Sydney Biennale: Bird bureaucracy strips sculpture of main attraction
A British artist has created birdseed sculptures for Sydney's Biennale, but bureaucratic hurdles mean there are no birds to eat them, writes Clarissa Sebag-Montefiore.
In the Victorian-era Mortuary Station building in central Sydney, among the florid carved cherubs and gargoyles, sit three custom-made aviaries.
The aviaries, which are part of an installation by British artist Marco Chiandetti for the 20th Biennale of Sydney, contain different body parts - a chunky thigh, a human trunk, an unfurled arm - cast in either plaster or dense, mottled birdseed.
Fifteen or so Indian myna birds placed in the cages will, Chiandetti hopes, consume the edible artwork. To that end, the Biennale has hired a full-time licensed bird handler to look after the venue, clean the aviaries and keep the birds healthy.
There's just one hitch - the aviaries, for now at least, are empty.
Chiandetti wanted to make a commentary on immigration, racism and fear of the foreign by showcasing a bird introduced to Australia in the late 19th Century. Now considered a pest and nicknamed "flying rats" due to their scavenging behaviour, the Indian myna is a bird, he says, "everyone hates".
He is still waiting for a licence to exhibit the myna birds, sourced from a local research facility, from the New South Wales Department of Primary Industries (DPI).
The fact this is the first time that someone has asked permission to display myna birds, which are considered an invasive species, has led to a month of "very involved negotiation".
"There's a pretty rigorous code of conduct," says the 42-year-old London-based artist. "Even though they are a pest species [and] everyone hates them, while they are with us, they are in our care."
'Who is invading who?'
North Sydney Council is just one local government that offers an "Action Program Information Kit" for "backyard trapping/euthanasia" of myna birds, an animal it declares "one of the most invasive animals in the world".
Yet different rules apply for the artwork. A detailed checklist from the DPI covers everything from the distance between each perch to the exact products used for cleaning.
Chiandetti was inspired to create the piece after reading a book about Australian birds. He noticed the myna bird was not included, despite its prevalence. A friend explained: "That's because they're not native to Australia."
The birds became an apt metaphor for the artist to "quietly" address Australia's treatment of asylum seekers and refugees.
"It's a pest species, it's seen as invasive," he says. "And I think those words are extremely loaded … when is something invasive? And who is invading who?"
One ornithologist Chiandetti interviewed had a theory that the loathing felt towards myna birds was partly "based on an ingrained racism because [the birds] are not from here".
To emphasise his point, Chiandetti has used only Australian materials to build his artwork. The aviaries, which he sees as giant sculptures, were created using reclaimed Australian timber and have been planted with native grasses in Australian soil.
The piece, however, also has a second reading. In some ancient mythologies, birds were seen as a carrier of the spirit from this life to the next. This is pertinent symbolism for the gothic sandstone Mortuary Station, which is usually closed to the public.
Return to the earth
The Mortuary Station was once a last stop in Sydney for the bereaved and the dead. It was originally built to facilitate the transport of corpses on a special train to Rookwood Cemetery, the largest necropolis in the southern hemisphere.
As the birds eat the seed arms and legs, these "body parts" will slowly disappear, blending back into the dirt and helping new life to grow. Chiandetti explains: "In death everything goes back to nature. Our bodies become part of the environment again. There is this sense of living and dying within the work."
In 1968 the German-Swiss artist Dieter Roth made a self-portrait bust out of chocolate and birdseed, which inspired Chiandetti. Created in a transient material that rots and disintegrates, or is eaten, there is the expectation that Chiandetti's work, like Roth's, will eventually either fall apart or be consumed. "And art is something that is consumed, especially now," he says.
But whether the myna birds will be given the opportunity to do their part remains to be seen.