One Tuesday morning in early September, artists Nathalie Djurberg and Hans Berg took a break from marshalling in The Parade to go birding. With binoculars at the ready, they flew the coop, accompanied by Susy Bielak and Abbie Anderson. What follows is a glimpse into their field trip, but first, a brief background on our birders. Nathalie and Hans were spending a week in Minneapolis to install their exhibition, The Parade, which includes new sculptures informed by the psychology and natural history of birds. Abbie just concluded a summer of weekly nature walks around the Walker and was eager share that experience with visiting artists. Susy, in addition to serving as photographer, interviewer, and scribe for this outing, manages public and interpretive programs at the Walker.
Our excursion began at the picnic tables as Abbie distributed binoculars and describes Open Phenology, her series of nature walks focused on observing ecological phenomena in the Walker’s vicinity.
Abbie: I’m interested in noticing the life forms around us and observing how they change through the seasons. This means looking for birds migrating, insects molting, flowers blooming, etc. These observations, in turn, are the basis for conversation and learning.
Wandering through Cowles Conservatory, the group admires Frank Gehry’s Standing Fish and commends the work of sculpture technicians who recently cleaned the glass scales, one by one.
Before spotting any avian species, Abbie gathered the group to inspect the insect world. Getting low to the ground at the water’s edge near Spoonbridge and Cherry, the group examined the exoskeletons left behind by metamorphosing dragonflies.
Abbie: See these?
Hans: Like ghosts.
Abbie: Larvae is actually Latin for ‘ghost.’
Hans [on metamorphosis]: It’s like one-day evolution.
Nathalie [clearly curious as to why an art educator takes such interest in biology]: So, what exactly do you do at the museum?
Abbie: Yes, I see what you mean. I’m a biology geek who works in an art museum. So beyond my job, which is supporting the Walker’s education and community programs, I’ve appointed myself as the Walker’s in-house amateur naturalist.
As the group marched over to Loring Park, the conversation shifted to Nathalie’s recent body of work, a veritable parade of sculpted birds (left, click to view larger image).
Susy: Why birds?
Nathalie: Before, birds were the least interesting to me—flock animals. Boring. I love animals and watch a lot of nature programs, but avoided bird programs. Then I came across David Attenborough.
Abbie: His documentary on birds of paradise?
Nathalie: Yeah, that guy!
Abbie: After watching Attenborough in Paradise, I felt like this planet is suddenly a totally different world! An astonishing place, but weird, right?
Nathalie: Yeah, though it was before that one that I got into him. And it changed how I see birds. I had no empathy for birds before. Now I really do.
Once across the Hixon Whitney bridge, we again gravitated to water, looking for birds around the pond. By the reeds we discover ducks—not only Mallards, but Wood Ducks, a regal looking waterfowl with a crested head, thin neck, and striking plumage. We spot them as we approach the pond, then peer from the bridge for a clear view. Nathalie runs with her binoculars to the water’s edge for a closer look. We follow.
Abbie [chasing after Nathalie]: I love the investigative impulse!
Abbie [catching up and training binoculars]: You can recognize the Wood Duck by size and shape as well as by its plumage.
Nathalie: Are they named after wood or the woods?
Abbie: It’s the same.
Hans: But one is a forest, ‘woods’ with an S.
Susy: Same stuff, but woods with an S is the environment, without an S is the stuff.
Abbie: Their nesting habitat is a tree cavity. Now we build boxes to help them out.
Hans: Are they rare?
Abbie: They’re not too rare, but many birds nest in dead trees, which we cut down. There’s a dead tree by my house that every morning is full of woodpeckers. It’s marvelous to see them. It’s a dead tree, but it’s living to them, because it’s full of bugs.
Nathalie [focusing her binoculars on a male Wood Duck]: Look at its eyes! They’re bright red.
Abbie: The Wood Duck is the showiest bird here.
After this satisfying encounter, we make our way around the pond, geting back to talking about Nathalie’s sculptures.
Susy: How much of your birds come from actual birds in the world, and how much are derived from sheer imagination?
Nathalie: Most started by my looking at pictures, then really transformed in the process of making them. There were about thirty that came from my imagination. The rest were something specific at the start. Some have transformed so much I couldn’t recognize how they started.
Susy: How do you chose your birds?
Nathalie: I choose the ones I find interesting. Their personalities. How they move their heads. Their colors and patterns.
To witness the pageantry of these feathered forms with your own eyes, venture into the Walker’s Burnet Gallery—The Parade is on view through December 31. In addition to a flock of over eighty delightfully varied bird sculptures, the walls are brought to life by a selection of the artists’ claymation films and the entire space is awash in Hans’ music.
Birding and conversing with Nathalie and Hans has amplified my enjoyment of the show, which is emphatically rich and wild as it is. But after discovering a shared enthusiasm for Attenborough’s BBC documentaries, I found myself thinking, “Wouldn’t David Attenborough just have a field day here!” In a flight of fancy, I imagine a gallery tour led by Attenborough: Clad in khakis with a field guide in his vest pocket, he trains his binoculars on the multitude of exotic species. His hushed voice can hardly contain the exhilaration of catching sight of such strange birds. And lucky for us, this episode of Attenborough’s adventures doesn’t entail travel to an inaccessible tropical paradise, but unfolds in our own back yard.
—Co-authored by Abbie Anderson and Susy Bielak