I recently came across this arresting image of a taxidermied seagull with luxurious pearl entrails spilling out of its split carcass. It was re-pinned on a certain nameless photo sharing site with no credit or links to the artist (a real pet peeve of mine), but I found the strange mix of beautiful/disgusting so striking that I decided to search the internet for its maker. Finally, I tracked down the website of British artist Jane Howarth, and found out the work belongs to a series called ‘Bonne Bouche‘, created out of vintage 1930s taxidermied sea birds whose guts have been replaced with lovely pearls, jewels and leather gloves. On their own, the works in the series are arresting and imaginative, and seem to be the fantastic relics of a luxuriously imagined episode, where:
…glamorous ladies discard their fashions and adornments and head for the seduction of the shimmering surf and shingle. Upon their distraction scavenger gulls descend and feast on the picnic of kid leather gloves, pearl necklaces and other delightful items left abandoned on the sand. (Jane Howarth)
Like any good fairy tale, Howarth paints a picture of a whimsical scene where dark elements seductively creep in around the edge in the form of dead seagulls, revealing a morbid collision between human and nature, beauty and death.
However, I have to admit the initial affection I felt for the magic of these works was somewhat dampened when I read Howarth’s artist statement for Outrails, an exhibition which featured this series. Her preachy environmental message seems to only tenuously link to what her work visually communicates, and I think it is far less intriguing than the simultaneously seductive/repulsive response her work evokes. As she puts it:
The works on display are a combination of wanting to create pieces inspired by various articles and a particularly memorable program about how pollution from chemical, radioactive, and nutrient sources, oil spills and marine debris are killing thousands of sea birds. […] The stomachs of the birds on display are full with what one might see as beautiful objects such as pearls and leather gloves, these are also things that humans have taken from nature to enrich their lives but discard at a whim when (perhaps) fashion dictates. Thus trying to make comment on the effect our lifestyle of lustful consumerism has on the world that sustains us. (Jane Howarth, from her Outrails exhibition statement, found here.)
Even beside the point that I think much contemporary art is the *height* of lustful consumerism, or that most people keep things like pearls or leather gloves as family heirlooms and would never “throw them away as fashion dictates”, I think that it is a real stretch to claim the pearls as a visual metaphor for pollution from chemical, radioactive, or oil spills. Her statement feels like an activist agenda tacked on after the fact to justify the display of her wonderfully strange creations, which doesn’t quite match up to what her work is visually communicating.
Which brings me to my second pet peeve of the article (RANT ALERT): poorly considered artist statements which are, at best, unhelpful in the understanding or appreciation of one’s artwork, or, at worst, detrimental to my enjoyment of it. Unfortunately, this seems to be the case for the majority of artist statements I read.
I absolutely understand the impulse to want to contribute to the dialogue around your work, and try to prevent interpretations grounded in a fundamental misunderstanding of your intentions. But I think the problem is that artist intention can sometimes override the unintentional magic and exciting interpretive possibilities that their work might evoke. Crafting an artist statement which provides context while still leaving interpretation open to those potentials is indeed an art in itself, and one that I suspect few artists have the adequate objective distance from their own work to achieve.
Although some artists object to the interpretations imposed on them by curators or critics, the major difference with these interpretations is that they are still generally regarded as opinion (albeit an authoritative opinion) whereas an artist statement becomes a fact about an artwork. Curators or critics may speculate about the intentions of a work, but when an artist states definitively what “it is about” it becomes more difficult – or at least much less interesting – to discuss the possibilities of meaning. This is particularly true if, as in the case of Howarth’s ‘Bonne Bouche’ series, the explanation the artist offers is disjointed from what the work seems to visually communicate, or the “meaning” is more trite than you gave the work credit for.
Which is rather unfortunate, when a piece is as visually arresting as Howarth’s birds with their luscious pearl innards.
Elsewhere on the Museum of Ridiculously Interesting Things: