Beautiful Vagabonds



I’m not really a bird person. I would go as far as to say that I’ve always kept my distance from our fine-feathered friends, believing them neither particularly fine nor friendly. While not quite a phobia, mine is certainly a healthy fear.

Aside from the general threat of swooping or eye-pecking, there are two triggering incidents that come to mind: being on the receiving end of a very sharp Ibis beak as a young kid; and a later-but-still-way-too-early viewing of Hitchcock’s The Birds. The fact that Tippi Hendren ended up in hospital with a nervous breakdown after having live birds thrown at her face for a week is hardly surprising. What is odd is that her poor character, Melanie Daniels, was immortalised by Mattel in the form of a commemorative Barbie doll complete with detachable crows poised for attack.

an australian magpie standing askew

But I digress.

For the last few months a magpie has been visiting my house on a daily basis, often more than once, but reliably every morning. He – apparently gender is discerned by the colour of the nape of their necks, males displaying pure white and females motley grey – hops from the overhanging tree to the roof, flies from there to the back deck (sometimes stopping to perch on the handle of my daughter’s pram) where he lands with aplomb, throws a cursory glance inside and then toddles over to my dog’s food bowl for breakfast. After expertly selecting one piece of kibble, he swallows it whole and then goes back for another – taking three, maybe four or five after a big night.

In days past I may have just shooed him away or encouraged my dog to rouse from her apathy and give chase, but now that my daughter is almost two I look forward to this magpie’s visits.

She is mesmerised by birds. Birdy, or more accurately buurdeee, was one of her first words, and when she hears their song she looks to the sky with amazement and delight. So when I see the magpie approaching said food bowl I motion for her to come to the door, where we watch his morning ritual together from behind the glass. With an easy swivel of his neck he grants us casual acknowledgment and, assumedly noting us as familiar, non-threatening humans, returns to his free meal.

an australian magpie standing vigilantly

The answer to my ignorant Google search: Can Magpies remember? is a resounding yes. And how. They can recognise individual people and their attendant behaviours for years. They have long memories. And hold grudges. But can also form what we understand as interspecies friendships.

an australian magpie investigating something

All previous divulgence notwithstanding, I am a big fan of birds in art.

The winter sun is truly palpable in Claude Monet’s The Magpie, the eponymous creature a lone witness to the melting frost.

In my early twenties I lived with a reproduction of Michelangelo’s The punishment of Tityus on my bedroom wall. So the myth goes, Tityus was shackled in the underworld as punishment for the attempted rape of Leto. Each day vultures were sent to tear out his liver, the seat of desire, which regenerated overnight, hence perpetuating the torture for eternity. Not the sunniest of pictures, but the line work is beautiful.

René Magritte employed birds as a motif throughout his work, often in silhouette and painted with various patterns – clouds, trees, the night sky – that render them most un-birdlike. But perhaps most charming is his ode to the imagination, Clairvoyance, a painting of an artist at work in which the model and its likeness are an egg and bird respectively. Art historical clairvoyance indeed!

Senior Gija artist Mabel Juli channels her love and embodied knowledge of Darrajayin Country into her paintings of birds: rosellas, brolgas, doves, black cockatoos and wedge-tailed eagles. My favourite though are her character-filled owls, doomboony, who stare out from their perches with cocked heads and wide, curious eyes. The artist herself is known as Wirringgoon, the Cockatiel, because of the little tuft of hair resembling a cockatiel’s crest she sported in her youth.1

an australian magpie looking elegant

Fernando do Campo doesn’t depict birds literally of course, rather he records his experience of encountering them – by sight or sound – in a loose taxonomy of his birdwatching over the course of a year. I say loose because there is slippage in the transfer of information from the field to the canvas – the latter vary in shape, size and colour, and dates and species names appear in countless combinations and are at times incomplete. The works are visual poems as much as personal records of avian contact:

                    

INDIAN RAi-

NBOW noisy

ROCK Austra-

lian SULPH

                UR.

Australas

ian, sulph

ur, noisy, r

ainbow.

(rainy day inside)

June 21 (el cumple

            - años de

            mi papa)

noisy

              pied

rock

Incorporated into the series are canvases that hold no words at all. These are layered with vibrant colours in stripes, grids, or irregular gestural marks in keeping with the artist’s tendency towards abstraction. I like to think they’re imbued with the particular mood of each meeting, too private or fleeting to put words to. Perhaps works that only my magpie acquaintance with his tetrachromatic vision is privy to.

an australian magpie taking flight

Artists often abide by guiding principles such as lists, inventories and chronologies, explicit or implicit, as scaffolds on which to build their practice. The Japanese conceptual artist On Kawara produced a key reference in this regard, known as his date paintings or the Today series. Begun in 1966, it contains almost 3000 works, all of which consist entirely of the date on which the painting was made in simple white lettering on a solid background.

Do Campo’s methodology is far from the formality and meticulousness of On Kawara’s but there is something of an existential pull to them both. I understand this inclination for record keeping as a form of witnessing. Of the self. Of time. Of life in both the broadest and most specific sense. Fred Tomaselli, also an avid birdwatcher, speaks of feeling weirdly comforted after jotting down the names of birds he’s seen – as if they guarded me against oblivion.2

A desire to catalogue, and moreover to classify, is surely bound to a particular worldview in which the human is firmly rooted at the centre, or perhaps the top. Do Campo describes the archetype of a birdwatcher as a colonial positionality, steeped in anthropomorphism. His larger project seeks to interrupt this notion of being human in relation to an already known other. In other words, to tap into other epistemologies of knowledge and methods of encounter: to try different strategies for companioning.

Perhaps the rhetorical question posed by the poet and naturalist John Burroughs is somewhere to start: The beautiful vagabonds, endowed with every grace, masters of all climes, and knowing no bounds, – how many human aspirations are realized in their free, holiday lives...3


How many bird aspirations are realised in ours?




  1. Mabel Juli, Jiregewoorrarrem — All Kinds of Birds, The Cross Arts Projects, https://www.crossart.com.au/exhibition-archive/96-2015-exhibitions-projects/276-mabel-juli-jiregewoorrarrem-all-kinds-of-birds, accessed 5 January 2021
  2. Keep Looking: Fred Tomaselli’s Birds, Toledo Museum of Art, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QeGxctoS5XY, accessed 28 December 2020
  3. Burroughs, John. Birds and Poets: With Other Papers. United States: Hurd and Houghton, 1877, p.10