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The Singing and the Silence: Birds in Contemporary Art

3rd floor North, American Art Museum (8th and F Streets, N.W.)
October 31, 2014 – February 22, 2015

Image for The Singing and the Silence: Birds in Contemporary Art

Fred Tomaselli, Migrant Fruit Thugs, 2006, leaves, photo collage, gouache, acrylic and resin on wood panel, Glenstone. © Fred Tomaselli. Image courtesy Glenstone

Birds have long been a source of mystery and awe. Today, a growing desire to meaningfully connect with the natural world has fostered a resurgence of popular interest in the winged creatures that surround us daily. The Singing and the Silence: Birds in Contemporary Art examines mankind’s relationship to birds and the natural world through the eyes of twelve contemporary American artists, including David Beck, Rachel Berwick, Lorna Bieber, Barbara Bosworth, Joann Brennan, Petah Coyne, Walton Ford, Paula McCartney, James Prosek, Laurel Roth Hope, Fred Tomaselli, and Tom Uttech.

The opening of the exhibition dovetails with two significant environmental anniversaries—the extinction of the passenger pigeon in 1914 and the establishment of the Wilderness Act in 1964. Inspired by the confluence of these events, the exhibition explores how artists working today employ bird imagery as a conduit for understanding contemporary culture.

While artists have historically created images of birds for the purposes of scientific inquiry, taxonomy or spiritual symbolism, the artists featured in The Singing and the Silence instead share a common interest in birds as allegories for our own earthbound existence. In their artworks, birds are complex symbols that mirror back to us different facets of our own behavior, habits and values. The 46 artworks on display ask viewers to consider what birds can tell us about ourselves, examining our changing connections with the natural world, the ways in which birds symbolize our impulses to both conquer and conserve nature, and how searching for and identifying birds has become an almost sacred ritual in our secular society.

Rachel Berwick’s large-scale, mixed-media installation, “Untitled (Blue),” will be on public display for the first time as part of the exhibition, as will a temporary, site-specific mural James Prosek has created for the exhibition’s gallery space. Behind-the-scenes views of the installation of these and other artworks will be posted online once installation begins later this fall.

The exhibition is organized by Joanna Marsh, The James Dicke Curator of Contemporary Art.

Free Public Programs
Thursday, October 23, 2014, 6 p.m. – Gallery Talk with artist James Prosek
Saturday, October 25, 2014, 5 p.m. – Concert - 21st Century Consort presents “Aviary”
Thursday, November 6, 2014, 6 p.m. – Gallery Talk with Exhibition Curator Joanna Marsh
Thursday, November 13, 2014, 6:30 p.m. – Screening of “Curious Worlds: The Art & Imagination of David Beck” followed by Q&A with Beck and director Olympia Stone

Connecting Online

Join "art birdwatchers" from around the world for the #ArtBirds Social Media Scavenger Hunt! Find, share, and discuss depictions of birds in works of art on Twitter, Instagram, or Tumblr during September and October by using the hashtag #ArtBirds. You may see one of your "sightings" re-shared by the museum!

Behind-the-scenes insights about the exhibition will be published on the museum’s blog, Eye Level. Follow the museum on Facebook, Flickr, Pinterest, Instagram, and on Twitter using #ArtBirds for exhibition updates.


The Singing and the Silence: Birds in Contemporary Art is organized by the Smithsonian American Art Museum with generous support from Rollin W. King, The Margery and Edgar Masinter Exhibitions Fund, Caroline Niemczyk, Debbie Frank Petersen, Rosemary L. Ripley, Holly and Nick Ruffin and the C.K. Williams Foundation.