REVIEW: Céleste Boursier-Mougenot, Barbican Centre, London

27 February – 23 May 2010

There’s no denying the value of a novelty factor when it comes to bringing new audiences to contemporary art. Zebra finches playing electric guitars certainly takes novel and smashes it, like any self-respecting guitar hero might. Gimmicks aside, and this one is especially clever, there is something much more profound to be had in experiencing French artist and composer Céleste Boursier-Mougenot’s immersive installation at the Barbican than might first be imagined. Yes, there are zebra finches, yes, there are cymbals and basses and electric guitars and yes, if you stand calmly enough, the birds will fly about before coming in to land on you. But it is the subtleties of the experience, as a soundscape, an environment and an encounter with nature-as-art that makes this delicate, multi-sensory experience so profoundly memorable and well worth the hour-plus wait it takes to be admitted.

Reinvigorated as a space for temporary art exhibitions, The Curve at the Barbican is a clever and surprisingly diverse space (it previously housed a mock World War Two bunker and next month will feature a modified mobile home by Berlin-based artist John Bock) and as the site for Boursier-Mougenot’s aviary it feels surprisingly natural. The first half of the narrow space is darkened and as the wooden promenade guides you along the walls flicker with close cropped video projections of fingers busily strumming guitars. The buzzing, droning soundtrack that plays overhead is not the instruments but the mechanics of the video signal being processed. According to Boursier-Mougenot this is the ‘sound of the images’. This notion of the sound of images, or indeed the images of sound is arguably what drives much of the Frenchman’s practice but as an entrée to the aviary this first installation doesn’t feel wholly connected – in dialogue or even necessarily aesthetics – to the birds and as such, on rounding the corner and entering the brilliant white space of the open aviary this initial introduction to the work is instantly forgotten.

Brightly lit, the large space has no windows but feels far from claustrophobic with the wooden promenade looping around small islands of sand and desert grass, on which Boursier-Mougenot has placed his instruments. Tiny birdhouses line the upper part of the wall but otherwise the only perches are the cymbals, basses and electric guitars. And the visitors, of course. Tuning the instruments so that each string, when touched, produces a loud, clear chord, the zebra finches territorially guard a nest built perilously on the neck and headstock of one guitar, while others peck at the seeds held in the cymbal-as-birdfeeder. And when they are not attending to such things as house-building and eating and daily ablutions in the other cymbal-as-birdbath, they are nonchalantly engaging with visitors – snooping through handbags, taking up residence in the hood of someone’s jacket or taking in the view from the top of another’s head. Novelty factor? Absolutely. And this interactive element is certainly crucial to the charm of the work but overwhelmingly it is the gently improvised score of twittering, incidental strumming and pecking that brings the work as a whole to life.

There is an ad hoc poetic quality to this aural-visual display of daily life and activity and it is not easy to reconcile the delicacy of these tiny birds producing these bold, electric sounds with the fact that musicians such as Paul McCartney, Keith Richards, even Slash, have used these same instruments to create their own unique scores.

In much the same manner as composer John Cage infamously encouraged listeners of his silent score 4’33’’ (1952) to hear the incidental sounds of their surroundings, and the influence of Cage on Boursier-Mougenot should not be discounted, the artist here has similarly drawn viewers to reflect and engage with the sounds of the ‘image’ presented here, of which the viewer is an integral part.

The success of Boursier-Mougenot’s installation at the Barbican lies not in the charm of the zebra finches and the rare chance to engage so closely with them, but in the after-effect – the heightened sensory awareness of the non-art life. Sounds, surroundings, even smells feel brighter and more richly realised and you leave feeling more attuned towards discovering joy and beauty and song in the details of the everyday. You really can’t ask for more of an art encounter.