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.

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“Minoan pendant”: a new poem by Mark Granier

“Yes – I press my nose / to the pleasantly warm glass – / it’s a copy of one I saw / cased in the cool museum”

Yes – I press my nose
to the pleasantly warm glass –
it’s a copy of one I saw
cased in the cool museum –
gold beaten to honey, a grainy
oval dollop, flanked by two
slim symmetrical bees –

garland for a civilisation’s
rise and collapse, eye-dropped
five thousand years: a flash
of evening sun on a windscreen
or wing mirror – Heraklion’s
scooter-life buzzing and humming –

as I step in to browse, become
mesmerised by the warm
dark eyes of the woman
who gives her spiel and moves
softly and with such grace,
that, after leaving, I hesitate

a moment on the pavement
then re-enter with a question
I know not to ask, but ask
anyway, to hear her voice
soften even more as she smiles
and shakes her hair – no.

Mark Granier is an Irish poet and photographer. He is the author of four collections of poetry, most recently Haunt (Salmon).

This article first appeared in the 16 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Britain on the brink