Bird Watching

“Clothing sits in the zone between your body and the outside world” said the New Zealand artist Catherine Bagnall. It is in this zone that we are able to exercise a form of free speech, as it features both very intimately with the body yet is similarly as publicly exposed. Due to two such extremes opposing one another in this limited region, we are confronted with conflict, as the intimate demands the truthful and the public demands the acceptable. It is this interval between the ideal and the instinctual that has most informed my work, “Bird Watching.”

This concept is derived from the 313BC script “The Birds” by Aristophanes, as the creation of a city in the sky inhabited by birds becomes the desired ideal of the Athenian citizens. This aspiration to imitate a considered ideal is just as relevant today as it was two and a half thousand years ago. The constructed idyllic identity is usually the product of a society’s culture, tradition, economic structure, inhibitions and desires, so although the ideal can be moulded and altered, as cultures transform, it is consistently present.

“Fashion’s great seduction is its mutability. Through the artifice of apparel, the less than perfect can camouflage perceived deficiencies and in some instances project an appeal beyond those gifted with characteristics accepted as ideal in their culture and time.” Pg 8, Extreme Beauty – The Body Transformed, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

“Bird Watching” is a performance installation which exposes the disintegration between the social ideal and the inevitable prevail of human instinct through an exploration of fashion theory. The piece consists of a model manically strutting on a grass catwalk until she is physically or mentally unable to continue doing so.

The irony of this desire to adhere to the constructed ideal, which in consequence can provoke suppression of the undesired (generally the instinctual), is that this importance of belonging is a direct result of instinctual tribal belonging. There is extreme irony of one instinct suppressing another and the conflict between the two.

According to Caroline Evans, author of Fashion at the Edge, this suppression is particularly relevant to western society today –

“Many of the features of western society today have their origins in the development of European mercantile capitalism from the 14th C and in what Norbet Elias (The Court Society) called the “civilising process.” For Elias, the evolution of manners since the Middle Ages involved the suppression of aggressive and instinctual behaviour in favour of the development of a reflexive, modelled and nuanced self. It is in this sense that fashion ‘speaks’ both as a discourse which articulates what we are, might be or could become.”

This suppression of the instinctual has manifested into an attitude of denial towards aspects of the human body. As a culture we attempt to deny that the body is an immortal agent which bleeds, sweats, excretes, leaks and releases odours. This repulsion of the bodily is also represented in Aristophanes’ The Birds as the herald describes what humans used to be like before the positive influence of the aerial city: “…long hair… no washing…” There are many ways in which we attempt to control the instinctual, such as celibacy, and in extreme cases, this craving for control results in the deprivation of physical necessities for existence, such as anorexia. Many of these notions are evident in the fashion industry, as the ideal prevails over the fundamentals of a physically and emotionally flawed human life.

“(fashion) is superficial, obsessed with beauty, novelty, and celebrity, the focus of continual change, conspicuous, consumption and wasteful excess.”
Pg 106 Fashion at the Edge, Caroline Evans.

However, I believe, fashion and clothing can behave as a vehicle for this conflict. As much as fashion can represent the desired ideal through conventional and mainstream clothing, it can also just as equally represent the opposition of that construct in its rebellious interpretations. Particularly in the avant-garde representations of fashion in the late 20thC, many designers began representing the full range of human emotions, rather than presenting the limited range of shiny, happy depictions of the ideal. But in regards to “Bird Watching,” I was interested in exploring the transition between the ideal and the prevailing instinctual. According to Caroline Evans (author of Fashion at the Edge), the prevailing instinctual is always evident, and she describes this through ironic connotations with the body and disease:

“…What is repressed comes back as a trace, under the weight of some cultural trauma, of which experimental fashion can function as a tell-tale memory. Seen thus, fashion is hysterical. It can be a symptom…
The daring of fashion can speak dread as well as desire; the shell of chic, the aura of glamour, always hides a wound…
Everything becomes ‘pregnant with its opposite.”

