Symphony for Absent Wildlife
Materials: 19 Masks and tail coats made from surplus felt army blankets, 19 pairs of ceramic-resin hands and feet, 18 bird whistles, conductor baton, 3D audio installation
Dimensions: Variable installation dimensions
Exhibition history: 2016 Attenborough Art Centre, Leicester, UK; 2015 ZegnArt, Milan, Italy; Banff National Park, Canada; 2014 Nuit Blanche Calgary, Canada
Courtesy: Lucy + Jorge Orta
This work was originally conceived by Lucy Orta as a live-performance for the Nuit Blanche Calgary in Alberta, Canada (2014). In this gallery version, a dimly-lit space is filled with immersive birdsong and the audience encounters an orchestra of woodland creatures playing hand-crafted wooden bird whistles replicating the remarkable sounds of nature.
Although originally conceived as a site-specific performance, this work makes refence to universal themes. Each musician wears a sculpted mask and an iconic tailcoat tailored from reclaimed Red Cross felt blankets that still bear the embroidered inscriptions of their previous owners. Taking the Canadian 'point blanket' as a reference point, Lucy Orta draws our attention to the felt blanket as an exchange commodity between First Nation peoples and the early European traders. The point blanket, manufactured in the Manchester woollen mills, was exchanged with beaver fur needed for the manufacture of top hats, and because of the blanket's versatility they became a 'democratic' item of clothing worn by both peoples.
Orta's foreboding masked figures recall the spirits of the once abundant wildlife across the Albertan plains: moose, wapiti, wolves, grizzly bears, mountain goats, beavers, eagles. The bison, virtually wiped out by the early European settlers, have only recently been reintroduced into the Banff National Park. These animals all play an important role in the indigenous belief system, as spirits inhabited the rituals the First Nation peoples.
The immersive sound-scape created in collaboration with composer Asa Bennet is inspired by the dawn-chorus. Birdsong builds up in an emotional crescendo to abruptly end in silence, leaving the viewer with a deep sense of loss, before gradually a single bird recommences the morning ritual.
Research for Symphony for Absent Wildlife was undertaken in Banff National Park, the archives of Fort Calgary and Glenbow Museum, and included discussions with First Nation elders and academics and students from Alberta College of Art and Design. The process was complemented by a 6-month workshop with the postgraduate community at the University of the Arts London.