Céleste Boursier-Mougenot and Ron Arad at the Barbican

I went along yesterday to see the new commission by Céleste Boursier-Mougenot in the Curve gallery at the Barbican. You may have seen it on YouTube, where it has been a bit of a hit:

The set-up in the video isn’t exactly the same as the one in the gallery, but it gives you the idea: a flock of zebra finches in a room with electric guitars and up-turned cymbals, who ‘play’ the instruments by hopping around and perching on them. They are free-flying in the gallery, and you can walk on paths between the instruments.

It’s an immediately appealing idea and quite memorable, so it will probably be something of a hit, at least by the standards of contemporary art installations. To be honest, though, I thought it was less striking in reality than it was in neatly-edited little close-ups on YouTube. It was more like being in a slightly odd aviary than in some kind of extraordinary art-place. People did seem to be enjoying it, though. I slightly wonder how much of that was just the pleasure of being in among all these very tame little birds, but perhaps I’m just projecting my own reactions. I did inevitably go into birdy-man mode, noticing that they were piking up nesting material and looking in vain for somewhere to put it, wondering why they were pecking a concrete wall, looking for mating behaviour.

And while zebra finches aren’t exactly imbued with an enormous amount of dignity at the best of times, there was something slightly off-putting about seeing these little birds with their own aims and desires in life being cajoled into being art. I’m not suggesting it was inhumane: they had grass and food and water, and lots of room, so by cagebird standards it seemed like pretty good accommodation.

I mainly went for the finches, but while I was there I went into Ron Arad: Restless. Ron Arad operates in the murky waters between design and art; in a sense he’s obviously a designer, making bookshelves and chandeliers and, above all, lots of chairs. But they tend to be one-off, highly expensive, and rather impractical: the kind of chairs you buy more as a style statement than because you need something to sit in to watch Buffy. Great big curiously shaped metal rocking chairs. Which I enjoyed. It’s nice to see so much thought and energy put into something.

And finally I noticed that the Wesley Chapel and Museum of Methodism was nearby, so I went in to see that; it was mildly interesting in parts, but overall, about as exciting as the phrase ‘Museum of Methodism’ might suggest.

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