The dodo flies again – as do the great auk, giant moa...
Peter Blake and Ralph Steadman are among artists bringing extinct birds back to life
Michael McCarthy, formerly the Independent’s longstanding Environment Editor, now its Environment Columnist, is one of Britain’s leading writers on the environment and the natural world. He has won a string of awards for his work, including Environment Journalist of the Year (three times) and Specialist Writer of the Year in the British Press Awards in 2001. In 2007 he was awarded the Medal of the RSPB for “Outstanding Services to Conservation,” in 2010 he was awarded the Silver Medal of the Zoological Society of London, and in 2011 the Dilys Breeze Medal of the British Trust for Ornithology. In 2009 McCarthy published Say Goodbye To The Cuckoo (John Murray), a study of Britain’s declining migrant birds.
Wednesday 02 November 2011
There is the dodo, of course, from Mauritius; but there is also the o'o, from Hawaii. There is the great auk from the Outer Hebrides, and the ivory-billed woodpecker, the "Lord God Bird", from the American South.
There are giant moas, the biggest birds that ever lived, and tiny hummingbirds, the smallest, and there are Labrador ducks and Laysan rails and in total nearly 100 birds which have been driven extinct in recent centuries, but are all now vividly brought back to life in a remarkable new art exhibition in London.
Ghosts of Gone Birds, opening today, hopes to throw a spotlight on to the increasing loss of bird species across the world. The "natural" rate of bird extinction is thought to be about one species a century, but in the past 500 years nearly 200 have disappeared, and 21 have gone in the past 30 years alone. Highlighting this dismal phenomenon is a group of artists brought together by the film-maker Ceri Levy who offer their own interpretations of the birds the world has lost, which are by turns humorous, startling, ingenious, pointed, very sad and very beautiful.
The aim, as well as to raise awareness, is to raise funds for the Preventing Extinctions campaign of BirdLife International. Held at the Rochelle School in Shoreditch, east London, the exhibition is a multi-media collection involving words and sound and film, but it is the 100 or so paintings and sculptures which constitute the exhibition's central feature. Many are stunning, if conventionally so; others are what one might call more cutting edge.
The pop artist Peter Blake, for example, has contributed a collage bearing all the names of birds extinct in recent centuries above a picture of a dodo, and, below that, a daydreaming girl; while the novelist Margaret Atwood has provided an image of the great auk, the flightless seabird of the North Atlantic which disappeared in the mid-19th century, which she has knitted (it has a bright yellow pin for an eye).
The caricaturist Ralph Steadman has provided a whole room full of his exaggerated, splotchy paintings, in bristling, burning colours, of real extinct birds such as the North Island takahe from New Zealand, along with as few not quite so real ones, such as the "once bittern" (as in "twice shy"). Look out for the albatrosses, and the sociable lapwings, and the Bachman's warblers and the Pallas's cormorant and the Carolina parakeets; and don't miss the installation illustrating current bird slaughter in Malta.
Ghosts of Gone Birds, 2-23 November, Rochelle School, Arnold Circus, London E2
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