GALLUS DOMESTICUS: We are the keepers
March 31 to April 18
at the GAGE Gallery
2031 Oak Bay Avenue
Opening April 2 / 7 to 9 pm
(NewsService by CraigSpenceWriter.ca)
What comes first? The chicken or our insatiable need for eggs, meat, feathers and just about every other part of a much maligned bird that can be ‘harvested’ through processes as heartless and cruel as they are efficient?
Hard questions, and certainly not the kind you would think could be explored in an art installation that – at first glance – seems almost decorative in its treatment of Gallus Domesticus, the Latin name for what we still think of sentimentally as the ‘barnyard’ chicken.
But beauty is the point of Artist Diana Durrand’s latest work. In a series of gorgeous, hand-coloured portraits, felt sculptures and interactive displays – including a soundscape – she counters our notions of a bird that has been characterized as stupid and fearful down through the ages.
Her 16 portraits set off the exquisite patterns of chickens’ plumage against floral fabric and wallpaper backdrops, symbolizing the birds’ place in our domestic settings, their natural beauty contrasted with our decorative, domestic art.
At first take the portrayal of these birds as noble seems overdone; it’s only as viewers become participants that the underlying theme of the show comes into high relief – Durrand sets us up for a glaring contradiction by first eulogizing chickens, then revealing in terse script the many ways we abuse them.
Did you know, for instance, that newly hatched chicks are often sent through Canada Post, a percentage often arriving DOD – ‘dead on delivery’? Or, because the young chicks are sent off before they have ‘imprinted’ from their mothers how to feed, more die from ‘starve out.’ Or that half the chicks are routinely killed outright when they are ‘sexed’ as males. So much for the modern-day barnyard or backyard version of Gallus Domestics.
Like hard tidbits baked into fortune cookies, these grim facts are contained in black, plastic eggs packaged and displayed by the dozen for participants at the show to pop open. There are golden eggs, too, which contain wondrous bits of information about Gallus Domesticus, but it’s the grim litany revealed in the black eggs that Durrand hopes will compel readers to do something.
Horrific as the fate of mail order chickens seems, at least it might end happily for a quotient of the hapless birds. Not so for the billions raised in industrial barns, where they are exposed to barbarity at its most efficient, soulless and callous before being shipped for processing to factories the world over.
Rather than give battery hens enough room to move freely, producers clip the birds’ beaks so they won’t peck each other to death. The birds growth is so distorted by immobility and diet, they sometimes cannot balance or support their weight on their underdeveloped legs…
The litany of abuse is long and deeply unsettling; it’s a blessing of sorts that industrial hens, instead of living the 10 to 15 years a chicken can in a healthy environment, usually suffer for only six weeks before they are slaughtered, then frozen or shrink wrapped.
These grisly facts are offset by the snippets contained in the golden eggs. Did you know, for instance, that chicks are able to communicate with their mother from inside the egg, and that her gentle clucking encourages them to cut their way out using their ‘egg tooth.’ Or that Gallus Domesticus has vision 30 percent better than our own, and acute hearing as well. Or that, like most birds, chickens can tune-in to the earth’s magnetic field to orient themselves.
This isn’t the first time Durrand has contrasted the beauty of domestic, commoditized species with the barbaric treatment meted out to them. Where are the pigs? Where are they? raised the issue in another startlingly beautiful show that contrasted marketing PR with the cruel reality practiced in the pork industry.
Both shows can be taken at two levels: on the one hand, viewers can simply enjoy the beauty of the works, and by implication, the wonder of the animals portrayed so lovingly; on the other, they can ‘participate’, and learn how this beauty is being marred through the sacrilege of industrialized food production… and accept there is a contradiction there that can only be resolved by a personal choice.
We are, after all, the keepers and that means the choice is ours to make.
The Sofa Sitters of Victoria video, which was made while I was still working on the project, shows how a typical piece for the exhibit was made - https://vimeo.com/77810953
If you missed the opening of my Sofa Sitters Show, you can get a sense of the fun on this video, which Craig did for me...