Review: The Birds and the Bees

The Birds and the Bees, Siteworks 2017, Bundanon Trust, Illaroo, NSW, September 23, 2017

The botanists of the 18th and 19th century in Europe drew connections between plant species and humans, via illustrations and poetry. Goethe wrote a long poem as an introduction to his botanical work, The Metamorphosis of Plants, 1790. In his 1791 book Botanic Garden, Erasmus Darwin also proved that he understood the flourishes, festoons and flounces of various vegetal parts: from Giant Oaks that wave their branches dark, to the dwarf moss that clings upon their bark, what Beaux and Beauties crowd the gaudy groves, and woo and win their vegetable loves. There, in plant systems, such as described by botanical classifier Carl Linnaeus, were the answers to the connective sensual links between human and plant. There were several writers including Goethe and Elizabeth Wolstenholme Elmy who wrote about plant parts in this genre of writing that can only be called erotica, or at least bawdy literature. What was it about the plant world that fired these writers’ sexual imagination, their fantasies of romantic, even carnal, pleasure?

Whatever drove Darwin and Goethe, has also driven the curatorial team of the Bundanon Trust, including Deborah Ely and John Baylis, in the 2017 Siteworks exhibition, The Birds and the Bees. Erotic readings and disciplinary cross-fertilisation were in abundance during this roving exhibition. The exhibition included artist projections over the property dam, orchestral manoeuvres around the edge of the creeks, bird recordings amongst the tall gum trees (birds imitating humans and humans imitating birds) and flautists buzzing their Rimsky Korsakov flights of bees via five flutes positioned around the heritage garden, behind Arthur Boyd’s main historic home.

During the exhibition’s open weekend, temperatures rose to 38 degrees Celsius, causing a brood of art lovers to wander, in a heat-inebriated daze, into the tent where a program of scientists, such as Mandyam Srinivasan, were speaking about the individual lives of bees and their relations to bird life. A hot wind blew across the paddocks around the Bundanon homestead, causing this writer to stagger down to the river, wade through the manky mud and silky riverweeds and plunge into the icy water. Walking back from the river, around the dam, I stumbled upon the Splinter Orchestra’s performative work The Listening Forest, where a twenty-two-piece collective including clarinet, flute, didgeridoo, turntable plus metal bowls and singer created nature-like sounds and rhythms, not quite mimicking the bush, not quite intervening either. The problem with many environmental artworks is that there is a human-centred bind where artists are imposing their will on a landscape, even if the drive is to create awareness for ecological fragility. These kinds of works infringe and impact on the bush, and are mostly unsuccessful. The Splinter Orchestra, however, avoided that trap by arranging themselves up in the hills, on the far side of the dam, standing out on a peninsula of land in the middle of the dam and so on. The sounds of their ‘music’ harmonised with the sounds of the land – the snuffles of wombats, the cracks of twigs and branches, the piping shriek of birds, and the belch of frogs. These humanmade sounds, from western musical instruments, participated in the movement of air through the bush itself. Humans cannot escape their longing to belong, to participate, to be included. This FOMO is a basic human foible. While the Splinter Orchestra did not impose, it did smack of desperately wanting to be part of something. Of what? The bush, that unknowable, unwieldy, unending place.

Five flautists in the homestead garden could claim the same victory of avoiding imposition or overbearing obstructions of nature. Led by Elia Bosshard, the round-robin staggering of Korsakov’s Flight of the Bumblebee music meant that there was a constant repetition and sense of rhythmic iteration. The garden was packed with people, young and old, frozen in their careful listening, and as the breeze lifted some of the day’s heat, and the stars blinked at us from above, the sensory receptions were intense. This is considered a difficult piece of music to play, and for many of us, it is a very clichéd, even irritating, score. However the venue, the weather, the crowds and implication of the movement and communication amongst bees around a garden was moving.

Finally, late at night, Katia Molino and Michael Cohen enthralled audiences in the tiny ‘single man’s hut’ that sits on the hillside opposite the main homestead. There the two actors read erotic literature from colonial texts that described the biology of female clitoris, labia and vagina through the voice of an avid ‘amateur biology observer.’ More bawdy than erotic, the 19th century garb and smell of fresh bread being sliced and shared amongst the audience certainly created a colonial experience. However, for this writer, it was a little bit too much of a reminder of school excursions to Old Sydney Town at Gosford.

Bundanon Trust is a magical place, a rural pastoral property set in the bush, along the river. Siteworks, and this particular performance art-focused program, is the perfect opportunity to bring environmental art and climate change issues to public attention. If art is a litmus test for the concerns of a nation, then this exhibition and program is a fitting reminder that temperatures are rising and we are starting to turn to one another and ask: will it ever rain again? Art does nothing, if not bring our attention to the value of our human existence.



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Splinter Orchestra1, Image Julie Ryan.jpg

Splinter Orchestra, The Listening Forest, 2017, performance, The Birds and the Bees, Siteworks 2017, Bundanon Trust, Illaroo, NSW, September 23, 2017.

Heidrun Lohr

Hide, Barbara Campbell, Image Heidrun Lohr.jpg

Barbara Campbell, Hide, 2017, The Birds and the Bees, Siteworks 2017, Bundanon Trust, Illaroo, NSW, September 23, 2017. 

Heidrun Lohr

Kath Fries Api-centre, Image Bundanon Trust2 jpg.jpg

Kath Fries, Api-centre, Installation view, The Birds and the Bees, Siteworks 2017, Bundanon Trust, Illaroo, NSW, September 23, 2017.

Bundanon Trust

A Dissimulation of Birds, Work and Image Nigel Helyer.jpg

A Dissimulation of Birds, Nigel Helyer, 2017, Installation view, The Birds and the Bees, Siteworks 2017, Bundanon Trust, Illaroo, NSW, September 23, 2017.

Nigel Helyer

Dr Prudence Gibson is a Post Doctoral Research Fellow at UNSW Art and Design whose research includes plant art, eco-aesthetics and related philosophy. Her books include Covert Plants, Punctum 2018, The Plant Contract, Brill Rodopi 2018, Aesthetics After Finitude, Re.Press 2016, Janet Laurence: The Pharmacy of Plants, NSWPress 2015 and The Rapture of Death, Boccalatte Books 2010.

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