Vanessa Safavi’s subtle, deeply moving project in Amden picks up the thread of her exhibition I Wish Blue Could Be Water (2012) at CRAC Alsace in Altkirch, France. The latter included the installation Each Colour Is a Gift for You, comprising seventeen stuffed budgies and a canary, placed singly or in small groups on the floor, most of them lying on their backs and hugging the walls. The enthrallingly beautiful but lifeless creatures, prepared especially for the exhibition, made a profound impression. These exotic, once wild animals were domesticated centuries ago and have since been bred as pets far from their native habitat. They have become completely habituated to life in captivity; in the West, they live exclusively in aviaries and cages.
Each Colour Is a Gift for You is one of several works by Safavi to address the popularity of exoticism in Western culture which started in the nineteenth century. The artist’s study of Primitivism, Art Brut, and Modernism is motivated by similar concerns. She describes her work as an inquiry into the unconscious aspects of our civilization, inspired by the knowledge that these same issues already preoccupied many protagonists of early Modernism. Safavi is not interested in the utopias and the obsessions of Modernism as such, however, but rather in the images of these ideas, which though they defined, and indeed shook, the twentieth century are now fading and have even become alien to us. As in Altkirch, Safavi again used stuffed birds for her exhibition at Lake Walensee, which she describes as being about failed utopias. In Amden, she showed three parrots (Platycercus elegans or Crimson Rosella), again placed on the floor, one upstairs in the hayloft, the other two lying symmetrically back-to-back on the dirty floor below. The Crimson Rosella’s natural habitat is the humid, high-altitude mountain range along the coast of eastern Australia. It is one of the most popular species of parrot because it responds extremely well to captivity. Even more explicitly than in Altkirch, the installation underscored the ambivalence of these creatures with their cardinal red and bright blue feathers. The birds, prepared for the exhibition by the renowned taxidermist Christian Schneiter, represent what the artist describes as “artificially imposed inactivity”. This open-ended condition, suspended between sleep, rest, and death, provokes thoughts about things foreign, wild, and free. In this case, it is even more difficult than usual to communicate what viewers actually saw, what they experienced, and what narratives Safavi’s installation evoked, because the reduction to two dimensions deceptively conjures associations with the still life. Then there is the ambivalence generated by the exhibition venue itself, built long ago as a shelter for livestock. This is compounded by the obvious traces of the building’s original use and the surrounding landscape, all of which are part of the installation: a draft causes bits of straw to stir and the intense colouring of the feathers is heightened by the sunlight, giving rise to the fleeting thought that the landscape above Lake Walensee could have been the birds’ natural habitat. It is as if the parrots, actually now only images of themselves, had recently lost their way and settled here, for no one would dare claim that they are incontrovertibly alien or out of place. It is in this fictionalization of a real situation that I see the affinity of this work, as Safavi herself once mentioned, with Pierre Huyghe’s installation Untilled (2011/12), on view at documenta (13) in Kassel, and Shimabuku’s performance Catching octopus with self-made ceramic pots (2003).
– Roman Kurzmeyer