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Text of a talk delivered by Susan Silas at the Pérez Museum Miami on 10 December 2015

(download pdf)

Video link. (My talk begins at 47:12)

I would like to begin by saying a few thank-yous. I was here in Miami two years ago for the opening of this museum and I am happy to be here again and I thank the Pérez Museum for hosting us today. I would like to thank AIRIE, its director and board, for an extraordinary month in residence in Everglades National Park and for taking the initiative to apply for funding for my billboard project. This project and its conceptual underpinnings are all based on my idea to insert wild birds into an urban environment, through their presentation on billboards, and on my artworks, titled flight, proposal for a billboard, dating from 2013 and 2014; a project which AIRIE raised funding for and later expanded to include other artists. I would like to thank Everglades National Park for making a special place for AIRIE in the park and I feel honored to be on a panel with Everglades National Park Superintendent Pedro Ramos. Over the years, my images and portfolios of dead and decaying birds have often been compared to the work of John James Audubon, a very special compliment, and I am pleased to be in the company of Audubon Director Eric Draper. I would especially like to thank the Knight Foundation for funding this project and for all of the work they do supporting the arts in South Florida.

My work over the past two decades could be likened to three tributaries that all run toward the same large body of water. All three streams are deeply important to me and while they appear to be distinct bodies of work, they are all connected not merely by authorship, in other words by having been created by me, but by my exploration of the fragility of sentient being in all three bodies of work; in individual cases and in the face of the unforgiving forces of history. My work on the Holocaust germinates from the memory of the images of all those dead bodies stacked like cord wood that appeared in newsreels and in photographs when the concentration camps were liberated in 1945. I have no idea when those images became a part of my consciousness, because I don’t remember a time when I didn’t know about them. The images I have taken of myself over the past fifteen years are connected to this work obliquely, as they consider a range of ideas starting with our notions of privacy and self-intimacy, control over our images, and the slow ruin of the analog body with aging. And most directly, with respect to the billboard project, the photographs, portfolios and videos of dead and decaying birds I have taken for the past 15 years, look to rehabilitate the singularity of sentient being. It is in this sense that my images of dead birds are related to those images of dessicated bodies lying in piles in concentration camps that entered my consciousness as a child, because those bodies were denied singularity, and were, by the time they were documented, essentially heaps of garbage to be disposed of, when in fact each one represented a lived life, not to mention a murder.

My work over the past two decades could be likened to three tributaries that all run toward the same large body of water. All three streams are deeply important to me and while they appear to be distinct bodies of work, they are all connected not merely by authorship, in other words by having been created by me, but by my exploration of the fragility of sentient being in all three bodies of work; in individual cases and in the face of the unforgiving forces of history. My work on the Holocaust germinates from the memory of the images of all those dead bodies stacked like cord wood that appeared in newsreels and in photographs when the concentration camps were liberated in 1945. I have no idea when those images became a part of my consciousness, because I don’t remember a time when I didn’t know about them. The images I have taken of myself over the past fifteen years are connected to this work obliquely, as they consider a range of ideas starting with our notions of privacy and self-intimacy, control over our images, and the slow ruin of the analog body with aging. And most directly, with respect to the billboard project, the photographs, portfolios and videos of dead and decaying birds I have taken for the past 15 years, look to rehabilitate the singularity of sentient being. It is in this sense that my images of dead birds are related to those images of dessicated bodies lying in piles in concentration camps that entered my consciousness as a child, because those bodies were denied singularity, and were, by the time they were documented, essentially heaps of garbage to be disposed of, when in fact each one represented a lived life, not to mention a murder.

Because the work photographing birds began as a serendipitous encounter with a just dead sparrow on the sidewalk in Brooklyn in 2000, something I could just as easily have walked by without taking notice, the connection between this work and my work on the Holocaust was not immediately evident to me. It became clear to me as I became more engaged with the work. One could say that I began to understand my own work by watching what I was doing.

When I began to photograph birds of different species together, it was a more self-conscious effort, thinking about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and other intractable problems in the world and choosing to show a reconciliation in death that defied the nature of these creatures in life, a bird of prey for example, embracing a dove. I saw them as a symbolic form of hope in a situation increasingly hopeless to resolve.

When I applied to the residency in Everglades National Park my plan was to find a dead pelican or vulture to shoot over the course of the month. It turned out that in order to collect (in other words move to a studio setting) a dead bird inside the park, I needed a collection permit from the Fish and Wildlife Commission. After eight months of back and forth, they decided, in their infinite wisdom, that an artist was not really worthy of such a permit. Such permits were meant solely for scientists. To defy them could be a felony. So the question at the very last moment was: "What am going to do with myself for a month?"

The South Florida Collections Management Center, located inside the park, took pity on me and opened up their drawers of birds, collected in the park since the sixties. They allowed me two days of incredible access. The series of photographs that resulted, titled THE SPECIMEN DRAWER, which our moderator Deborah Mitchell curated into two exhibitions here in South Florida, can be found on my website at www.susansilas.com.

I also encountered a dead bird on the side of the road inside the park and created a video, titled fly like the wind. I was able to accomplish this without moving or touching the bird, thus within the strict parameters set for me by the Wildlife Commission.

But I was there for a month. So what to do? I had no idea. After a few days wandering around in the park, I began to follow the vultures (and sometimes the crows) around. I got to know where they would hang out in the morning, where to find them later in the day and where they would congregate in large numbers. I photographed them every day.

When I went home, I wasn’t sure what to do with the images. I usually shoot dead, not living birds, and the work didn’t really fit into my ongoing body of work, it felt anomalous. But I also missed these fantastic large birds. In the park at some of the parking lots, you can borrow a tarp to put over your windshield, because playful and bored adolescent vultures will pick the rubber that surrounds the windshield off your car and watch as the windshield caves in. Vultures are profoundly elegant in the air, both flying and soaring and I concentrated my efforts on catching them in flight or alighting on branches. On the ground they are more awkward than a chicken, waddling and clumsy. They seem to be fairly social, spending much of their day in small groups. They will also stand with their wings open, perhaps just the males, displaying themselves to one another. The crows can also be found in small groups but they travel in pairs, as couples that mate for life, and they mourn their dead.

What if I could see them in the middle of New York City, imagine?

And that is when I hit upon the idea of photoshopping them into billboards to see what it would be like to have them in my urban environment. I photographed billboards in New York, then later on Sunset Strip in Los Angeles and in Miami, and replaced the advertisements with my birds. I thought of all of these composite photographs as a proposal for a billboard, so I titled them all flight, proposal for a billboard and specified the city where they were located. The fact is, that we as a species, do need to think more carefully about our interdependence with other creatures on the planet. Even the ones invisible to us at any given moment. As soon as I created the first image of a large crow in flight in Soho, I could see that the billboard conveyed this message in a straightforward way, without being didactic. And so, I had not only brought the Everglades home with me to New York, but I had created a device that encapsulated a vivid and important idea. Something that was both an artwork and an appeal.

I had two ideas for the Miami billboard. One somehow quiet and minimal and the other, the disdainful vulture perched on a long branch, glancing over his or her shoulder, that we settled upon. Now flight, proposal for a billboard is a reality here in Miami. You can see it from NW38th Street and NW 2nd Avenue near the Design Center and along the highway on I-195 in Wynwood. It is facing East. Thank you.