As part of The Normal 2021 we are presenting a new offsite element of James Webb's long running series, There's No Place Called Home. Listen out for the sound of a foreign birdsong when you visit the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh. You can listen to a talk featuring the artist and find information about The Normal below.
There’s No Place Called Home is at once an encounter with birds and an act of faith. Whilst some people may chance upon a foreign birdsong in the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh – and wonder what it is they have stumbled upon – others will encounter it in the first retrospective of the 50 iterations of the work to date, shown at Talbot Rice Gallery.
During the pandemic, as traffic noise subsided and industries came to a halt, many people began to take more notice of nature. Remarkably, scientists have found that not only were people listening to birdsong more during lockdown, but that birds actually changed their songs: a study in San Francisco showed that white-crowned sparrows took advantage of the quieter spaces and made their songs sweeter, more subtle and more enticing. At the same time, whilst people and birds have cohabited for as long as there have been people, there is still so much we don’t understand; as global warming and habitat loss caused by humankind force birds to survive more and more perilously, we continue to marvel at these incredibly adaptable animals. In The Bird Way when Jennifer Ackerman describes her desire to experience the world from a bird’s point of view, she talks about their ability to see ‘hues beyond our imagining’, their sense of smell (where certain vultures can sense death from miles away) and their ability to anticipate changing weather patterns months in advance of meteorologists. And birdsong, she continues, that can, ‘resolve conflict, negotiate boundaries, settle disputes, and spread the word about sources of food and danger.’ Just as they remain enigmatic and – as Richard Smyth puts it – indifferent to us, Webb’s work carefully emphasises the estranged entanglement we have. And whilst birds are evoked throughout this project, they are never caged by the anthropocentric desire for things to be resolved, or fixed or have a singular meaning. That is not what birds are about.
The bird Webb selected for the Botanics is the Jamaican Becard (Pachyramphus niger), a small bird endemic to Jamaica that has a fascinating song, which reels and pivots across different tempos and pitches. Whilst aware of the colonial connections between Scotland and Jamaica, Webb intends the bird’s seemingly chance appearance in Edinburgh to be a provocation for open conversation, rather than something that is conceptually or politically prefigured. However, that it is a bird from a hotter climate was important to him as a signal of how much climate change has and continues to impact upon avian migratory patterns, opening up a future in which the UK might well become home to more tropical species. As temperatures rise, as ice fields melt and as forest fires blacken the skies, it becomes unnecessary, impossible or fatal for birds to continue their customary movements around the globe. Apart from a postcard with an image of the cluster of trees the work is located in, the offsite component of this work in the Botanics exists without additional framework and is more of a subtle rupture of the everyday.
At Talbot Rice Gallery, a photo of the tree in the Botanics and a label becomes a signifier of this elsewhere. And for the first retrospective of the project, running since 2004, Webb changes this usual format and represents previous versions of the project by extracting a colour from the original photograph of the tree where a work was sited. By not pointing to the work – not saying it is here, this is what it is – by simply giving the name of the bird and the city where it appeared, Webb asks us to project into the space that exists in and around these encounters. The many things birds symbolise in various cultures, our personal experience of them, our scientific knowledge or simply our enthusiasm for watching murmurations or migrating flocks, might all become tools for working them out: be this a mating call or unanswered song, an sign of good or bad fortunes, a bird that we’ve unwittingly become host to, or a climate refugee.
There's No Place Called Home series is supported by blank projects and Galerie Imane Farès.
*Contains audio recordings of Jamaican Becards made by Nick Komar and Ross Gallardy, and used under the CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 licence: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/4.0/. The recordings have been edited with time inserted between the songs to lengthen the tracks.