Rosemarie McGoldrick

Techniques of the Bird Observer I - a mutoscope


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The Zoo Around Us

    Go for a walk in the countryside and it's commonplace to feel close to nature, outside the urban, far from the interior, unmediated, free from the stupendous social organisation that characterises our humanity.

    You may well be far from the city but that notion of freedom is as far from the truth – every inch of the land  bears the weight of deliberation. Nature is involuntarily stage-managed by people, both now and right down the ages.

    The trees, the hedges, even the scrub bushes are planted or allowed to grow. Boundaries go back years in law. Roads and tracks are maintained by men in trucks. Paths are mapped and cleared. Wildlife is property. Political committees ponder land usage. Feather-footed through the plashy fen passes the questing artist...

    Our environment is so much of our own making and our experience of the rural in particular is now largely organised through conservation.

    Conservation lobs up a lovely paradox - that human intervention and control is required on behalf of other species, whose condition and welfare we consider to have been affected by human intervention and control. The bird of prey called the Red Kite was shot and poisoned almost to extinction in England a century ago. The individuals now seen in the sky along the Chiltern escarpment and down in the Oxfordshire river plain are only here after being bred from birds imported from Spain. Yet here they are, back again, alive and taking to it as if they had never been away – and we did that. Even if it is stage-managed, it’s still a great show.

    Rosemarie McGoldrick's work plays on how we run the experience of nature. At the heart of the piece is a silent movie of a Red Kite in flight.

    The simple flight of a bird (endangered, perhaps, or rare) will always be assigned grace, drama or aspiration – the pathetic fallacy at work. And the practice of conservation is riven through with Ruskin’s idea; we anthropomorphise – impose our own love of life on the lives of other animals, lives that we farmed in the first place to make our own in some way more bearable. Pictures and sculptures from nature have become memorials for the old wild – the wild we had before conservation.

     Techniques of the Bird Observer I has the shape of a memorial about it – it’s a metal megalith, after all, interrupting your walk along the forest ride, calling you over to look closer. But it’s as much about cheap thrills as elegy.

   To get any buzz from nature you always have to step up to the plate and do some work. You have to do that with this piece, step up, bend down, squint, crank, think. Looking closer seems to be the intention, to get you to concentrate in a quiet way on what it is to see. Through looking, then watching, you end up observing. That is the artist’s exercise, perhaps, the optical workout of the isolate, a sort of brisk country walk for the eye.

    Techniques of the Bird Observer I consists of a hand-powered viewing machine called a mutoscope. There is no electrical input - it works on the same principle as the old ‘What the Butler Saw’ machines on seaside pier arcades, which like magic lantern shows and stereoscopes, come from a movie technology that predates cinema. Great for outdoors.

    The moving images used in the mutoscope are RSPB copyright, showing the Red Kite flying against a blue sky. The birds are frequently seen around the site and most famously from cars travelling on the M40 as the road cuts down the side of Beacon Hill in a big way and drops into the Thames Valley. The movie effect is produced by the basic ‘flip book’ technique – an interior drum or reel containing hundreds of sequential images is rotated by an exterior crank handle. The loop lasts 60 seconds before it starts again.

    McGoldrick's first encounter with the Red Kite was back in 1991 on a walk in Oxfordshire, not far from Cowleaze Wood. She had always been awestruck by raptors, by those single silhouettes loping their way against the sky. That day, she couldn’t believe that she was really looking at a kite with its distinctive forked tail so near London where she lived.  Red Kites existed in mid-Wales – it was the sort of bird you might go on holiday to see. The RSPB confirmed that the birds were indeed being quietly reintroduced back into England, starting with Oxfordshire.

   Now, when you travel from London to Oxford or beyond, you expect to see the Red Kite soaring above the motorway cutting. Back then you'd perhaps see one or two; now you can see many at a time. Techniques of the Bird Observer I is a tribute to intervention, to the zoo around us.

Tim Stilwell, Arts in Line

    Special thanks to Daniel Aitken (fabricator), Stuart Turner of the Chiltern Sculpture Trust (for staying with the idea), Cathy Rose of the Red Kite Project and the RSPB.

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