12 February - 20 March 2010
The Feathered Familiar
Yolande Norris, independent writer, curator and Program Manager, Canberra Contemporary Art Space
It’s not a bird, it’s not a plane. It’s an aerodynamic flurry of iridescent feathers hovering at head level. A meeting of two familiar forms.
Feathers are never far away in the work of Emily Valentine. What was a readily available material for the artist in her early career as a costume maker and jeweller has evolved to become an ongoing commentary about the status of birds in mankind’s insistent hierarchical categorisation of life around us.
Valentine’s most recognisable creations combine the forms of our closest animal ally, the domestic dog, with that enduring symbol of wild freedom, the bird. The dog figurines, resplendent in their rainbow feather pelts, are on a scale small enough to endear them to us as if they were toys or precious keepsakes. However, our initial attraction to the ‘birdoggies’ quickly gives rise to a growing unease. The use of feathers in such bulk, paired with the occasional taxidermy element, causes the viewer to question the origins of this unexpected medium.
Many varieties of birdlife are represented: some exotic, some native and some famously despised, in the form of the Indian Myna Bird. Some of the feathers have been obtained commercially by Valentine – dyed in brilliant but unnatural hues. Others have been painstakingly collected from creatures who have met with accidental deaths, and the Myna Bird feathers have been harvested by Valentine herself. A specialised trap, set in a friend’s large native garden, produced 130 birds in one year alone – a testament to the virile nature of this registered pest.
In her most recent work avian mechanics have become the focus of Valentine’s attention. Interested in the way that human invention has stolen its technology from the genius of nature, Valentine has brought the design of aeroplanes and rockets back to the source of their inspiration, rejoining them with the forms of birds.
A tiny feathered plane resting lightly on the wall appears as though it may at any time rise up and fly, humming away. Nearby, three fighter jets soar along the wall in regimented formation, their Myna feather coats adding to the impression of uniformity and utility.
Appealing to that with which we are fondly familiar their placement echoes the classic ‘flying ducks’ adorning domestic interiors from a bygone era. The centrepiece of the collection is a majestic Peacock feathered rocket – a Peacocket - its brilliant imperial colours and commanding lines emphasising the grandiose reputation of one of man’s most proud achievements.
Central to Valentine’s practice is an awareness of humankind’s double standards when it comes to the forms of life with which we share the world. The subject of animals as ‘pests’ is particularly complex. Valentine is intrigued by the notion of that which does and doesn’t belong: one considered good and the other to be eradicated. Who decides that the Myna Bird is a public enemy, and therefore fare game for trapping? Questions such as ‘why is only some life precious’ and ‘when is it acceptable to kill another living creature’ are raised readily.
Certainly for each viewer who finds Valentine’s work luscious or amusing there is another who finds it repugnant and challenging. This reaction reinforces the issue at hand – for example, many who abhor Valentine’s choice of materials may be neglecting the fact that they sleep under a feather quilt, are wearing a leather belt, or ate chicken for last night’s dinner. In this world of mixed genes and morphed mechanics there are also mixed emotions and entangled moral questions.