Ghosts. Gone. Birds.

Ghosts. Gone. Birds.

Any blogger, any journalist – anyone who’s ever wanted to tantalise about the message to come in fact – will have struggled with a title or a tagline, finding from the tens of thousands available that combination of words which pulls hard enough at the imagination of a reader to win the chance of involving them in the rest of the story.

When those few words are about extinction, a serious word that carries the weight of disappearance and emptiness, what do you choose? They must have gravitas in a world that increasingly responds to the lightweight, must draw in while still pointing at repelling events, and – because few people outside the world of conservation actually want to think about extinction – they must somehow be attractive too, spiking the curiosity while hinting about irreversible loss.

I’ve been occasionally mulling this over ever since documentary filmmaker Ceri Levy and BirdLife’s Jim Lawrence told me earlier this year about an art exhibition that was being planned to raise funds for conservation. It would, they said (and I’m paraphrasing slightly), be a new way to involve an audience that had perhaps previously not thought about conservation or extinction and explain to them just what extinction really means. It was to be called ‘Ghosts of Gone Birds’.

‘Ghosts of Gone Birds’. It’s little wonder really that creative types like Chris Aldous of GoodPilot (who packaged and designed the ‘Ghosts’ brand) can claim high salaries. How could anyone not be grabbed by that combination of words, especially of course us birders who compulsively notice life and movement? Those long syllables almost have to be spoken in a near-whisper. Doesn’t the whole phrase have to be repeated when you see or read it, rolled around in your head as your imagination plays with the images they produce. For me they conjure a tangible sense of longing and of something missing, a pathos cleverly evoked by putting a word so ephemeral, cold and barely-there in the same sentence as one so colourful, vibrant, and real.

That’s how I respond anyway. How would an artist, though, respond to that same cluster of evocative words – especially, perhaps, an artist who’s not steeped in birds and their conservation in the way that I am?

Bishop’s O’o by Ben Newman

Given the challenge to represent extinction in any media or form they want over a hundred artists have responded in a myriad ways, as the remarkable and moving ‘Ghosts of Gone Birds’ exhibition in Shoreditch proves. Held at the Rochelle School (a collection of Victorian buildings that, once the lights are off, must themselves fill with the whispers of residents long-gone) ‘Ghosts’ is a powerful and deeply-moving testament to how open to interpretation extinction is and to just how right Ceri was to imagine how visually rewarding an exhibition like this would be.

From simple line drawings to complex watercolours and Ralph Steadman’s ninety exuberant and unrestrained paintings, from delicate wire hummingbirds to Gale Dooley’s 3m wide installation of fibreglass albatross heads set above a tangle of fishing nets and hooks, from transient silhouettes created by washing clean the grime from a pavement to the bomb-proof solidity of Harriet Mead’s metal sculptures welded from abandoned machine parts and farm implements, from the muted and evocative Pink-headed Ducks of Dafila Scott to the stark vulgarity of Le Gun’s ‘White Gallinule’ the whole world of art is here, focussed on extinction with imagination unleashed. It is genuinely inspiring, humbling, and thought-provoking.

On top of everything else the exhibition is beautiful. That came as as surprise to me actually. Extinction to me almost defies the idea of beauty. I tend to think of it in terms of skins in museum drawers. Extinction brings out the synethesetic side of my character: it is dark, dusty, and monochrome. But of course step outside of the concept of extinction, breathe life back into the ‘ghosts’ (as the exhibitions aims to do), and what we are dealing with, what the art is concerned with, are birds. Birds today are beautiful, and so they were yesterday and the day before. These ‘ghosts’ are really not long departed.

Many extinctions are going to happen in our own lifetimes, to birds that we see now as colourful, living, breathing, entities. Some birds were wiped away in the lifetimes of our parents and grandparents. Many more during the lifetimes of their parents and grandparents. Extinction as seen at the ‘Ghosts of Gone Birds’ exhibition is recent. It’s about the present, in colour, not some distant unimagined time that was drab or shades of grey. In fact, given the abundance of biodiversity and life in the world of our recent ancestors it was probably far more colourful and noisy than the one we now occupy.

