Bell Gallery at Brown University presents art exhibition examining effects of climate change on bird species

The David Winton Bell Gallery at Brown University is presenting Snæbjörnsdóttir/Wilson: The Only Show in Town, an exhibition featuring a selection of artworks made by the collaborative team in response to the plight of the saltmarsh sparrow. It is a reflection on their experience in June and July 2018, working alongside bird researchers from the Saltmarsh Sparrow Research Initiative at Jacob’s Point, RI. The species inhabits a narrow and depleting margin of North America’s East Coast and, because of the effects of climate change, is marked for extinction by the year 2050.

On view April 6‒July 7, 2019, the exhibition amplifies the team’s socially-engaged practice exploring contemporary relationships between human and non-human animals in the contexts of history, culture and the environment. An opening reception and Artists’ Talk will be held on Friday, April 5, at 5:30 pm. On April 18, at 5:30 pm, Chris Elphick will present the lecture Canaries in the salt marsh: averting extinction in an era of sea-level rise. Elphick is principal investigator of SHARP (Saltmarsh Habitation and Avian and Research Program) and a professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Connecticut. Both programs will be held in the auditorium in Brown’s List Art Building on College Hill and are free and open to the public.

Saltmarsh sparrows have evolved a highly particularized breeding habit that allows them to breed, lay, hatch and fledge chicks within 28-day cycles—the time between high tides when the marshes flood. Unfortunately, sea-level rise from climate change has shifted the equation. High tides are higher and longer, and birds that are not old enough to climb out of the nest during flooding die from exposure or drowning. While researchers look for solutions, ornithologists agree that the species will not survive. Researchers are documenting the lives of the bird—the “canaries in the salt marsh”—in hope of saving other threatened saltmarsh species.

The exhibition includes five components that parallel the artists’ experience in Jacob’s Point and represent the processes of research itself. As they entered the saltmarsh, the artists were instructed in the first rule of marsh conservation: the need to walk slowly and deliberately, to study the ground beneath their feet, and, as Wilson described, “to distinguish between promising-looking twists of dried grass and the constructions that would hold or had once held the eggs and hatchlings of saltmarsh sparrows.” In the exhibition, this experience is translated into a field of nineteen photographs depicting tangled grasses, some of which contain nests.

A 14-foot-high photograph of a blade of glasswort, a variety of saltmarsh grass, has been enlarged 17 times using an electron microscope. As part of their research, the team worked at RISD’s Nature Lab to make, in sections, high-definition scans of saltmarsh grasses from Jacob’s Point. The sections scans were then meticulously stitched together and printed for presentation. The work reflects the artists’ concern with plant blindness—the tendency of humans to ignore plant species and disregard their importance. Through extreme magnification of the image, the artists invite us to look closely, to examine the glasswort in a way not possible with the human eye, and to appreciate its beauty and ingenuity of design.

A series of wooden pallets supporting several hundred ceramic tiles snake across the gallery floor. Each tile is etched with the names of species that live in or frequent the saltmarshes. The river-like composition is emblematic of the shifting ecology and biodiversity of the site.

In the marsh the artists watched as researchers carefully captured birds in mist nets and quickly took measurements of their health, banded their legs for future tracking, and released them. The moment of release is memorialized in a series of five large, color photographs which the artists call “an homage to the carers of the birds.” The colors in these images are otherworldly; grasses are magenta, the sky a grey-pink. This manipulation in color removes the images from the realm of documentation and forecasts our future world, in which the birds that disappear at the edges of the photos are no longer simply escaping our grasp. Rather, they are exiting our world.

The artists offer only one clear representation of a saltmarsh sparrow and position it at the culmination of the exhibition. A bird blind—traditionally used in the field for observation and research—houses the three-dimensional, lifesize, moving image of the bird.

Jo-Ann Conklin, Director of the Bell Gallery, said, “In this project, it’s the artists’ intention to bring a sense of environmental interdependency to their audience and to consider how we respond to and grapple with our cultural conceptions of extinction. They believe that climate change is ‘the only show in town’ at this critical time for the planet. Some day soon, their images will be all we have to remember this remarkable bird.”

About Snæbjörnsdóttir/Wilson
For the last twenty years, the collaborative artist team Snæbjörnsdóttir/Wilson have been practicing and producing in the field of contemporary art on an international stage with projects and exhibitions in Australia, Europe, UK and the United States. They have built a reputation that resonates in many fields: contemporary art, animal studies, human geography, museology, the environmental sciences and more. In this respect, it has been their strategic intent to drive the idea that contemporary art is a significant voice, made possible by the application of unique blends of original methods and cross-disciplinary appropriation. They also examine what it means, in the context of crisis, (e.g. extinction), to consider and practice art as a tool of disruption and mediation, how passivity is a weapon and how complex cross-disciplinary relationships can be managed productively.

Snæbjörnsdóttir/Wilson’s artwork is multidisciplinary in nature, typically taking the form of installation, involving anything from sculptural interventions, found objects and materials, video, audio, drawing, photography and texts. Notwithstanding their participation in international biennales and major gallery shows, their adherence to the significance and advantage of site-specificity has often led them to intentionally exhibit in smaller and otherwise most obscure venues.

Bryndís Snæbjörnsdóttir (PhD) is Professor and MA programme director at the Iceland Academy of the Arts. Mark Wilson (PhD) is Professor in Fine Art and Course Leader for the MA in Contemporary Fine Art at the University of Cumbria, Institute of the Arts, UK.

About David Winton Bell Gallery
The David Winton Bell Gallery, an affiliated program of the Brown Arts Initiative, is Brown University’s contemporary art gallery and home to an important part of the University’s permanent art collection. The Gallery hosts four to five exhibitions each year with an emphasis on contemporary works by artists who address important issues of our time.

Broadly concerned with the presentation of exemplary work by artists living today, the Bell Gallery takes pride in showing artwork irrespective of media, content or subject and makes special efforts to support and show the work of emerging or under-recognized practitioners. Alongside the contemporary arts, the Gallery also makes use of its art historical collections, programming exhibitions on the arts and culture of the last five centuries. The Bell Gallery maintains a permanent collection of more than 6,000 works of art, dating from the 16th century to the present, with particularly rich holdings in contemporary art and works on paper.

Founded in 1971, the Gallery is named in memory of David Winton Bell, a member of the Brown University class of 1954. It is housed in the Albert and Vera List Art Building designed by internationally renowned architect Philip Johnson, that also includes classrooms, lecture halls, and extensive studio space. Free and open to the public, the Gallery is open Monday – Wednesday and Friday 11 am – 4 pm; Thursday 1 – 9 pm; and Saturday and Sunday 1 – 4 pm, and located at 64 College Street in Providence, Rhode Island.

More information:

Snæbjörnsdóttir/Wilson Escape/Release #4, 2019. Digital photograph, 42 x 28 inches. Courtesy of the artists