Hanging from the ceiling of one gallery you’ll find an artistic rendering, in driftwood, of extinct dolphin skeletons. In the room next door there are a dozen photographs of dead birds, carefully identified by species. Downstairs there’s a 13-minute video on the creation of the world, featuring footage of preserved fauna (drawers and drawers of birds, notably) that the artist examined during a recent residency at the Smithsonian.
The makeover has nothing to do with the museum’s ongoing renovation, which is scheduled to be completed next spring. In fact, the common theme — dead critters — is entirely coincidental. But it tells us something, I think, about the way today’s artists seek meaning, and even a kind of beauty, in death.
Jonathan Latiano’s “Flight of the Baiji” is the most striking work. Part of the BMA’s 2013 Baker Artist Awards exhibition, which honors the winners of an annual regional art competition, Latiano’s installation was inspired by the extinction of the baiji, a species of freshwater dolphin once native to China’s Yangtze River.
In Latiano’s sculpture, a school of dolphins — or, rather, their skeletons, rendered in driftwood that the Baltimore artist harvested from local rivers — seem to swim along the entire length of one long room. With the wood bleached to resemble bones, the piece is both beautiful and vaguely macabre, in a way that a similar installation in a science museum could never be.
We’re used to looking at fossilized bones and taxidermied animals in museums that showcase that sort of thing. But there’s something in that more clinical context that allows us to see them as artifacts instead of once-living creatures. Paradoxically, by distancing us from the real animal, Latiano brings us even closer to them. His figures are make-believe, fashioned from wood, not bones. But hanging over our heads, close enough to touch, they’re ghostly reminders that we, quite literally, swim in the same stream.
Photographer Lynne Parks is another Baker Artist Awards winner. The subjects of her works also echo the visual vocabulary of natural history. They’re birds that became confused by the twinkling lights of the city at night and flew into the sides of buildings.
Parks, a member of Lights Out Baltimore, a group that advocates for businesses to dim their lights during migration season, walks the city’s streets at dawn, helping to collect — and memorialize — the dead.
Unlike scientific images, Parks’s photos are profoundly sad. Like Latiano’s work, they’re also accusatory. According to a 2005 report, as many as a billion birds may be killed annually in the United States because of collisions with buildings and other man-made objects.
Downstairs from Parks’s and Latiano’s work you’ll find a video by the French-born, New York-based Camille Henrot. Called “Grosse Fatigue,” her piece is part of BMA’s Black Box multimedia series. The subject of Henrot’s video — the creation of the universe and its exhaustive variety — is broader than death, but she’s plowing the same field as Latiano and Parks, albeit less deeply.
Among the collagelike footage that the artist has assembled — which includes shots of the heavens, naked bodies, eggs, African sculpture, a glass eyeball, X-rayed fish, notebook pages and a host of other things — are many pictures of dead birds, laid out in drawers and tagged, like corpses in a morgue. However fascinating these specimens are, there’s something cold about the way they’re catalogued.
What’s missing from Henrot’s piece is not just the poignancy of Latiano’s and Parks’s art, but their works’ urgency. “Grosse Fatigue” — whose title, loosely rendered, might read “Dead Tired” — looks at the dizzying complexity of life and death on this planet, and yawns.
Lynne Parks’s uncanny ability to imbue photos of dead birds with emotion may have something to do with the connection she feels with her subjects, which she sometimes finds alive on the ground and sends to a rehabilitation facility. When she was 14, the artist was found to have a rare form of cancer that, over three decades, required 28 surgeries as well as radiation, chemotherapy and miscellaneous drug regimens.
Parks’s work isn’t limited to birds; it also includes evocative details of Baltimore’s derelict alleys and abandoned buildings. She writes, in her Baker Artist Awards bio, that she identifies with “broken, patched together things.”
— Michael O'Sullivan