In a small, darkened room at Lotusland, there’s a video playing that is so suspenseful it’s almost unbearable. In Bobe’s Legend, Milan-based performance artist Robert Gligorov lies on his back with his profile to the camera. When he opens his mouth, a live bird pokes its head out and looks around. Excruciating seconds go by before the baby bird leaves this unusual nest and flies away. The same action is repeated several times with different small birds, each one acting more carefully than the one before it. Multiple questions crowd the mind as one waits for each of these creatures to leap to safety — what would happen if he coughed? Or worse yet, swallowed? How did the artist manage to hold still as tiny claws and beaks poked the inside of his mouth and scratched the tender skin of his lips?
Bobe’s Legend is just one of more than 50 provocative works that guest curator Nancy Gifford has assembled for Flock, the latest in a series of contemporary art exhibitions to take place at Lotusland, the world-renowned botanical garden in Montecito. For the occasion, 35 international artists have transformed the galleries and gardens there into an extended meditation on the fate of birds and their habitats in an increasingly inhospitable world. Visitors who remember Swarm, Lotusland’s 2013 art exhibit about bees, will be delighted to find that while the same sophisticated sensibility evident in that show is at work, Flock is augmented by an even more expansive vision and includes seven delightful installations that go beyond the gallery walls and out into the gardens.
The first room to receive the Flock treatment is the salon where Lotusland ordinarily presents lectures. There one can see large photos by Sharon Beals showing nests and eggs that have been collected by various natural history museums. These elegant, formal compositions express the incredible variation in nest-building styles and materials, even among birds of the same species. These images are in turn surrounded by Nathan Huff’s dramatic owl wallpaper, and a vitrine on the far wall contains the carefully arranged remains of several meals eaten by the owls that live and hoot at Lotusland. The show continues in the courtyard between the buildings with several pieces that attempt to capture birds’ irrepressible energy. Carlos Padilla’s sound/font sculpture creates patterns on the surface of water that emanate from sound recordings of night birds. The space above visitors’ heads is filled with dozens of empty black birdcages; their doors open to reinforce the message of the piece’s title, which is “Silent Spring.”
Inside the galleries that have been carved out of Madame Ganna Walska’s former home is a sequence of specially curated rooms that gives Flock its narrative structure. The “nest” room to your left contains images of nest making, including Philip Koplin’s charming cabinet of curiosities and S. Gayle Stevens’s collodion image grid of pairs of nests. A bushtit nest of Spanish moss competes with the human-made objects in the room for pride of place in its delicacy and attention to craft.
Next door, the theme shifts to murmuration, as David Hochbaum’s sculpture of the same name wings its way across the ceiling. Elsewhere, veteran birder Robyn Geddes has supplied several of his signature paintings featuring birds in imaginary architectural settings. Juan Fontanive’s oxide-powered flip animation gives off jolts of both visual and auditory energy as it emits sounds as well as constantly morphing images.
While artists like Keith Puccinelli, Penelope Gottlieb, and Esther Traugot supply their bird stories with telltale elements of human hybridization and reflection, James Hodgson expresses his passion for documenting the creatures in their natural habitats with reverent, beautifully executed bird portraits that eschew commentary in favor of direct witness. In the “millinery” room, several tributes to Madame Walska’s feather-powered hat collection make their appearance.
As was the case with Swarm, things loosen up considerably in the final room, where Alan Macy’s robotic wing chair beckons those who wish to synchronize their respiration with the beating of a pair of large white wings. But don’t expect to get much rest in there — Fatemeh Burnes’s large paintings assert their presence with densely layered imagery that implies an energy extending well beyond the boundaries of the picture plane. In the center of the room, a large cage filled with very active, brightly colored birds and amplified musical equipment alternates between producing a dull roar and projecting birdy cacophony.
For the first time since Lotusland began this alliance with contemporary art, the exhibition extends out of the galleries and into the gardens, where a variety of subtle installations insinuate themselves among the already stunning array of plants and trees. The discovery of these clever interventions is perhaps best left to the visitor, but I’ll let one example, that of Gary Smith’s human-scale nests, stand for the spirit of them all. They are made of organic materials found on-site, and, like the birds they pay tribute to, sometimes lurk in places where you least expect them.
Flock: Birds on the Brink is at Lotusland through Saturday, May 23. To arrange a tour of the gardens and the show, call (805) 969-9990 or visit lotusland.org.