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Anna Leonowens Gallery
23rd February – 6th March 2010

This exhibition looks at our mixed and often tense relationship with the common pigeon. It looks at how we react to and interact with pigeons through some familiar points of contact including the birds’ homing abilities as carrier pigeons, the tradition of shooting pigeons for target practice, our increasing dislike of pigeons as the distributors of disease, and bird watching. It also references our increasing understanding of the sophistication of animal intelligence.

The Pigeon Post was a traditional form of communication via carrier or homing pigeon. Pigeons were a reliable, fast and extensive form of communication that spanned many cultures and many thousands of years until the invention of the telegraph in the 1800s. A large number of postcards (entitled billing and cooing) have been printed for this exhibition. They have text depicting the onomatopeic words that naturalists use when describing pigeon song in field guides. For example, pigeons are said to ‘coroocoo’, ‘oom’, ‘rackitty-coo’ ‘bucket-a-coo’ and ‘dru-oo-u’. These same words form a frieze around the gallery walls, visually echoing a kind of surround sound experience of pigeon song.

A common complaint about pigeons is that they carry disease. They are frequently called ‘rats of the sky’ or ‘rats with wings’. On the back of the postcards diseases that pigeons carry are described (for example ornithosis, encephalitis, Newcastle disease, cryptococcosis, etc as well as parasites that live on the birds such as ticks and lice). The cards have travelled through the international postal system to arrive at the Anna Leonowens Gallery, Halifax, and these journeys act as a kind of metaphor for the fear many of us have of the diseases that these birds spread, or could spread. The songs and the diseases have travelled together in text form through the contemporary postal system. The postcards represent, or directly replace, the birds – as singers, as the carriers of messages and as carriers of disease.

The intelligence of animals is increasingly recognised as different from our own, rather than inferior. It is not easy for us to understand other animals or how they live and one of the first steps in any learning process is mimicry. The aural component focuses on the idea of the language learning audio cd. Visitors hear recorded examples of pigeons singing followed by a ‘language student’ attempting to ‘learn pigeon’. When learning a language repeated drills are used comprising pronunciation exercises, conversation practice, and phonetic notation. A pigeon song can be heard, followed by the student’s attempt at mimicry. The language student uses the postcards as written prompts in her practice.

Animal intelligence is also referenced by the inclusion of another group of 6 postcards. These cards are common museum or gallery shop commodities and depict paintings by Monet, Picasso, Matisse, Cezanne and Braque. In the mid 1990s a group of pigeons was trained to visually discriminate between not only individual paintings by Monet and Picasso, but also between Impressionist and Cubist paintings in general. The birds were trained using a reward system of hemp seeds (Watanabe, Sakamoto and Wakita. Keio University, 1995)

Pigeon rings are the most common way of identifying birds during the homing and racing process. Pigeon racing is a popular hobby across the globe and the collecting of pigeon rings is a valued aspect of bird racing in its own right.

Binoculars, or field glasses, are used by bird watchers and hunters alike in their search for bird and wildlife. This pair was owned by my paternal grandfather (JM Clover 1897-1989) who used them for bird watching and general wildlife observation in and around Suffolk and the East Anglian countryside in the UK. Bird calls (whistles used by hunters to attract birds for shooting purposes) are a common device used by hunters to lure birds into suitable positions for shooting. Particular whistles are made for individual species – in this case the whistles are ‘Dove and Pigeon Calls’. They are produced by ACME, an English whistle-making business operating since the 1880s. These whistles are also used by the language student in the audio work as an alternative method for trying to produce, or mimic, a pigeon sound.

Anna Leonowens Gallery
NSCAD University 1891 Granville Street Halifax Nova Scotia Canada

With thanks to
Cathy Busby, Garry Kennedy, Barbara Lounder, Tonia di Risio and the birds


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