Henriëtte van 't Hoog

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Frans van der Helm

Art Animal

I once saw an artist languish. As it happens – full of creative energy, but misunderstood by the public and condemned to a shortage of means. Tormented by people who knew no better, who thought him to be nothing more than a bird.

In the zoo they passed his cage, with Coke bottles and blue straws, plastic chip plates with blue forks. That bird hung on the wire fence – it wanted something from them. So he got jabbing fingers, bits of bread, or a hot chip. They would stroke him on his stomach – a stomach not meant for stroking. And, he would just stare back with his piercing, yellow eyes as if to say: this, this, this is what I want.

No one understood him. Finally, with a bitter cry, he flew away. Went into his cage, rearranging a single blue feather on the floor. Moving it. Looking at it. Moving it again.

It was then that I started making my rounds past the rubbish bins. Fantastic materials lay there for the picking. Those straws. The little, blue forks. The paper from a Drum tobacco pouch. By the time I returned, the bird was hanging on the wire again. Unceremoniously, he grabbed the material from my hands, his eyes filled with creative fire. In a corner of the cage, by that single feather, he made his studio and set to work, driven, scurrying.

The next day the piece was finished. A composition in sheer blue. There lay the straws, loose but carefully fanned out. That one blue feather was still there. But the pièce de résistance, centred, was a shiny ice-cream spoon. Blue.

The satin bowerbird likes monochromes. Blue monochromes, with here and there a little yellow accent for contrast. However, in modern parlance, blue is his 'thing'. He lives in the eastern Australian forests, one of many different kinds of bowerbirds with a strong preference for vivid colours. The male bowerbird uses twigs to build two parallel walls, which surround an avenue. On either side of the meticulously uncluttered platforms, the male shows off all the blue objects he has collected far and wide. Each day he carefully inspects his collection, removing any bleached or discoloured objects. And if a female passes by, he draws her attention to his showpieces.

It's a somewhat one-sided interest, which people nonetheless find appealing. The French painter Yves Klein managed to sell work for years, all of which was blue. Now and then, he would also paint a woman blue. It created a storm of interest at the Pompidou Centre. Never let art experts say that the satin bowerbird is limited. By the way, satin bowerbirds also paint. They work with blue fruit juice or charcoal and a self-made paint brush, which they use to touch up the colour of twigs.

These satin birds – which are somewhat like deep-blue jackdaws – have collected blue stones, flower petals and berries. Nowadays these are accompanied by deep-blue shiny batteries, the occasional blue button and bits of blue plastic. Blue bus tickets are also good. One bird had enormous success with a bag-full of Reckitt's Blue stolen from a local laundrette.

It is easy to measure success among satin bowerbirds; one simply counts the number of female visitors to the exhibition. The hallmark of a good, male satin bowerbird is an adept composition in blue. And, therefore, the skilful collection of blue objects in the wild is itself an art. So doing, he creates a masterpiece in two ways. Females are keen to pair up with such clever males. These females then go about building a nest of their own somewhere and arrange all other practical matters. The male works for the enticements of his art alone. He lives for his work.

The bird does not work on his exhibitions to attract females. Though this is the accepted explanation. And, as is expected in the analysis of animals and their behaviour, it skips a step. He creates his bower because he thinks itís beautiful – because it fulfils his own aesthetic demands and longings. And okay, why does he find it beautiful? Because he gets the females with it. It is not a negligible intermediate step in examining his motivation. Liken it to lion cubs who tussle and play together. At that point they are not working seriously on their genetic future, even if evolution begs to differ.

Aesthetic? Definitely. Bowerbirds have a rock-like conviction and enormous drive to be critical and create perfect results – according to their own vision. The males are constantly busy adjusting the décor in their bowers. They rearrange a bit, take a few steps back and assess the result with tilted heads. Sometimes they restore the old situation, sometimes they try out a new variation.

Here, practise makes perfect. Young male bowerbirds mess around, sometimes in packs, without a single female coming to look. They also go off to see the studios of their older, successful colleagues. They imitate their art. This gives rise to local cultures with distinct styles and gimmicks. Nevertheless, the birds also develop individual tastes. Their bowers are unique in their decorative detail.

But is it art? Bird lovers are generally indifferent to human performance and cultural norms. And, conversely, art lovers seldom look deeply into bird life. So, everyone is free to provide their own answer. Letís say thereís a relationship with a clear parallel; the work itself is the goal. Any additional goals – impressing members of oneís own species, or to be approved of – do nothing to hinder the personal, creative need. A bowerbird may look at a successful composition from all angles. They sometimes do that.

A fine quality, especially for that one bird at the zoo. He was alone.

translation: Louise Vines