FEBRUARY 25 – MARCH 18, 2011
RECEPTION:FRIDAY, FEBRUARY 25, 2011 AT 8 PM
LOCATION – STRIDE GALLERY
1004 MACLEOD TRAIL S.E., CALGARY, ALBERTA
Magpies are generally disliked by humans, yet they are very intelligent and cunning birds. Though rarely regarded as survivors, they have adapted very well to the ever-expanding human presence in their Western Canadian habitat. Ann Thrale and Larissa Tiggelers aim to place these often hated and once-hunted pests under a brighter light by constructing a large-scale kinetic sculpture of a magpie in flight. The artists invite the viewer to participate in the artwork by turning a crank at the base of the sculpture to activate the bird physically and acoustically.
ANN THRALE and LARISSA TIGGELERS both completed their Bachelor of Fine Arts at the Alberta College of Art & Design in the spring of 2010. After discovering similar themes in their sculpture practices the artists decided to combine forces and collaborate on a few projects.
MAGPIE: THE BIRD WE LOVE TO HATE
In the company of mice and rats, raccoons and roaches, the magpie has earned itself a rank of glorious notoriety for its skillfully sly and scavenging ways. Simply put, magpies will survive wherever they roam, and wherever they land they’ll make a new home; resilient rogues of black, white, and blue, who flourish in hardship and shrewdly make do.
What is it, then, that compels the majority of people to be callous towards these creatures who possess such a distinct evolutionary advantage? Can’t there be beauty in cleverness, artistry in aggression, or valor in resourcefulness? Whatever way we’d like to look at it, the fascination lies less with the bird, and more within the mind of the beholder.
If one has ever had an intimate relationship with an animal—be it a cat, dog, horse, chicken, whatever—it quickly becomes obvious that it is human habit to project qualities of human behavior on to animals (also known as anthropomorphism) which explains why it is so “cute” when Leroy the cat plays the piano with his paws, or Sparky the dog howls an unusual variety of “I love you.” As human attitudes about nature concurrently reveal human nature, there is an innate desire in our species to relate to things, not to be alienated by them, and this places our magpie in a bit of a grey zone. Considered a pest to farmers and city dwellers for their ability to take advantage of other species and destroy garbage in alleyways, their disorderly conduct hardly qualifies as a personable trait.
Yet, the mischievous magpie has still charmed its way into the cultures of humankind, with quite a record of personality—they were once used by Romans as pets to warn of oncoming strangers with their raucous caws; (1) a swindling magpie provides a pivotal plot role in Rossini’s opera La Gazza Ladra (translated as The Thieving Magpie); there are, of course, the ever-charming duo of cartoon magpies Heckle and Jeckle; and there is even a medical disorder known as pica, derived from the magpie’s scientific name, characterized by an abnormal appetite for non-nutritive substances like coal, paper or clay, based on the bird’s undiscriminating attitude towards food.(2)
It becomes evident, then, that magpies are not universally unloved beasts: revered mythology professor Joseph Campbell recalls a story of the Blackfoot tribe, speaking of the magpie as “one of those clever birds that has shamanic qualities,”(3) and in Chinese and Korean culture they are regarded as a symbol of happiness and good news, partly for their garrulous demeanor.(4) But even still, this species also has status within superstition, as versed in the popular rhyme, “One for sorrow/ Two for mirth/ Three for a funeral/ Four for a birth/ Five for Heaven/ Six for Hell/ Seven’s the Devil, his own self.” Akin to the infamy of the black cat, the magpie may be simply summarized as a powerful creature, and, as with any powerful element, there exists the potential for both goodness and malice.
It is into this mysterious, multicoloured mythology of the magpie that artists Ann Thrale and Larissa Tiggelers delve with their new work, Hereby Magpie. The mere fact that these artists draw our attention to such a common “nuisance” of an animal is filled with meaning—to seek out something marvelous in the mundane, to find a familiar sight in a new light, to gaze deeper into a prevalent element of an over-observed environment. The interactive nature of the work brings us even closer to this, and the playful reference to a “jack-in-the-box” again declares the magpie’s trickster character that seems to hold the artists’ feathered fascination.
Tiggelers, who grew up on an acreage in northern Alberta, conjures a haunting image of a pile of dead magpies’ feet—magpies were considered such a pest and so difficult to execute that any victorious civilian would be rewarded upon bringing one in to the municipal district, whereupon the birds were dismembered and piled in a triumphant heap. Thrale’s experience was more of an awakening to the magpie’s omnipresence, a revelation of a thriving species within an increasingly adverse landscape, observing outright that what’s bad for one may be good for another.
The strong reaction we have to the boldness of this bird truly does indicate the boldness of our own species, for at the heart of survival there seems to exist a fine division between tenacity and brutality. It is human instinct to shy away from ugliness, but just as what’s garbage to one is treasure to another, Thrale and Tiggelers are asking us to reconsider this creature’s renegade reputation; despite its ruthless tactics, all the magpie really wants to do is survive, and we can say the same for ourselves. With just a little shift in perception, perhaps one may see that there is more to learn than to criticize from these living medallions of the sky.
SARAH MALIK is an emerging multidisciplinary artist and writer haunted by vivid dreams, strange synchronicities, supernatural encounters and the serendipitous, which collectively culminate as the basis of her practice working primarily in installation, sculpture, video/animation and performance. She graduated from the Alberta College of Art + Design in 2010. More info on her and her work can be found at sarahsmalik.ca.