RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
In the middle of winter, the Smithsonian's American Art Museum in Washington, D.C. is aflutter of exotic birds, real and imaginary. They are part of an exhibition called "The Singing And The Silence: Birds In Contemporary Art," with works by a dozen artists. NPR special correspondent Susan Stamberg says it's a gorgeous gathering of winged creatures.
(SOUNDBITE OF BIRDS CHIRPING)
SUSAN STAMBERG, BYLINE: You can almost hear them in the museum's galleries. They are so vividly and variously on view. A few, in photographs by Barbara Bosworth, are barely visible. A blue-winged warbler, a common yellow throat, are being banded so their migrations can be tracked. In one photo, a woman's hand looks enormous because poking out between two of her fingers...
JOANNA MARSH: The tiny head of this blue-winged warbler.
STAMBERG: Joanna Marsh curated the exhibit.
MARSH: It's an incredibly intimate moment of contact between humans and birds.
STAMBERG: The Fish and Wildlife Service says bird-watching is the fastest growing form of outdoor recreation in this country. You don't need birders binoculars for Lorna Bieber's "Bird/Portrait," an extreme close-up of an unknown but very large bird's eye and beak.
MARSH: It looks massive because the image has been enlarged tremendously. Lorna Bieber isn't actually a photographer herself. All of the material she uses are found images, and she manipulates the source images by enlarging them.
STAMBERG: She's xeroxing, and it's black and white. But it's enormously striking because it's so huge. And you never get to see a real bird of this size or at this level.
MARSH: Exactly. And it's an intense close-up.
STAMBERG: Troubling and a bit scary seeing it this close. Troubling too once you study it, a jaunty tree, its branches laden with orange birds made of resin. The birds are translucent, and lit from above, they seem to glow. Rachel Berwick's sculpture is beautiful, but...
MARSH: These birds are like a specimen frozen in amber. These birds - these orange birds - are actually casts of passenger pigeons. And as you walk around the piece, the tree and the birds appear to multiply as if we're looking at a forest.
STAMBERG: The hundredth anniversary of the extinction of passenger pigeons was curator Joanna Marsh's inspiration. Once, they migrated in flocks of billions. They were the most populous bird in North America. But in just 50 or 60 years, they were gone. Habitats were destroyed, hunters were voracious. On a wall at the American Art Museum, these words by Toni Morrison - I don't know whether the bird you're holding is dead or alive, but what I do know is that it is in your hands. It is in your hands. So the show wraps a moral around these beautiful sculptures and paintings and photographs of creatures that can soar. But here's the thing. They fly, and that's what fascinates us. Then you go capture them in a photograph or in a canvas, and you've lost their bird-ness.
(SOUNDBITE OF BIRDS CHIRPING)
MARSH: And I think that's so much about what this exhibition revolves around. Even the title of the exhibition, "The Singing And The Silence," it's about abundance and extinction, about life and death. And when you capture a bird in a photograph or in a painting, you do; you lose their ability to fly.
STAMBERG: Well, if you can, fly over to the Smithsonian American Art Museum to see this knockout of a show. Flying is the operative word. The show closes on February 22. I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News.
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