Art Culture

The Birds and the Bees Talk- Talbot Rice Gallery

The expression ‘the birds and bees’ refers to an explanation of human reproduction to little children, usually in a formal, rather awkward setting and using naturalistic imagery. It is perhaps an obvious reminder of our closeness to the natural environment, and our fundamental reliance on it as a means of explaining basic ideas and images. The familiar cliché endures—it all comes down to biology. 

This idea was explored on Thursday at the Talbot Rice Gallery’s virtually held ‘Birds and Bees’ talk, in conversation with artists James Webb and Tonya McMullan. The talk was a prelude to ‘The Normal’ exhibition, which has been postponed until the easing of lockdown restrictions. The talk focused on two artworks from the exhibition; the first was the latest element of Webb’s series ‘There’s No Place Called Home’, which has been running since 2004 and introduces the birdsong of the foreign Jamaican Becard to the habitat of the Royal Botanical Gardens. The second is Tonya McMullan’s ‘archive of honey’, a collection of honey samples to be displayed in a specially constructed cabinet.

Webb’s artwork explores our entanglement with birds, and inserts alien sounds in a familiar environment. The displacement, which is accomplished through speakers hidden amongst a patch of trees, defamiliarizes the landscape and poses questions, rather than answers, to the audience. Where is our relationship with birds heading? What is the impact of a pandemic on this relationship? Where did these foreign birds come from? What is “home”, for these birds and for us? Nature, rather than the human, becomes the augur, heralding a change in the way we view the environment and our place in it. And indeed, many have begun to pay closer attention to nature as the lockdown has slowed the pace of modern life. Webb’s work allows Edinburgh’s residents to experience these questions and contemplate their answers, highlighting the planet’s transformation and the birds’ responses to it.

In her sculptural installation, McMullan interrogates the effects of the ‘anthropause (the halting of human activities across the world) on bees and their foraging. She collects pollen samples from around Edinburgh and the Lothians to raise questions about biodiversity and climate change. Bees have, over the years, been in the news for their disappearance, an event that most scientists attribute to human intervention. She posits that bees experience humans through smell, and with the right engagement, humans can “smell” bees, too. While Webb’s piece is sonic in nature, McMullan relies on taste and smell to bring residents of concrete spaces closer to the fauna around them.

Both pieces paint a vivid picture, but also emphasise the idea of a community in bringing art to life and in interacting with nature (ornithologists for Webb, and beekeepers for McMullan). Human beings are perhaps not at the centre of these artworks, but they are certainly a vital part of them. The focus of both Webb’s and McMullan’s work is nature’s responses to human activity, and vice versa. These responses are rich in their sensory appeal—visual, sonic, olfactory, and gustatory senses are all stimulated here. They are altogether provocative, successfully depicting our constantly changing links with the natural world.

[Image Description: A person wearing a white beekeeper suit, works on an open beehive covered by bees. The scene is set in a green space that appears like a garden or a forest. There are other beehives in the foreground and background]

Tonya McMullan, honey collection accumulated during lockdown [work in progress], 2020Image Courtesy Talbot Rice Gallery