Notes from the Coalface

Barbara Wildenboer interviewed by Carsten Rasch for the Canaries in the Coalmine catalogue


Birds have long been recognized as the indicators of environmental change, and are effectively thecanaries in the coalmine when it comes to climate change. The idiom canaries in the coalmine refersto the practice of mineworkers taking cages of singing canaries into the mines with them to forewarnthe miners of poisonous gasses that have been released. The moment the incessant singing of the birdswould stop, the mineworkers would leave the shaft.

The use of the bird motif is not new in my work. I first started photographing taxidermied birds as partof my MFA body of work. At the time, my interest in the dead birds was more as part of the Vanitas/ still-life tradition and as memento mori. When I was writing a proposal for the residency in Bogota,Colombia, my intention initially was not to use the actual bird motif again, but I had become interestedin the changing migration patterns of birds, specifically as influenced by global warming. Climate changeseems to be affecting bird migration patterns. This in turn is threatening their existence and havinga major impact on various ecosystems. I wanted to tie this up with the idea of solastalgia, a conceptpioneered by Dr. Glenn Albrecht, a professor of sustainability at Murdoch University in Perth, Australia.Solastalgia, ecoparalysis, global dread and soliphilia are all terms that refer to the relationship betweenecological health and mental health. I was interested in Albrecht’s studies of ecopsychology and histheory of how an increase in human depression, psychosomatic illnesses and stress disorders is linked toour planets’ ecology.

Initially my working title was ‘Solastalgia’ but I felt that this was too vague. As the work progressed, itstarted to branch out to include other ideas such as ecoparalysis and global dread. As I moved closer tothe end of production, I felt that the title Canaries in the Coalmine more cohesively linked the differentconcerns of the body of work as a whole.

Once in Colombia I met Prof. Gary F. Stiles, an ornithologist at the Instituto de Ciencias Naturelas inBogota, who had done extensive work documenting and recording the various species of hummingbirdsfound in South America. He gave me access to his extensive hummingbird collection. This collection washoused in an enormous room, filled with very large sliding cabinets with drawers containing thousandsand thousands of different species of hummingbirds, each gutted and stuffed with cotton wool andtagged with a label containing relevant data. The birds in the collection ranged from mild to severelythreatened, to extinct. I found it interesting that Professor Stiles and his team, whilst collecting anddocumenting the different bird species in the name of research, were also potentially contributing tothe extinction of certain of the bird species.

The idea of working with ecological issues also stems from two earlier series of altered books, namelyRed Data and You can’t return home even though you never left. For Red Data I worked with and altereda set of three red data books. (A red data book contains lists of species whose continued existence isthreatened. Species are classified into different categories of perceived risk, with each red data book

dealing with a specific group of animals or plants. They are published in many different countries andprovide useful information on the threatened status of the species). You can’t return home even thoughyou never left was more specifically concerned with the idea of solastalgia. It was here where I, forthe first time, started working with the idea of the connection between a changing environment andfeelings of homesickness.

Often the information contained in the books I alter is either redundant or dated. By altering thesebooks, I revive them and bring them back into circulation again, albeit not in the field they wereoriginally intended for. The two books in Canaries in the Coalmine were found at a flea marketin Bogota. They were selected for their specific titles that linked them to either psychology orecology. With the one book in particular Psigologica Biologica, I was concerned about it being a rarecollector’s edition. The book had a different look and feel and was much older than the books I usuallywork with. I was unsure about cutting it up. I contacted a friend of mine in South Africa and gave himthe title, author and year of the book. He did some research and assured me that a copy of that editionwould sell for no more than R60.00 in South Africa, that there were several copies of it still in circulation.In book collector’s terms, the book did not have much value.

At first glance, the work included in this exhibition, with its birds, clouds and flower and plant-like formsmay appear to be uplifting. On closer inspection, however, it reveals more disquieting aspects. Theimages include dead birds, and where they are depicted alive they are either tumbling backwards orfighting in flight; tied up in thread, or spinning round in what resembles broken cogs of wheels. Theclouds seem to be pinned and tied down; the birdcage empty of birds – indicators that all is not as itshould be.

Although my work has strong ecological themes, I do not see myself as an activist for environmentalchange, nor is the body of work to be seen as a green campaign. It is rather a reflection on my personalresponse to climate and environmental issues that can often leave one feeling overwhelmed anddistressed – in a state of solastalgia.