Painted pigeons stun the Venice Biennale

Is live animal art an inherently ethical issue?

The humble grey pigeon. Many would volunteer it as the most detested of urban wildlife, second only perhaps to sewer rats and cockroaches (unsurprisingly, they’ve often earned the title “rats of the sky”). At best we regard them as a nuisance, at worst we’ll run them over in our vehicles with brusque disinterest. The carcasses on Commercial Street are proof enough.

Cheerily subverting our long-held notions of pigeon unpleasantries are Swiss artist Julian Charrière and German photographer Julius von Bismark, who revived their ongoing project Some Pigeons are More Equal That Others for this year’s Venice Biennale. First exhibited in Copenhagen, the artists use an airbrushing tool to dye the feathers of the pigeon in a multitude of florid colours. The painted pigeons are then released in Venice’s bustling St. Marks Square, where they mingle amongst their more modest brethren as a sort of live performance piece.

And whilst the project has been well received in the art world and delighted local tourists, inevitable ethical questions have been raised. “An initiative with so little respect for defenseless animals is to be condemned”, wrote a blogger. "Are works of art justified as such even when they involve other, non-consenting living beings?" demanded another.

Charrière, in defense of the artwork, has been quoted as saying that the process is “without any danger to the animals” and was rather conceived as a way to elevate the status of the bird. “This way, the pigeons will be better regarded”, he reminds us.

And it’s true. A fuschia pink pigeon is inherently more likeable then the soot-stained variety. But should the pigeons be proud of their false plumage and new-found positive attention? Or is it inherently wrong to implicate live animals in a spectacle for human entertainment?

I’d like to assume that Charrière and Biskmark have taken all such thoughts into account, and therefore constructed a project whose intention is to provoke mixed reactions. On the one hand, they’ve elevated the status of these previously dismissible creatures simply by changing their superficial appearance – and in the process raised shrewd arguments about the capricious relationship between outward beauty and positive response.  It’s a theme Charrière has explored in previous works like The White Dove, in which a pristine white dove was painted grey with food coloring and placed amongst pigeons on the streets of Berlin in an act of reversed social ascension.

On the other hand, such projects are equally an unashamed exploitation of unwilling participants. Though, perhaps no more manipulative than the dog shows and the dressage competitions we’re quite contented to celebrate.

Contemplating whether an artist, or indeed any human, has the right to exercise authority over an animal’s body certainly leads us down a slippery slope. It’s a fact that we’ve long decorated animals for our own amusement and visual pleasure. Some call it cruelty, others their right. Charrière and Biskmark are working well within the boundaries a tradition which, if handled with care, can serve as both an artistic practice and a disquieting tool for self reflection.

A spray-painted pigeon flies through St. Marks Square as part of the art piece "some pigeons are more equal than others" (PHOTO: Julian Charrière and Julius von Bismark)

Charlotte Simmonds is a writer and blogger living in London. She was formerly an editorial assistant at the New Statesman. You can follow her on Twitter @thesmallgalleon.

Show Hide image

Why a man soiling himself was one of my Olympic highlights

The joy of the Olympics is how easy it is to drop in and form strong opinions about the best way to win in any discipline.

There used to be a rumour that a newspaper (now defunct) had in its possession some compromising photographs of the wife of a beloved TV entertainer (now dead) romancing a chihuahua. I mention this because I think John Inverdale must have a similar hold over BBC Sport bosses. How else does he get such great gigs? At the Olympics, if he wasn’t being corrected by Andy Murray about the existence of women, he was having water droplets “accidentally” shaken over him by a sour-faced Steve Redgrave as he aired out his umbrella.

Then again, perhaps Inverdale’s continued employment is the salt in the caramel, or the Tabasco in a Bloody Mary: a small irritant, designed to give a kick to what would otherwise be bland niceness shading into enforced cheeriness. The rest of the Olympic presenters (grumpy Sir Steve possibly excepted) were a bunch of lambs: the sweet Helen Skelton, and the even sweeter Mark Foster and Rebecca Adlington, hosting the swimming; Matt Baker from The One Show and Beth Tweddle doing the gymnastics; that poor bloke they put on the beach so that leery passers-by and lecherous drunken couples could get into his shot. With 306 events over 19 days, I felt as if Clare Balding had moved into my spare room, we were spending so much time together. (The fact I didn’t want to smash my screen every time she came on is proof that she’s worth every penny of her £500,000 salary.)

The time zone difference could have made these Olympics a washout for British viewers, but the BBC used its red-button technology sensibly, and the presenters (mostly) coped with pretending they didn’t know what was going to happen while hosting the highlight reels. Someone at New Broadcasting House even grew a pair as the first week went on and stopped news programmes from intruding on the medal action. Earlier in the week, viewers had been forced to hop from BBC1 to BBC4 to BBC2 to follow their favourite events, the change sometimes occurring at an inopportune moment.

The joy of the Olympics is how easy it is to drop in and form strong opinions about the best way to win in any discipline. Unlike football, say, where true enjoyment requires memorising rafts of statistics and forming strong opinions about the transfer market, all Olympics coverage is designed for people who couldn’t tell one end of a derny bike from the other five minutes ago. Who really understands the rules of the omnium? Luckily, it turns out you don’t need to.

I thought I was going to hate the Olympics, which took place in the shadow of controversies over drug testing, the US swimmer Ryan Lochte’s faked robbery and Caster Semenya’s hormone levels. For all the guff about the international hand of friendship, the Games are a ruthless commercial enterprise, and one in which global inequalities are harshly self-evident. Are Americans just better athletes than the rest of the world? Clearly not. Money buys success. Could most of us, even given a trainer, dietician and acres of free time, qualify for any of these sports? No. Genetically, most of us are Morlocks compared to these people.

Nonetheless, all the natural (and artificial) advantages in the world can’t win you a gold medal if you sit on your sofa and eat Pringles all day. One of my favourite competitions was the gymnastics, where Simone Biles of the United States seemed to dominate effortlessly. Yes, being 4ft 8in clearly helps her – her shorter steps allow her to pack in more tumbles – but she’s still willing to do a somersault on a bar four inches wide. (The dangers of the discipline became clear when the French gymnast Samir Aït Saïd snapped his leg landing off the vault on the first day of qualifying rounds.) In the 50-kilometre race walk, Yohann Diniz pooed himself, collap­sed twice – and still finished in eighth place.

These are the Olympic moments I cherish. Usain Bolt makes it look too easy, which is boring. Without a narrative, sport is little more than a meaningless spectacle – a Michael Bay film or the latest Call of Duty. Luckily, Team GB seemed to heed the call for drama, delivering us a penalty shoot-out victory in the women’s hockey (and a team with a married couple in it); a comeback for Mo Farah after the allegations against his coach Alberto Salazar; and a surprising failure for Tom Daley in the 10-metre dive. We also got to see Laura Trott and Jason Kenny’s races through each other’s eyes.

In other words, bring on Tokyo 2020, so I can grouse about the money and the drugs and the inequality right up to the moment the first person shits themselves – and still finishes the race. Truly, human endeavour is a beautiful sight to behold. 

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser