Carsten Höller’s photogravures may seem atypical for an artist who has established a reputation for grand installations that bamboozle sensory experience. Unlike his spectacular retrospective, “Carsten Höller: Experience,” at the New Museum or his prize winning work, Double Carousel with Zöllner Stripes, on view at the Museo d’Arte Contemporanea Roma, these prints are quiet and contemplative, elegant in the manner of 19th-century nature studies despite being current work.
Birds (2006) and Canaries (2009) portray hybrid birds the Belgian artist breed himself. Prior to embarking on a career as an artist, Höller earned a doctorate in agricultural science. He has long been a passionate ornithologist and frequently incorporates live birds in his installations, as in Singing Canaries Mobile (2009), which can be experienced at the New Museum. The hybrid creatures documented in Birds and Canaries are sterile and therefore represent a singular phenomenon; they are simultaneously the first and last of their kind.
While most birds of a given species may look more-or-less alike to the layman, each of Höller’s crossbreeds appears exceptionally individualized: one is scrawny, another sleek, others are ruffled or puffed. It is tempting to assign them personalities: the runt, the statesman, or the ragamuffin. Certainly this has something to do with the documentary approach Höller employed; each bird was photographed alone, perched on a simple stand against a plain background, in the manner of conventional studio portraits. Höller’s printing decisions further influence how one reads these images. The eight birds of the Canaries series are printed in a soft sepia tone; whereas the ten strong flock in Birds are printed in a mild chromatic mid-range. While the latter exemplifies the subtle but seemingly infinite variety of color in the feathering of the birds, the former focuses attention on the structure of the creatures’ bodies. Their gripping talons, cocked heads, and smoothly banked beaks are more commanding because etched lines rather than gradients of hue define the image.
The process behind Birds and Canaries poses more challenging ethical questions about what it means to be a creator. For centuries the goal of artists was to represent nature; many even attempted to locate divinity there. Höller has gone further, edging into the realm of Bio Art by generating his own species, and the knowledge that his birds were born to be extinct adds a tragic character to their portraits. What responsibility do artists or scientists have towards doomed creatures of their own design?