3 March – 8 April 2023
White Cube Paris
White Cube Paris is pleased to present ‘Rara avis’, a group exhibition curated by, Jerry Stafford, which brings together antiquities, artefacts and contemporary works of art sharing the subject of birds. Latin for ‘rare bird’, the exhibition title infers discovery and a sense of the wondrous or exquisite, but also intimates feelings of loss and lament.
Jerry Stafford is a writer, stylist, art director and dedicated avian enthusiast. Evincing his process as an ‘experiential bird watcher’, Stafford takes inspiration from the sensorial, immersive elements which permeate his natural surroundings. The curator’s lifelong fascination with ornithology is rooted in personal narrative; from the bird as a private symbol of escape from repression, to the myths of Icarus and Ganymede which coloured his adolescent dreams and fantasies. Taking this as its point of departure, the exhibition explores the avian as messenger and polysemous signifier through selected works spanning different cultures and moments in time.
‘Birds are performance artists, shapeshifters, global ambassadors, messengers between worlds, musical maestros and biological miracles whose often evasive or half glimpsed presence and significance underscores not only our daily lives but also our subconscious wanderings.’
– Jerry Stafford, February 2023
Nature writer and literary critic Robert Macfarlane is best known for his unparalleled insights into the natural world and his exploration of themes such as landscape, memory, environmentalism and language. The following text is specially commissioned for the exhibition ‘Rara avis’ at White Cube Paris. Listen to Tilda Swinton read ‘Rara avis’ here.
by Robert Macfarlane
A catechism of a kind, which is to be read aloud.
Ask not what is that bird?, but who is that bird?
Who is that bird whose skull was found in an ancient grave among human skulls, and into whose empty eye-sockets round pebbles had been set, so that in this lightless place you stared stony and sightless right through the veil and into the ink-dark waters that lie beyond the final pale?
I am Diver, asker — I am Immer-Goose, carrier of souls and crosser of thresholds.
Who is that bird whose high eerie cry bubbles like water in air, glistening on the moor or down by the estuary where dawn sun turns mudflats to pewter? It shivers the spine, that cry, for sure, but it's hard to say if it's haunting or joyful, for it hovers in between — though the heart knows how to hear it.
I am Curlew, asker — I am whaup or corliu; the messenger bird, whose bill is the slender curve of the new-moon's crescent.
Who is that bird far out on the ice of the frozen lake, vast wings draped around it like a surplice, tearing at a carcass, dropping its head, bent to its work? Who is that bird whose bones were found in a chambered tomb on Orkney — a room of the dead, a cairn of the erne, an eerie sky-burial, deep in the dark?
I am White-Tailed Eagle, asker — of the eight-foot wingspan, the butcher's talons and the gristle-cleaving beak. I watched humans arrive and I will watch them leave.
Who are those birds who form a squabbling rabble of grey-brown faces, a street-gang of urchins, a riffraff of squatters and chatterers, a bevy of punters placing bets at the races, who sleep where clematis creeps and bramble loops, who nests any-old-how in holes in walls and gaps in roofs, in thatch and thorn-bush, barn and factory, in nook and in cranny, carrying on a day-long, night-long hootenanny?
We are Sparrows, little Sparrows, asker — we have been your neighbours since far back, deep back, in human time, darting through your caves, your mead-halls, your shopping malls.
Who is that bird who sleeps on the wing, who crosses desert, sea and mountain-top and back each year without fatigue, without flag; who lives beyond the resistance of all earthly drag?
I am Swift — crossbow notched with arrow — and I harrow the skies in my hooligan gangs, shredding the air with my fellow handbrake-turners, wheelie-pullers, firers-up of the afterburners, like the havoc-wreaking, thrill-seeking spring-harbingers we are.
Who is that bird who nests raucous in the tops of trees; lodged near farms and barns, towns and highways, keeping up a full-force canopy-chorus of alarums and harum-scarums, of rattles and sprees, of wheeling, crying flight — as if a skyful of shadows had been flung up fast to block the light?
Oh I am Rook, asker — everyday crook, hawker of goods, cooker of books; Rook, Rook, of the bald white bill and the barefaced cheek; Rook, Rook, black-marketeer of the rocking, stocky, blocky gait; I make three hops forwards, then one away.
And who is that bird who hovers gyroscope-still above the meadow, wings wide, tail feathers flared like a hand of cards; a tilted rood, a shimmering crucifix?
I am Kestrel, of the terracotta back and the ash-grey head, and they call me wind-hover, wind-rider and wind-fucker, for I can hold myself flutteringly steady in the teeth of a gale — then fold and fall in a flash of hook and nail.
Then Diver, Curlew, Eagle, Sparrow, Swift, Rook and Kestrel all ask together:
Who is that human, who thins out the skies and fells the forests, who harvests us — from first cut to final gleaning — for skin and feather, meat and meaning?
And I find I have no good answer I can give.