Snæbjörnsdóttir /Wilson: The Only Show in Town
The David Winton Bell Gallery will present Snæbjörnsdóttir/Wilson: The Only Show in Town from April 6 to July 7, 2019. An opening reception with a lecture by the artists is scheduled for Friday, April 5. On Thursday, April 18, Chris Elphick, principal investigator of the Saltmarsh Habitation and Avian and Research Program will discuss “Canaries in the salt marsh: averting extinction in an era of sea-level rise.” Both lectures began at 5:30 pm. They will be held in the List Art Building auditorium, and at free and open to the public.
Snæbjörnsdóttir/Wilson’s research-based practice explores contemporary relationships between human and non-human animals in the contexts of history, culture and the environment. The Only Show in Town will comprise artworks made in response to the plight of the saltmarsh sparrow, resident in the world only along a narrow and depleted margin of the east coast of North America and, because of the effects of climate changes, marked for extinction by the year 2050.
During the summer of 2018, Snæbjörnsdóttir/Wilson worked alongside biologists studying saltmarsh sparrows at Jacob’s Point in Warren, RI. Saltmarsh sparrows have evolved a highly particularized breeding habit that allows them to mate, lay, hatch, and fledge chicks within 28 day cycles – the time between high tides when the marshes flood. Unfortunately, sea-level rise from climate change has shifted the equation. High tides are higher and longer, and birds that are not old enough to climb out of the nest during flooding die from exposure or drowning. While researchers look for solutions, ornithologists agree that the species will not survive. The biologists aim to fill gaps in our knowledge of the species and to build support in hope of saving other saltmarsh species.
In The Only Show in Town, Snæbjörnsdóttir/Wilson “represent the process of research itself.” They invite us to share their experience of the saltmarsh, which Wilson describes as “the significant search for some understanding not yet known.”
As they entered the marsh the artists were instructed about the need to walk slowly and deliberately, to, as Wilson described, “distinguish between promising-looking twists of dried grass and the constructions that would hold or had once held the eggs and hatchlings of saltmarsh sparrows.” In the exhibition this experience is translated into a field of nineteen photographs depicting tangles grasses, some of which contain nest.
A 172” high photograph of a blade of glasswort, a saltmarsh grass, reflects the artists’ concern with plant blindness—the tendency of humans to ignore plant species and disregard their importance. Through extreme magnification of the image, the artists invite us to examine the glasswort in a way not possible with the human eye, and to appreciate its beauty and ingenuity of design.
In the marsh, researchers carefully captured birds in mist nets and took measurements and banded their legs before releasing them. The moment of release is memorialized in a series of five large photographs, which the artist call “an homage to the carers of the birds.” The colors in these images are otherworldly. This manipulation in color removes the images from the realm of documentation and forecasts our future world, in which the birds that disappear at the edges of the photos are no longer simply escaping our grasp; they are instead exiting our world.
The exhibition culminates in one clear representation of a saltmarsh sparrow. A bird blind houses the three-dimensional, life size, moving image of the bird. Someday soon, such images will be all we have to remember this remarkable bird.
For the last twenty years, the collaborative artist team Snæbjörnsdóttir/Wilson have been producing in the field of contemporary art on an international stage with projects in Australia, Europe, UK and the United States. They have built a reputation that resonates in many fields: contemporary art, animal studies, human geography, museology, the environmental sciences and more. In this respect, it has been their strategic intent to drive the idea that contemporary art is a significant voice, made possible by the application of unique blends of original methods and cross-disciplinary appropriation.
Snæbjörnsdóttir (PhD) is Professor and MA program director at the Iceland University of the Arts. Wilson (PhD) is Professor in Fine Art and Course leader in MA Contemporary Fine Art at the University of Cumbria, Institute of the Arts, UK.