diamond geezer

 Monday, March 22, 2010

Zebra finches playing guitars.
At the Barbican.
Shouldn't work.
But does.

It took me three attempts to get to see Céleste Boursier-Mougenot's installation. I turned up on the first weekend to be faced by a half-hour queue, so decided to try later. I turned up on the second weekend and the queue was twice as long, so I gave up again. Third weekend, though, I turned up as the gallery opened and joined the queue from the off. It still took 40 minutes to get in, but this time I was determined not to be diverted from my goal.

The queue was full of middle class arty-types. There were a lot of parents with tousle-haired primary-aged offspring ("come on Max, stop that") as well as several young couples in designer geekspecs. The exhibition has a capacity of only 25 - and no time limit once within - so we had to queue patiently until those inside chose to emerge. "Oh come on why are they taking so long?" we grumbled while we waited, just as those stood further back in the queue would soon be grumbling about us.

Once through the curtain, a series of steps led down into the long curve of the Barbican's art gallery. It was dark, and there was nothing to see but a bit of sand and some flickering guitars projected onto the walls. Only the final third of the gallery held genuine interest for visitors, because that's the end where the zebra finches were. Scores of them, freely flying, and kept in their place because they won't fly into the dark space towards the exit. Welcome to the artistic aviary.

The finches were quite delightful. Small and tweety, with bright red beaks and black/white facial stripes. There were birds everywhere - on the ground, on perches and in nesting boxes - and they delighted in flying and swooping all around. But what made this artwork special was the nature of those perches. Microphone stands, for example, poked into islands of sand scattered all around the gallery. Upturned cymbals too, used as receptacles for seed and water so that the finches' nibbling and slurping acted as light percussion. But the best perches were the guitars.

In total there were eight guitars, clamped horizontally, with their strings facing upwards to create an inviting musical surface. Each time a finch zoomed in and landed - twang - the sound was amplified and broadcast from a speaker on the edge of the gallery. Move - twang - hop - twang - hoppity hop - twang twang twang. The sounds were less impressive from the three bass guitars because their strings were thicker and therefore harder to tweak. But elsewhere, so long as the birds alighted on the fingerboard or bridge, a series of random sounds created a staccato avian concerto.

It was nothing too overwhelming, to be honest. The birds seemed adept at perching on the mike stands rather than the guitars, so the strumming and plucking tended to be less prevalent than I'd hoped. There were few continuous bars of music, let alone extended melodies, so don't come expecting more than a few notes. But if you're standing beside the right guitar at the right time, expect magic moments. I'm still entranced by the memory of one zebra finch, close-up, launching into a virtuoso performance combining strumming and plucking with tweeting and singing. Like a guitar god showing off in front of a stadium crowd, this finch rocked.

Céleste Boursier-Mougenot
27 February 2010 - 23 May 2010
The Curve, Barbican Arts Centre
Tickets: Free admission
Times: Open daily 11am-8pm (late every Thu until 10pm) (go midweek if you can)

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