliferate. In other words, members of a species do not aim to become singular, kingly, supreme. They aim instead to become more.
The distinction is meaningful for gender, nature (which, wonderfully, Grosz does not conflate), and for the consideration of art. For as in nature, where animals of all kinds put themselves in the path of danger in order to be visible, to be intensely present to a potential mate, to find food, to take water, so too does art take the same risk. It puts itself out there, as it were, on the field, in the air, at the edge of the ravine, in order to be seen. Taking this point to its extreme, art, Grosz argues, does two things: art can make visible, and art can make intense. Art, she claims, does nothing more.
This claim might rub anyone the wrong way. Surely an art of protest also protests? Surely art sanctioned by the state upholds the ideology of that state? And surely non-objective art seeks something rather different than “making visible”?
I understand Grosz to be saying something brilliantly simple. An art of protest intensifies and makes visible the struggle in question. State-sanctioned art makes palpable and underscores the hold of the state over its subjects. Non-objective art makes intense colour, or matter, the ways of making – brush marks, canvas, repetition, or its absence.
No matter how the art in question is politicized (or pretends not to be, which is the same thing), and no matter what result or affect comes of the encounter with the art, this is what it does. It makes visible, and it makes intense.
As I was reflecting on this argument, which remains enormously potent for me, I undertook the collages that can be seen here. I needed to work out on paper some of my struggle with the idea that artists such as Audubon had to kill the birds he loved so much, in order to “make visible, and make intense” their beauty and their life. I needed, in turn, to make this awful contradiction visible, and to make intense the loss of all those birds for the sake of human knowledge, pleasure, and mastery.
Between the sumptuously depressing history of Audubon and the brilliant, polemical ideas of Elizabeth Grosz, a personal story also needed space and time. Is there any person of difference who has not known the risk of making their true selves visible, even to the people they love? It is a risk to speak truth to family. Just as the Audubon Society website makes no mention of the thousands of birds that Audubon and his followers killed in their “conservation” efforts, so too do families agree to forget the painful contradictions that give them a shape to show the outside world, while draining the life within.
The greatest form of resistance to this problem of families – to which I think no member agrees but in which all are coerced to participate – is to make art. To be creative is to survive. To act out of that place of certainty – or even doubt – in order to make something seen, palpable. In so doing, no matter how veiled the transaction between truth and form, I always feel I am undertaking something as important as all the work of healing that goes on in my body unbidden, like making white blood cells or processing toxins through organs I contain but never see. Somehow, these small collages are miniature acts of contrition on behalf of those murdered birds, and to the victims of those family dynamics that are somehow echoed for me in the story of Audubon.
At the same time they are my way out of those dynamics. I wish this were true also for the birds.