Where does a bird’s song come from?
A guitar, of course.
Céleste Boursier-Mougenot’s exhibition at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, ‘from here to ear v.19’ offers this and other such counterintuitive resolutions in an installation that marries the musical experimentation of John Cage with the playful subversion of Alice in Wonderland.
Featuring seventy zebra finches on loan from a breeding farm in small town Quebec, the exhibition turns the gallery into an aviary, and the aviary into a concert hall. Rather than perches, the exhibition sees the birds flit about on guitars – fourteen in total. Darting from instrument to instrument, their tiny talons pick the strings triggering pre-tuned chords that play out through high frequency amps. The result sounds like a musical stream of consciousness. Chords call out like spontaneous responses in a sequence of melodious non-sequiturs, broken alternately with silence and moments of surprising beauty.
As the title suggests, ‘from here to ear v.19’ has been staged before, in different locations and with some formal variations. A visual artist whose work deals primarily with sound, Boursier-Mougenot makes work that seems to have a flair for sidestepping our expectations, arriving at solutions that are at once humorous and elegant.
The gallery floor is covered in a heavy, gravelly sand with thin clumps of grass planted here and there. A walkway traces right-angle paths around the room, giving the scene the look of an abandoned town square. Over the course of a visit, Boursier-Mougenot’s installation reveals itself as a veritable ecosystem, and one with a rather mischievous sense of humour. Rising from the patches of sand, drum kit stands hold the guitars (a mixture of white Gibsons and white Thunderbird basses) aloft at waist level: bodies suspended parallel to the floor like ballerinas extended in a lift, the guitars look elegant yet prone as they wait on the whims of birds to make their music. It’s not exactly rock’n’roll, but I like it.
Pulling a long, dry looking blade of grass from a nearby clump, a bird adds it to a web of grass it has assembled on the body of a guitar. With some deft beak-work it pulls, winds and stuffs the grass between the volume and tone control dials and the bridge. This despite a large enclosure of nest boxes mounted on the wall. From certain angles, Boursier-Mougenot’s playful ecology seems dark and even dystopian: musical instruments, those carefully designed specimens of human artistry, get slowly reclaimed by the wild – sand and shit speckling their manicured surfaces and grass nests clumped beneath the strings.
Flashes of speaker cables emerge through the sand, slender black coils running like snakes alongside the path – the longer one stays here, the more blurred the line between animate and inanimate objects becomes.
As Alice finds in Wonderland, in this exhibition it seems nothing may be taken for granted – and that inevitably includes us. People are the other performers here, our presence a link in the action-reaction chain the artist has created. We come to see the birds and the art, and these elements respond to and reflect us in turn.