It is this bizarre yet common combination of the ideal and the rebellious, manners and the instinctual, cleanliness and the raw body that I wanted to portray. It was not only the combination, but the transition, the journey, the unavoidable disintegration between the two extremes. When embarking on the attempt to represent the raw and the instinctual in performance through fashion, it became evident that representing this via these perimeters would promote a contrived depiction. As said by Caroline Evans, “…in periods in which ideas about the self seem to be unstable or rapidly shifting…” it did become relevant that instinctual behaviour, when there are so many external forces dictating and manufacturing contrived behaviour, is a rare occurrence. When considering the theories of psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud and the Ego, which has been categorised into the Super-ego (the conscience), the Ego-ideal (the ideal view of ones self) and the Id which constitutes as the biological forces or pleasure principles, there appeared a direct reinforcement of the theories of the fashion academics. Freud says: 

“…a strong super-ego serves to inhibit the biological instincts of the id, while a weak super-ego gives in to the id’s urgings.”

It is through these philosophies that I consider we are most instinctual when we have spontaneously lost self awareness due to an extreme emotional episode, when our super-ego is off guard. Through the repetition of a strutting model, manically retracing her footsteps up and down a catwalk until physically or mentally unable to continue doing so, will hopefully expose the true characteristics of the human id, bringing the instinctual, the raw and the bodily functions to the foreground.

Another element to consider was the rhythm of the sequence. The work of Anne Bogart is very much preoccupied with improvisation and initial response. A particular exercise she applies in her directing is to initiate the communal stamping of feet until the point of exhaustion. She has speculated that a group of candidates will only fall into rhythm with one another as exhaustion prevails, the super-ego is weakened and the id revealed. This use of sequence and transition through repetition and endurance is also explored by the theatre company Forced Entertainment: 

"I decided to continue... until I had got over my pain by comparing it with other people's, or had worn out my own story through sheer repetition." Sophie Calle, Forced Entertainment.

The continuous repetition of an action has shown to take an interesting journey as the physical and mental state of the participant changes. It is this journey I hope to expose.

In consideration of the models attire, I referred back to the original text of Aristophanes’ The Birds. 

“I’m simply crazy on birds: I want to fly and live with you, and share your way of life…What could be more wonderful, more lovely than a pair of wings!”

Keeping the bird ideal in mind, when researching fashion photo shoots and catwalk shows, it became overwhelmingly apparent that the poses, the body language, the walk, the clothing, the emaciated bodies were all extremely bird-like. The irony that such an obscure narrative from 313BC could become so relevant to the media-saturated industry of fashion and the ‘strutting’ model was unexpected, but has strongly influenced my decision to dress the model in bird influenced fashion, through silhouette and material, on a grass catwalk. She wears a white dress with a netted bubble skirt encasing a mass of feathers. As she walks the feathers ‘malt’ from her skirt creating a record of her journey due to the growing collection of feathers around her over the day. The grass catwalk, too, will become a physical record of the model’s journey, as her footsteps are pressed into the soft earth. Encrusted in streaky pure white paint, the model has had a manic attempt to conceal her human skin in cleanliness and purity. Yet this transparent layer becomes a crusty thin skin flaking away as she walks, physically revealing a hidden layer as her manners diminish and the torment of repetition and endurance becomes relevant to onlookers.

The whole performance should be located in a busy and public space. Ideally a space that is central to other activities would ensure that the piece could become an event that spectators will visit periodically throughout the day as the fascination of her persistence and the allure of the unknown will emotionally involve them in her progress. At one end and to the right of the catwalk features a pair of binoculars on an out-door fold-up chair on a slab of grass so an audience member can scrutinise the model and witness her emotional and physical decline. The binoculars can be used by audience members as if they were ‘bird watching.’ This action of blatant visual scrutinisation of the model, not only associates her to that of a bird, but objectifies her, as models are in the fashion industry.

Witnessing this models extensive physical and mental feat, audience members are able to sympathise with the inevitable difficulties of such endurance. I think this is where my piece perhaps expresses most powerfully my concept; the mental journey an audience member will experience, from the complete objectification of the model through the binoculars to the sympathy and understanding of human limitations.


















Participants involved in “Bird Watching” are Hermione Flynn and Marina Davis