Ian Hamilton

Bowerbirds and the art of Ian Hamilton

I sometimes teach biology and understand that for the vast majority of organisms sexual rather than asexual reproduction is the only option. Biologists have theories, but no consensus about how sexual reproduction arose and what its survival benefits, in a Darwinian sense, are. They do understand - and agree - that sexual reproduction has led to elaborate and seemingly wasteful and dangerous sexual displays such as the tail of the peacock, the antlers of a stag and the bower-building and dancing of the Family Paradisaeidae (Birds of Paradise and Bower Birds). Some biologists use Darwinian theory to explain that sex is the reason for poetry, music and art in general.

Ian has approached some of these ideas from a different, non science direction. When he first spoke to me about his ideas back in 1978 I didn't understand what he was talking about. His key idea - one that he has repeated to me many times in the succeeding 30 or so years - was
"Time allows the elaboration of basic urges and/or forms".

Now I see that some of what he was saying was not altogether unrelated to the more mechanistic theories of traditional science.

Ian began his work on bowerbirds when he was an Artist in Residence, at Griffiths University in 1976. He went to O'Reilly's, outside Brisbane, where he filmed and videotaped Satin Bowerbirds (Ptilonorynchus violaceus) working on their bowers. Looking at a videotape record of a male bowerbird placing twigs, stepping back and considering his work, before darting in to change the position of a stick. Ian was struck by how similar that action was to the way artists step back and view work in progress. He developed the idea that the bowerbird was not unlike the archetypically male artist using 'free time' to create non-essential objects. He considered the notion that some species may, at certain times in history, have the luxury of free time (freedom from predation, territorial disputation and hunger) to indulge in non-essential behaviour.

Ian became so interested that he did some reading and found out that the Golden Bower Bird (Prionodura newtoniana), which lives in the mountains of northern Queensland, built elaborate structures that were more like towers than bowers. He obtained a South Australian government grant to 'study the art of the Golden Bowerbird'. In Paluma, north-west of Townsville, he made contact with an academic ornithologist who showed him a bower/tower of the Golden Bower Bird (P. newtoniana). Ian set to work, in a manner that seemed to me very close to scientific, observing the natural history of P. newtoniana, finding 13 bowers/towers and observing them and their owner/builders over a period of several months.

I spent a few days beside Ian observing his work in the rainforest and have read his notes and looked at sketches, drawings, photographs and super 8 films he made at the time. His methods - both fieldwork and notations - seem, at first sight, indistinguishable from the fieldwork and records of a scientist. This is particularly evident in the enlarged reworked facsimiles of pages from his notebooks.

But Ian works with the eye and mind of an artist. He did not view the bowerbird as simply part of the natural world to be possessed, studied, catalogued and teased apart as it might be by a dispassionate scientist. He sees the bowerbird more like an artist. He sees the bowerbird's work as worthy of admiration for itself, no matter what the Darwinian may have to say about it. At first I did not understand one of his sketches that was later published in his 1983 publication, "Ceremony of the Golden Bower Bird" . The sketch showed a bird net stretched in the forest with a human figure trapped in it. The human figure is the artist (not the scientist that I originally took it to be) trapped, snared, made ineffectual by the scientist. Thus he drew a clear line between his work and sensibilities and that of the dispassionate professional ornithologist, who, in the legitimate pursuit of scientific studies, can net, tag, release or kill and preserve specimens.

As a science teacher I sometimes find it difficult to understand Ian's thought processes. Like any artist he is sometimes unable to explain and understand all that he does himself. While his recent work lacks the high-energy performance art of the late 1970s, early 1980s (involving fluorescent and other lights in exploring ideas of the connections and interactions between nature and technology) there are at least three levels to his current output. At what I call the primary and least complex, but to me possibly most appealing, are the direct re-workings of his original notes and sketches. These are designed to sit on the wall like the open pages of a journal and convey the immediacy of fieldwork. At another level are works that respond to experiences and thoughts generated by earlier experiences. Here you will find new workings and interpretations, from various perspectives, of the forms and feelings of the bowers, still recognisably related to the raw materials. I think his wonderfully prepared and beautiful stylised bowers made from dry sticks span these two categories. And then there are works arising from places, feelings and impulses that even Ian doesn't understand, where pure artistic responses, welling up from the sum of nearly 40 years of involvement, thinking, feeling and processing in this one part of his work and artistic endeavour. These works lead into areas that can exasperate us too-rational science types and so may be the most profound and important.

Leo Davis, 2005



Bowerbirds and the art of Ian Hamilton

Stephen Naylor

Ian Hamilton's investigation of the enigmatic bowerbird takes the audience on a journey of physical and spiritual dimensions. The exhibition Out of the Forest is a deliberation on a bird, species, time, structure and perhaps an expression of self.

The Mildura Arts Centre's main ground floor Gallery reveals a research project sustained over a 30 year period that evokes the spirit of the artist 'becoming bird'. This exhibition is unlike the other notable artist Kevin Mortensen, whose work has also had a long association with the bird/man nexus especially in his Seagull Salesman 1970s performance piece. Where Mortensen explored physical and allegorical references to the bird and human, Hamilton probes the poetic and aesthetic possibilities implicit in a spatial comprehension of being.

Ian Hamilton seems to have maintained this research project despite his fifteen year distraction working in arts administration; he has now become 'in tune' with this bird of immense creativity and aesthetic judgement. In reviewing his work we are drawn into the Deleuzian process of movement through orders of being such as: interest, sympathy, knowledge, empathy and becoming. Hamilton's fastidious documentation moves beyond the ornithological into the realm of the poetic, especially with the large format digital prints that document his sculptural works. Even the 'open book' styled pages of many of the 2 dimensional works set up a discussion that reveals empathy and comprehension. Notation moves beyond an interrogation of facts and into the lyrical.

Hamilton's journey inverts the audience into a state of heightened awareness - we leave the gallery or 'Bower' as someone who has perceptually 'been there'. The inscriptions and notations of the paths through the bower serve to orientate the audience. The precision alignment of sticks and twigs echoes the bird and the artist's fastidious judgement and acts as a binding element throughout the entire show.

The concave radial patterns, contrived from the physical bowers denote the inner space of the bower, which has become a repetitive motif throughout the exhibition. The form always has some energy path or structural inception, usually a branch or tree trunk that supports the initial orientation of the bower. These womb-like motifs could simply have fallen into the trap of pictorial cliché, yet Hamilton is beyond this. There is something of the primordial in this show: the hunter gatherers, the child's cubby house or the Abbé Marc-Antoine Laugier, rustic hut; we are forever cognisant of entropy, the natural world - its order and disorder.

With the potential extinction of the Spotted Bowerbird it would have been easy to make pretty works, tapping into the ingredients of pattern, plume, colour and allure, about an endangered species, yet Hamilton resists. These works are more than environmental rhetoric from superficial knowledge and glib advertising. The works become a metaphor for a much bigger discussion; they are in effect Ian Hamilton's own Palimpsest!

Out of the Forest, despite its lyrical qualities is hand-inscribed with struggle. Hamilton still seeks discovery through this research process. Inevitably the artist/researcher must move beyond the comfort zone into new territory. Perhaps the bowerbird's plight is not unlike that of the artist. Initially both seek to create order and definition from random debris, yet both are at their most vulnerable whilst engaged in this creative act.

Stephen Naylor is a Lecturer in Art Theory at the College of Music, Visual Arts and Theatre at James Cook University, Townsville.

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