OMAHA, Nebraska — It is not exactly whopping news that reliably red, heavily agricultural Nebraska sports many powerful Republicans, including its governor, both US senators, and all three congressional representatives. Nor is it a surprise that these predictably pro-Trump politicians are climate change deniers with stridently anti-environmental voting records.
The whopping news instead involves birds and floods. Nebraska, with its grasslands, is a major habitat for birds, whose population has declined precipitously over the past several decades. The loss of grasslands due to escalating cultivation, rampant use of agricultural chemicals, and climate change is the primary culprit.
Floods are also occurring with more frequency and intensity. When a sudden March 2019 heatwave melted a record snowfall, unprecedented floods inundated vast amounts of farmland, resulting in severe economic distress; with climate change, devastating flooding may well become routine. While its politicians, with their heads in the sand or — perhaps — in pots of lobbying money, remain willfully oblivious, rock-ribbed Republican Nebraska is facing such an environmental crisis that even the state bird, the Western Meadowlark, with (according to audubon.org), its “sweet, liquid notes,” is being severely threatened.
Enter Canadians Richard Ibghy and Marilou Lemmens, an artist duo from Quebec. While on a months-long residency at the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts (a Nebraska treasure) in Omaha, Ibghy and Lemmens, who initially intended to concentrate on a video concerning bird sounds and bird-human interaction, expanded things to also focus on this local crisis with global significance.
They combed through economic and agricultural journals and reports; met and befriended scientists, conservationists, and activists working on the front lines; visited bird sanctuaries and a zoo to meet with caretakers; and traveled to rural areas, investigating the complex, cross-species relationship between birds and humans, as well as the economic and environmental forces dramatically impacting on birds. Their exhibition, with the buoyant title Look, it’s daybreak, dear, time to sing, at the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts (organized by renowned Canadian curator, art writer, and art historian Sylvie Fortin, who is the center’s curator-in-residence) is at once playful and political, whimsical and sobering.
On several tables sit the most delightful, seemingly abstract small sculptures from the artists’ Futures series, which refers to commodities contracts traded on stock exchanges, but also to possible futures. Made of wood pieces dyed different colors, cut into rudimentary geometric shapes, and arranged in very particular ways, at times incorporating string and thin metal rods, these decidedly non-monumental sculptures evoke important art movements: think of really minimal Minimalism, pint-sized Modernist abstraction, and shrunken Russian Constructivism. They also suggest the wooden blocks children use for building and games. The twist here is that these beguiling mini-sculptures are actually based on data, graphs, and charts. They are graphical representations of the economic and industrial forces so affecting Nebraska, and its birds.
“Hedging vs. Speculation on the Chicago Wheat Market (1996 and 2011)” — all works were made in 2019 — features small wood blocks in basic configurations resembling sculptures by Carl Andre. As commodity trading increases and wheat farming expands, more and more grasslands are being plowed under and plied with chemicals, robbing birds of their natural habitat and polluting what’s left.
“Sales Volume of the 10 Top Meat Processing Companies (2014)” has four simple constructions. With each, either two or three colored geometric pieces of wood are attached to a wooden spindle. Lovely to look at, this sculpture/graph addresses a pressing matter. A large percentage of corn (the top crop) grown in Nebraska is for animal feed, primarily cattle and hogs. Grasslands are disappearing and bird populations are plummeting so that people can eat meat and corporations can make tons of money.
Without its label — and the artists’ handwritten labels give everything a personal touch — “Pounds of Glyphosate Applied to Top Soybean States (1996 and 2006)” would be a charming suite of five handmade minimalist sculptures, each pairing a low block of wood with a towering one, and each a different color (red, orange, light blue, dark green, blue). With the label, however, this work visualizes the exponential increase in the use of the weed-killer Glyphosate during this 10-year period. Native weeds, while bad for farmers, are an important foodstuff for birds. It is no wonder that so many Great Plains birds have been lost. Humans are seizing their homes and eradicating their food.
Although the artists make no fuss about this, they have fashioned their fanciful sculptures from wood found at their Quebec farm and colored by dyes made from local berries and vegetation. The sustainability-based artworks contrast starkly with widespread chemical-intensive farming. The elongated and horizontal “Movement of Spot and Futures Market Prices for Agricultural Commodities (2005-2012)” is the most maximal work, with multiple parts and colors, varying heights and swooping shapes. This physicalized economic data looks spectacular while making the market forces shaping Nebraska’s ecosphere immediate and concrete.
