Céleste Boursier-Mougenot’s Barbican installation
Whenever I bring up Céleste Boursier-Mougenot’s current installation at the Barbican, I’ve inevitably provoked an interesting reaction. But the most common response seems to go something like this: “an exhibition of finches? Why don’t you just go to an aviary?” Nevertheless, I’ve yet to see anyone else try out Boursier-Mougenot’s experiment: to take a colony of zebra-finches and release them in a room full of amplified instruments.
As you walk through the exhibition space, tiny birds swoop from nesting boxes, landing with a resounding “twang” on one of the electric or bass guitars dotted strategically around the room. Meanwhile, more peckish specimens feed from cymbals - filled to the brim with seeds and water. Those in need of a bath may indulge if they wish. Males and females co-habit in blissful harmony. Free love is celebrated, as, I discover, are bodily functions of all kinds. It soon starts to lull me into a false sense of security. I begin to tap out a rhythm on one of the cymbals, but quickly stop when I see the guard’s look of consternation. Only the birds may perform.
Trained as a musician and composer, Boursier-Mougenot developed his experimental zeal as a composer for the Pascal Rambert theatre company in Paris before starting to create works for galleries. This is the latest in a line of his installations which aim to produce sound by drawing on the rhythms of everyday life. Other noteworthy examples include Harmonichaos in which 13 vacuum cleaners are attached to harmonicas, and Videodrone, based around the visuals and noises of New York urban activity.
If it all smacks just a little of John Cage, don’t worry, it’s meant to. Mougenot takes Cage’s trademark philosophy, “everything can be music” and runs with it, encouraging us to become part of the installation by influencing the birds’ behaviour. We are led to view these “rock-star” instruments in a new light by seeing them strummed by the delicate finches. And aside from the creature who took a nose-dive millimetres from my mouth, dragging up deep-buried memories of Hitchcock’s The Birds, there’s something uniquely charming in the way they go about their business: nibbling at the guitar frets, or building nests in the strings.
As for the standard of music-making…Although not the most cooperative of ensembles - particularly in the percussion section - these finches certainly know how to maintain a relaxed stage presence. And when you add the sound of pecked cymbals and bird-song into the equation, you have the makings of something almost Messiaenic. Although, bending down to catch the tiny chirrups I couldn’t help thinking that a wider selection of instruments could have increased the impact. Perhaps a xylophone wouldn‘t have gone amiss? Or simply a cockerel or two.
Exhibition continues at the Barbican, London, until May 23