Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Where the Wild Things (Guit)ar

Céleste Boursier-Mougenot, from here to ear. (Photo courtesy of the artist and Paula Cooper Gallery, New York.)

It feels counter-intuitive that in order to reach the aviary nested inside The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts you must descent several flights of stairs to end up in the basement. But this is where, even in the dead of winter, the birds sing and where they also play, but in ways you'd least expect.

The lower level gallery is aflutter with 70 zebra finches who alight on a forest of open-tuned electric guitars – 10 white Gibson Les Pauls and four Gibson Thunderbird basses – lying strings up on a series of stands erected at the four corners of the temperature-controlled MMFA Contemporary Art Space. Small and grey with tiny toothpick feet and triangular beaks the colour of persimmons, the birds fly on and off the musical instruments, triggering a chordal crescendo of wailing distortion that fluctuates in frequency and intensity in accordance to their perching patterns.

It's the kind of rock performance formerly made famous by plumed rock stars of the bipedal kind – Jimi Hendrix, Steve Lukather, Eddie Van Halen to name a few. But when executed by songbirds the notes fly higher and the permutations appear endless, despite the performers actually winging it. Their gentle touch produces a powerful reverb. Tweet, twang, thank-you ma'-am.

From here to ear, as this unique art-meets-nature installation is called, is the brainchild of French artist, composer and former punk rock musician Céleste Boursier-Mougenot, his country's representative at last year's Venice Biennial. Born in 1961 and specializing in acoustic exhibitions he calls living music, Boursier-Mougenot built this one on a childhood memory of watching birds sitting on overhead wires in his hometown of Nice. Also inspiring him was 20th century avant-garde music and performance and the role of technology in creating an immersive sonic experience. He wants to extend the capabilities of electrified instruments as much as he wants to show that music does not need a controlled setting in order to exist. First conceived in 1999, from here to ear has travelled to art museums in Paris, Milan, London, New York and Brisbane. Montreal is the 19th presentation, and the largest to date.

Photo: Justine Février/Montreal Museum of Fine Arts

At the museum through March 27, the Canadian premiere of from here to ear uses domesticated birds bred in Thetford Mines in rural Quebec. The mixed-age flock is split evenly down gender lines – an equal number of Chrissie Hyndes and Jimmy Pages, if you will. Except that the performers are more like actors than musicians. They have been trained to play a role in flying freely among humans, without fear or inhibition. To ensure they don't just fly right out the door – some are daring enough – a chain link curtain separates the performing space from the corridor beyond. Visitors to the exhibition must line up quietly first on the outside before entering a handful at a time. Everyone is warned not to move too suddenly in case they agitate the artists, and not to take pictures. The birds take it all quite in stride.

They do as they have been raised to do; they act like birds who are comfortable hopping about on fret boards cued to a particular note. Like the little megalomaniacs they are, the birds want to perform and be admired. They understand the cause and effect relationship between themselves and the instruments laid at their feet. They know that if they hit the fret board in a certain way it lets out a sound and that sound is something they want to imitate with a chirp and chest-revealing flourish of wings before gliding down to the sand below to rock a bit, and also roll. They like the humans who move around them with the silence and goggle-eyed respect of one allowed into the inner sanctum of an animal's lair.

Artist/musician Céleste Boursier-Mougenot. (Photo: Andrea Shea)
The finches, gregarious by nature, seek their spectators out, perching on shoulders and shoes and peering with inquisitive beady eyes into bemused faces, sizing up the situation. That interaction results in more music, which makes the point of the piece, the aural implications of natural movement, take on the more human dimension of understanding how art benefits from the presence of an audience. The relationship is fluid. "Everything we do is music," John Cage once said. But it's not all work.

In between impromptu jams on an E string, the feathered find refuge in the birdie condo erected for them on a nearby wall. There, they lead their own birdie lives in secretive solitude. Each day, museum staff remove eggs laid during the excitement of an aural set. A team of veterinarians also attends, but not that you can see. Operating behind the scenes, they ensure that the birds are well taken care of. A happy bird is an active bird, as Boursier-Mougenot has observed, and so they are pampered with beds of straw and fed the finest of seed served up on the platters of upended Zildjian cymbals hidden among the high grasses introduced to the gallery's interior. It's a desirable gig, and one only the birds can play.

Before opening his exhibition to the public, Boursier-Mougenot spent 10 days fine-tuning the guitars and Fender amps in determining where the notes would come from and how they would sound. So while the exhibition leaves much up to chance a lot of preparation takes place backstage, so to speak, to ensure the delivery of a three-dimensional sound experience. He's the artist but the birds are the flying fingers, never failing to strike the right note.

Deirdre Kelly is a Toronto-based journalist, author and internationally recognized dance critic. She writes for Dance Magazine in New York and the Dance Gazette in London, and is a contributor to the International Dictionary of Ballet (St. James Press). A staff writer at The Globe and Mail, she was her newspaper's award-winning dance critic from 1985 until 2001 before transitioning to the Style section as the fashion reporter. She has also served as the paper's rock critic and as an investigative reporter in the visual arts with a focus on art crime. The best-selling author of Paris Times Eight and Ballerina: Sex, Scandal and Suffering Behind the Symbol of Perfection, recently re-released in paperback, she writes on dance, theatre, the visual arts and fashion for Critics At Large.

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