Also included are tabletop wood sculptures from the Survival Editions of Popular Wooden Games series, which resemble antiquated board games but have startling import. In one, a player rolls a ball down the lane that looks a bit like a miniature bowling alley to hit distant target balls. The title: “Plant and Insect Community Knock Out.” In Nebraska, native plants and insects are indeed being knocked out by pesticides, herbicides, and insecticides, disrupting the food chain and causing havoc for birds. This little fun game points to an ongoing emergency.
In their disarming, alluring, and often humorous way, Ibghy and Lemmens map out the dire situation, while inspiring viewers to imagine alternative futures based on care and respect for non-human beings, rather than wanton disregard of them. Birds are at the core of the show — birds which have been on this planet far longer than humans, and which most scientists trace to dinosaurs in the Late Jurassic Period.
Displayed around the room are videos of bird-human interactions in Nebraska and Canada from the series, The Violence of Care. In Central Quebec’s Carden Alvar Provincial Park, the organization Wildlife Preservation Canada is addressing the plight of gravely threatened Loggerhead Shrikes. In the video “Banding Young Eastern Loggerhead Shrikes in the Carden Alvar,” biologists and conservationists using nets in a large, outdoor aviary catch these young birds, which are bred in several US and Canadian sites and then transported to the aviary and eventually released. After netting them, the scientists examine them, measure their feathers and wings, and attach bands to their legs. This looks disturbingly violent (hence the series title, though no harm is done) yet is essential. The odds are steep and the Loggerhead Shrike is facing extinction in Canada (according to a much-cited report in Science, almost 3 billion birds, or about 29% of the North American bird population, have been lost since 1970).
From wounded crows being rehabilitated and released, to a zoo caretaker assiduously, even lovingly, cleaning a habitat for puffins and Common Murres as they paddle back and forth, and two scientists on a five-minute bird count to determine approximate bird populations, thoughtfulness and respect are communicated in these videos, not anthropocentric mayhem.
In “Feeding Cottonball,” a Nebraska woman hand-feeds Cottonball, an aged hen who can no longer make it to the henhouse to eat on her own. This is a normal, ethical action, one able creature helping another enfeebled one. Tears, however, are in order, given the surrounding context. Cottonball is hungry. She is being assisted. By a human. And that’s very different from the many birds elsewhere in Nebraska that are being summarily erased.
Completing the exhibition is the video animation What Birds Talk About When They Talk, projected on a plywood panel with the top half left raw and the bottom half painted white (the projection gives everything a sky-blue tint). In this elemental work, bird songs and calls — the birds are never seen and their intricate sounds are mesmerizing — are accompanied by intermittent short texts.
Sometimes the text is simply the bird’s name or its sound transcribed into phonics. Sometimes it’s the classification of a particular call (the Spotted Sandpiper’s “alarm call near nest” and its “flight song) or an attempt to understand what bird sounds might mean, to us and to them (a Jackdaw’s plaintive call is interpreted as “Come back. Come back. Oh, come back!”). The video explores our endless fascination with birds but also our separation from them. We thrill to their sounds but can only guess about their languages, thoughts, and motivations.
Interspersed are succinct examples of the interrelationship between birds and humans, some from myths and creation stories (each morning the Norse god Odin sent two ravens, Huginn and Muninn, out to explore the world and bring him news) and one from pop culture (audio from a Looney Tunes cartoon featuring Tweety, the anthropomorphic canary). A passage from the 12th century Persian Farid Ud-Din Attar’s epic Sufi poem, The Conference of the Birds (“I create a tumult among the roses as well as in the hearts of lovers. The secrets of love are known to me”) is accompanied by mellifluous bird sounds — the gorgeous language of the poem juxtaposed with the sonic “poetry” of birds.
Unlike the calamities unfolding in the grasslands-turned-farmlands, in this enthralling video, people (with their words) and birds (with their songs) share the world without human-imposed hierarchies and domination.
Look, it’s daybreak, dear, time to sing continues at the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts (724 South 12th Street, Omaha, Nebraska) through February 15. The exhibition is organized by curator-in-residence Sylvie Fortin.