Curiosity is a wonderful quality. To be open and inspired to question an idea, a sound, a sighting of something foreign and take the time to engage and learn from that inquiry is the core of a rich human experience.
Last weekend, I traveled to Washington, DC with ceramic artist Christy Hengst and 30 of her porcelain birds. The birds, part of a temporary and traveling public art installation, had a date to “land” in various DC parks. On Thursday morning, March 18th, the flock touched down on the National Mall at sunrise. On Friday, they became another group of interest amongst the urban crowd that socializes on the benches and green of Dupont Circle. Sunday, the 21st, the birds held court next to the nation’s Capitol and watched as a few Tea Party protestors and thousands of immigrant rights demonstrators took their signs, flags and hopes to the steps of democracy.
The birds are completely still, yet their glowing white porcelain shape gestures with preoccupation. The birds stand alone and in groups grounded maybe from their own questions and observations written onto them in cobalt blue ink. On their backs are images of war and peace; newspaper clippings announcing the invasion of Iraq, descriptions and lists of varied missiles deployed, family snapshots, poems of peace, a love letter, a recipe for pound cake. Each of the “landings” had a very unique tone. On the Mall, businessman, tourists, groups of school children, runners and bikers out on commute, a field trip, a stroll, spot the birds from a distance, and are drawn to them. The kids came running trying to make the birds fly off, others were more cautious, everyone curious. In Dupont Circle we talked to peace activists and professors, musicians, lovers and friends, veterans and vagabonds hanging out in one of the cities best known outdoor “rooms”. To the side of the Capitol, the birds seemed to evoke their own protest, an understated “land-in”, in comparison to the thousands of marchers determined to make their voices heard by yelling chants and songs of unification into a loud speaker.
Christy explains, “this project is about me exploring ideas and beliefs about war, and on the other side, peace. It’s not about a single message. It’s not about taking sides. This project is putting it all [good and bad] on the same page. In some way, the birds hold the space as witness. The birds seem to be witnessing a lot of different sides of life, holding, in a way, all of these different choices that people have”.
Many people thanked Christy for bringing the birds to DC. Some were impressed by the intention and idea. Many had detailed questions about the process; working with silkscreening and porcelain. Others were touched by a poem they read, or an image they saw and really engaged in the War and Peace subject matter. Still others seemed just delighted by the surprise of a public art installation that graced their daily routine.
Laurence Woodson, a musician who plays regularly in Dupont Circle said, “Artists take the risk for the rest of us. By risk I mean, you’re looking at someone on a high wire and you’re just riveted because, my god they’re on a high wire and they could fall. Or, these birds â€“ I get to see what you have to say about the world in this very interesting way. And, that gets it done for me, because I can’t or won’t make these porcelain birds and put them out here. And because you took that risk and it could suck, you could get ridiculed, you could be ignored. All of those things could happen when you take that risk. I think that’s one of the more interesting roles of art. Artists are also the one’s that provide the means by which we understand each other. Imagine for a second if there wasn’t music, or if there wasn’t art. Just imagine it. What would we be? How would we understand each other? How would we understand ourselves? Art is severely underestimated by most of us and taken for granted. It’s wildly important”.
I have never experienced art at work as I did being part of this project. I filmed clips from the landings and interviewed people who had strong reactions from the project. It was an amazing way to connect with people I would have not otherwise had the opportunity to talk to. The footage and a few photographs will become part of a larger documentary, being produced in Germany, about the project after the touring is complete, later this year.
I sincerely thank Christy Hengst for the opportunity to travel with her and the birds, and connect with people and art in a unique way.
For more information on the project, visit Christy’s website.
For the landing schedule, check out the Birds in the Park blog.
Other Links of Interest:
Link to WAMU radio piece by Rebecca Sheir.
The music of Laurence Woodson, singer / songwriter that you might find on a sunny day in Dupont Circle, Washington, DC
DC Environmental Film Festival