Bryndís Snæbjörnsdóttir and Mark Wilson’s socially-engaged and research-based practice explores contemporary relationships between human and non-human animals in the contexts of history, culture, and the environment. The Only Show in Town is the artists’ response to the plight of the saltmarsh sparrow, resident in the world only along a narrow and depleted margin of the east coast of North America. The survival of these small birds—which nest in the grasses of the saltmarsh—is threatened by climate change and sea-level rise, and ornithologists predict the extinction of the species by 2050.
During the summer of 2018, Snæbjörnsdóttir and Wilson joined field-biologists Deirdre Robinson and Steve Reinert of the Saltmarsh Sparrow Research Initiatives at Jacob’s Point in Warren, RI. The initiative is racing the tides to learn as much as possible about saltmarsh sparrows—the “canaries in the salt marsh”—before their expected extinction, and to build support for saving other saltmarsh species.
In The Only Show in Town the artists invite us to join them in the saltmarsh and to share their experience, which they describes as “the significant search for some understanding not yet known.” Through their installation we witness the artists’ quest “to distinguish between promising-looking twists of dried grass and the constructions that would hold or had once held the eggs and hatchlings of saltmarsh sparrows.” We view glasswort—a variety of saltmarsh grass—in extreme magnification, encouraging us to examine the plant in a way not possible with the naked eye and to recognize in it a bird's-eye view—correspondent with the view of the diminutive saltmarsh sparrow. Our attention is drawn to the interdependency and complexity of the saltmarsh habitat through several hundred ceramic tiles impressed with the names of animals, birds, insects, and plants that live in or frequent the marsh and contribute to its ecosystem. And, we observe the exhilarating moment of release, when—after being carefully caught in mist nets, measured, and banded—the sparrow is freed and lifts off from the hand of the researcher.
The exhibition culminates in a three-dimensional, time-based image of a saltmarsh sparrow. As the only representative image of the saltmarsh sparrow in the exhibition, the work reinforcing the theme of “searching” and suggests the extinction of the bird. The image is fleeting, reduced to a ten-second loop that the artists liken to a “relic”—an object of future remembrance.
In this period of extraordinary and human-generated changes to our environment, how should we respond to the loss of this small, somewhat hidden, and un-iconic bird? For Snæbjörnsdóttir and Wilson the answer is clear:
When the extinction of a species occurs, it is neither enough nor appropriate to close ranks and "carry on regardless." We should learn to grieve and through that process come to an understanding of how it is we are changed — and how it is we should go on.
As artists we consider art to be both the most promising platform and the most likely instrument by which . . . traditionally discrete knowledge-fields will [combine to] succeed in effecting significant and increasingly urgent cultural and behavioral change.
And change is the only show in town.
About the Artists
For the last twenty years, the collaborative artist team Snæbjörnsdóttir/Wilson have been practicing and producing in the field of contemporary art on an international stage with projects and exhibitions in the Australia, Europe, UK and the United States. They have built a reputation that resonates in many fields: contemporary art, animal studies, human geography, museology, the environmental sciences and more. In this respect, it has been their strategic intent to drive the idea that contemporary art is a significant voice, made possible by the application of unique blends of original methods and cross-disciplinary appropriation. They also examine what it means, in the context of crisis, (e.g. extinction), to consider and practice art as a tool of disruption and mediation, how passivity is a weapon and how complex cross-disciplinary relationships can be managed productively.
Snæbjörnsdóttir/Wilson’s artwork is multidisciplinary in nature, typically taking the form of installation, involving anything from sculptural interventions, found objects and materials, video, audio, drawing, photography and texts.
Bryndís Snæbjörnsdóttir (PhD) is Professor and MA program director at the Iceland Academy of the Arts. Mark Wilson (PhD) is Professor in Fine Art and Course leader in MA Contemporary Fine Art at the University of Cumbria, Institute of the Arts, UK.
The exhibition is supported, in part, by the Brown Arts Initiative.
Addition information about the Saltmarsh Sparrow Research Initiatives can be found at SALSri.org