Review written for the Cape Times by Lucinda Jolly

Tracing forced migration from cities
Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Around the same time that Barbara Wildenboer’s exhibition Canaries in the Coalmine opened, it was reported that many birds and insect species where moving away from London, unable to cope with the incessant noise generated by human’s in the city. According to ornithologists when a bird’s song cannot be heard above the racket of the metropolis it means its very survival is at stake as it cannot attract mates, defend its territory or warn of predators. And those birds who don’t leave cope by upping the decibels to a level equivalent to screaming just to be heard.  A high 85 percent of threatened bird species are at risk due to habitat conversion for human activity. But neither Wildenboer’s concerns, nor her beautifully crafted work is that of an eco- activist. Of course she cares and feels deeply and like many is overwhelmed   by the huge burden that her carbon footprint makes. And recently when she was offered a residency in Bogota, Colombia she once again had to make a choice of whether to go or stay, between minimising her carbon footprint or missing out on an opportunity. The opportunity won.

Canaries in the Coalmine is Wildenboer’s sixth solo exhibition. She moves from using images from nature to express the highly personal themes of loss, abandonment and the twinning of death and giving birth, to work that reflects a more collective anxiety. It was after her previous exhibition through a conversation with South African artist James Reed (a latter day Joseph Buys) that this shift began. Reed pointed out that Wildenboer’s natural imagery pointed to something wider than the personal. So began her research into trends in current psychology and the move away from the 19th and 20th centuries of “chimney sweeping” and the tendency to focus primarily on self towards one where the human is seen as an integral part of many wider systems. Here Wildenboer came across the work of Glenn Albrecht a trans-disciplinary philosopher who focuses on the intersection of ecosystem and human health and who coined the term Solastalgia.

Solastalgia is really a combination of the following three states, solace or comfort, desolation and algia, the Latin word for pain. Albrecht describes it as a longing for a home that is changed irreconcilably even though one may still be living in it. He points out that unlike the Hopi, the Portuguese or the Inuit we have “very few concepts in English that address environmentally induced distress and illness” He goes on to makes a connection between the state of the earth and mental and physical health. Albrecht suggests that there are places that are not lost but completely transformed, so that although you are at home, a melancholia arises because it is so changed.In a nutshell, Solastalgia is “a form of homesickness one experiences when one is still at “home”. Wildenboer’s works provide emotional counterpoint in a visual form for the concept of Solastalgia. The result is images that appear charged with a pervasive melancholy of homesickness and of not belonging. Wildenboer’s fascination with Museums and the Renaissance concept of the Cabinet of Curiosities or Wunderkamer has led to her creating artworks which appear scientific and yet are not.

Previous exhibitions have featured her signature of the altered book art. The creative surgery of these highly labour intensive works are performed with a scalpel (and not as is rumoured, a laser) transforming the book into a layered dimensional construction of the title.  Wildenboer’s titles often play with puns and double entendres. Las Defensas des la Planta and Psiglogica Biologica are two such inclusions where the inside pages fan and frill out in a layered and intricate way as if bursting out past the borders and confines of their heavy serious covers and restraints of words  in a playful way. And yet beneath the highly pleasing aesthetic, a melancholy endemic in the artist herself and her concerns persists. Likewise Wildenboer’s use of maps continues. Limited to their colour range of turquoise and yellows, maps make up the grass stalks of Indemnity and Forecast I and II, in the prosthetic wings given to the dark little torpedo body shapes of stuffed birds whose original wings are forever folded and in the more conceptual wings of Sacrum Simulacrum and the Rorschach series.

In this exhibition Wildenboer melancholy, absurdity and futility continues under its pretty guise. New is the introduction of cloud imagery found in the installation Burning Bridges, building fences which consist of a number of portholes containing clouds photographed in Botoga.  Faint imprints of bird skeletons are superimposed on the clouds which are pierced by the merest hint of a bird outline in silver thread and pins. Wildenboer has a horror of her works being received as beautiful or worse still pretty and landing up as interior design commodities.  It’s an understandable fear as the works could be seen as beautiful. But the sorrow that pervades her photographs of iridescent tagged bodies of tiny wild birds with specks of cotton wool for eyes wheeling round and round for eternity and our worship of the approximation for something other than the real thing suggests a senseless brutalising of our world which has in turn brutalised us. Not pretty at all.