Beautiful though it is – and in many ways celebratory, a joyous wake for species none of us will ever see alive – ‘Ghosts’ doesn’t shy away from the reality of extinction and what has far too often caused it. Us. Whether by hunting, through land clearance, or the introduction onto precious offshore islands of escapees like rats or of living larders like pigs and goats, it is us humans that are behind so many extinctions of the last three or four hundred years.

‘The Tragic Demise of the White Gallinule’ by Le Gun

When Ceri was interviewed about the ‘Ghosts’ exhibition by Culture24 last month he said that his favourite piece in the exhibition was ‘The Tragic Demise of the White Gallinule’ by illustration magazine Le Gun. He went on to say that, “I love this piece as it tells a story – with many of the birds there is a narrative to relate…”. I have to admit that when I first saw ‘The Tragic Demise…’ I hated it. It seemed – as I wrote above – to be stark and vulgar, devoid of beauty with its crude images of boss-eyed sailors armed to the teeth descending on a rather gormless-looking bird, while in the background a hairy-legged unkempt woman with sagging breasts wades to shore from a small boat. The painting clashed with the beauty of so many of the images around it, was rough and unrefined, an almost (I thought at the time) willful attempt by an artist to stand out in what he/she must have known would be a collection of colourful, beautiful art…

Yet, I was drawn back to Le Gun’s ‘ghost’ more often than to other artworks there. Not because I liked it especially, but – as Ceri alluded – because it did something that many of the other pieces didn’t: it describes in absolutely accurate terms the reality of extinction. Extinction for many birds was – of course – not something intellectual or beautiful, it was often about brutish beating to death, the slaughter of naive species by humans who stank, were crude, and weren’t the ‘jolly jack tars’ or the mermaids of classical art. Extinction was about sticks, knives, and rocks. It was about filth, blood, destruction, dispassion. It was all about – in the case of birds like the White Gallinule/Lord Howe Swamphen anyway – the harvesting of an entire species to feed another.

It was horrible and unpleasant. And it still is.

We may consider ourselves to be more ‘civilised’ than the mobs who set sail and conquered the world hundreds of years ago but let’s not forget that right now nearly all of the world’s albatross species are in danger of drowning to extinction on the hooks we set, that the rats and pigs we introduced are still destroying vast numbers of ground-nesting birds, that the companies we invest in or buy from (which is more or the less the same thing) are pulling down the world’s forests so that we can have cheap meat, cheap edible oils, or can fly our planes with a little less smoke trailing behind them.

We may dress better and speak more prettily, but we are still hurting the things we love through complicity and by turning a blind eye, and while the ‘Ghosts’ exhibition is full of the birds that are gone, it also serves as a very powerful reminder of the birds that are going. Species are being lost at around a thousand times the natural background rate and man-made or man-induced extinction is not just an event of the past, it is very much a part of the present and of the future.


Perfectly-named the ‘Ghosts of Gone Birds’ exhibition is a rare event in conservation, a collection of art that is not just to be admired for its technical feats, its style or aesthetic, but because if allowed to it will speak so eloquently to us, and will move us to a place that we will be unlikely to ever return from. And of course, like the birds it portrays, the exhibition itself will soon be gone – its art sold for conservation funding, painting and sculptures separated and lost from each other: a flock scattered.

None of us alive today will ever see a St Helena Hoopoe (left, St Helena Hoopoe by Felt Mistress) or a Great Auk, a Dodo or an O’o but get down to Shoreditch before November 23rd and we can at least get an idea of what they may have looked like before we shot, clubbed, or collected them off the face of the earth.

For more information please visit the ‘Ghosts of Gone Birds’ Facebook page at The Ghosts exhibition runs until November 23 at the Rochelle School, Arnold Circus, London E2 7ES, and there are numerous events connected with the exhibition taking place throughout the month.



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About the author

Passionate about animal welfare and conservation, veggie and dairy-free, I live in the Wiltshire (UK) countryside. I co-founded Birders Against Wildlife Crime and Birds Korea. Trustee of the League against Cruel Sports On Twitter @charliemoores

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