Before entering the new exhibition at the Victoria Gallery & Museum, The Spectacle of the Lost, you pass through a small room, almost a Victorian parlour, filled with a recording reading of Audubon’s writings and some of his paintings, including one of an otter caught in a trap, which he gifted to a member of the Rathbone family, who were his patrons and offered him a place to stay during his time in Liverpool. The recipient of this particular piece, the aunt of the young Rathbone girl with whom he had fallen in love with (and apparently gotten pregnant) was suitably horrified with this “gift” and she hung the picture until she could no longer bear to look at the snarling creature it depicted. Other than this, most of the works in this room are life-size paintings of various American birds, some of which are contorted into ridiculous poses which lend them a cartoonish, unreal air and in some ways highlight the deadness of those creatures whilst simultaneously being bright, vibrant pictures.

Moving through this introduction to the inspiration and catalyst for this collaborative exhibition, curated by Laura Robertson, further works by Audubon are placed directly alongside the artists whose work is the focus of the show. Liverpool based Jon Barraclough, Alexandra Wolkowicz (New York) and Rob Perterson (New York) make up the main contingent, and are part of Birds’ Ear View Collective, an experimental, collaborative project based in New York whose primary concern is the life and death of birds in “the vertical city” and the ways in which to discuss, recognise and document this. Audubon’s rarely seen lithograph prints are taken from the archives of the VG&M and these bright, almost encyclopaedic pieces act as a counterfoil to the darker, slightly more conflicted, contemporary ornithological representations. Jon Barraclough’s drawings are first seen here, and include two messy, chaotic graphite pieces entitled “Impact” which are inspired by the markings created by birds when they violently collide with windows. These furious and motion-filled abstract drawings, which somehow retain some softness, perfectly capture the simultaneously violent yet delicate moment of birds’ fatal collision with modern architecture and the immediately identifiable imprint which is left behind.

Facing Jon’s small pieces is an incredibly large rendering of an incredibly dead bird, flat on its back, legs tied, beak upwards pointing, its body outstretched almost to crucifixion. This is one in a triptych of coloured drawings which are strewn across the two rooms and depict Audubon’s actual specimens in situ at the Liverpool World Museum. These are executed on large pieces of heavy Italian rag and are suspended in the middle of the wall by magnets. Jon tells me there was some difficulty in hanging the pictures due to their size and weight and the fact it was best not to use large nails on the grade-listed walls. Although this is purely an accident, I like the levitational feel that this manner of hanging lends to the works. They pull from the wall somewhat and this reflects the hovering birds, beneath which a charcoal-grey shadow is scribbled, an affect which has a dual aspect. It reminds the viewer of the museum-bound afterlife in which this creature exists; the shading reflecting the light and shadow caused by museum lighting and glass specimen cases. Simultaneously though, it hints at some form of transfiguration, and suggests that this inanimate body is rising up and levitating in one final act of perfect aviation. These works are incredibly impressive not only due to being human-sized, but also because of the meticulous and furious work which is contained within each perfect, serene figure. Each bird is obviously dead, but Barraclough’s trademark furious mark-making, his “messiness” as he calls it, is still present, pushing to the borders of the ornithological figure and exploding into flashes of colour all across the inert form.

No such activity can be found in the photographs taken of specimens found across New York City in 2008-9 by Barraclough and Wolkowicz which line the walls in the larger of the two spaces. These prints depict the shadowy bodies of real American birds, twisted and bent into hauntingly unfeasible situations and positions. These darkly colourful photographs hark back to the conceptually gruesome yet colourfully presented and aesthetically pleasing paintings created by Audubon of birds he had killed, stuffed and twisted impossibly in order to fit their life-size representations on the page format of his book. The curator and the Birds’ Ear View Collective are fascinated by the contemporary reflections of such barbarism in the name of anthropology, aesthetics and understanding. Audubon would kill hundreds of specimens, assisting in some cases in pushing certain birds to extinction, in order to paint them, or just look at their inert, lifeless bodies to better inform his craft.

I briefly spoke to the curator Laura about this, and one of the things that fascinates her so about this is the equivalencies with such unquantifiable devastation of life which can be found in modern culture: the way we recognise it yet do nothing to stop the destructive influence we have upon nature, in particular here, the thousands of birds which are killed every day by colliding with the skyscrapers which spring up year upon year into their migratory path. The specimens which are photographed by Jon and Alexandra are taken from one of the world’s most structurally elevated cities, and have been gathered by volunteers for the New York City Audubon Society. Their broken bodies, whilst beautiful and aesthetically fascinating, nonetheless act as a reminder of our intrusion upon their world, and the constant conflict which exists between architectural expansion and the survival of the natural world.

In the centre of the room, this conflict is brought directly (yet subtlety) into the gallery in the form of a video and sound piece created by all three artists involved. Projected onto the ceiling of the room is a video of the branches of trees as seen from below, their verdant leaves swaying gently in a summer breeze, against a blue sky. Visitors are encouraged to lie on the bean-bags beneath the work to experience what appears to be an indoor recreation on Central Park. The birdsong plays gently, filling the room, but also beneath this natural, familiarly calming sound are also the sounds of the big city: cars, building work, people talking and shouting. With the bodies of so many broken birds lining the walls around you as you lie in what is ostensibly a recreation of a recreation of the natural world (a park in the middle of a thronging city), highlights the continual, often irreparably damaging, clash between the manmade and the natural world. Looking around the room at these beautifully haunting images of delicate creatures, made inert and impossible, something which Laura Robertson said earlier comes back to me and strikes me as one of the reasons why these poignant images are so affecting: “In the end it’s about people, not birds.”

The Spectacle of the Lost
Liverpool Victoria Gallery & Museum
Tuesday – Saturday until Saturday 25h August
Free