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with Elizabeth KolbertEclipse

  • Exhibition

  • August 9, 2014 - October 10, 2015
  • Galleries

“Birds and artists birds and writers: their histories are densely interwoven and in mourning a lost species MASS MoCA is also celebrating their shared present and future.” — Jonathan Franzen

Eclipse examines species extinction through the passenger pigeon, whose once-massive population disappeared 100 years ago. Eclipse, an installation that evolved from a series of conversations between The New Yorker writer Elizabeth Kolbert and artist duo Sayler/Morris (Susannah Sayler and Edward Morris), combines video, sound, and text to create an immersive and contemplative exhibition in a newly conceived exhibition space—a dramatic lightwell at the center of the MASS MoCA campus. The exhibition opened on September 1, 2014, the centenary of the death of the last known passenger pigeon, Martha.

Read Elizabeth Kolbert’s brief history of the passenger pigeon here.

In the mid-19th century, the passenger pigeon—a bird bearing more resemblance to a sleek mourning dove than to the common pigeon of today—flew in flocks of millions across the skies of eastern North America. Their numbers were such that migrating flocks could darken skies for hours. John James Audubon likened their appearance to a noonday eclipse, but the bird rapidly became extinct over the course of several decades at the end of the century.

The collaboration between Kolbert and Sayler/Morris, each of whom wished to mark an event that lies at the edge of cultural memory and obscurity, is a video installation and related publication that commemorate the anniversary as part of a larger story about extinction that, as Kolbert writes, is “only beginning to unfold.” With extinction rates now “higher than they’ve been at any point since the dinosaurs disappeared sixty-six million years ago,” Kolbert asserts that we are at a watershed moment in the history of our planet.

With Eclipse, Sayler/Morris illuminate several aspects of the birds and the story of their extinction: the once overwhelming, even frightening numbers of passenger pigeons; the delicate beauty of the individual birds contrasted with their odious nature in large numbers; and the sadness of their complete and irreversible disappearance.

Eclipse consists of a massive 100-foot video projection, screened on the walls and ceiling of MASS MoCA’s four-story atrium. The video loop shows a flock of passenger pigeons in reverse — negative silhouette lifting out of a life-sized tree, accompanied by sound design consisting of layers of digitally processed human voices. The exhibition offers a space for reflection with a limited-edition artist publication that includes writings by Kolbert, original photography by Sayler/Morris, and archival images. The publication can be viewed here.

Sayler/Morris work with photography, video, writing, and installations that explore contemporary efforts to develop an ecological consciousness. They are also co-founders of The Canary Project, an organization that produces art and media that seek to deepen public understanding of the Anthropocene. Sayler/Morris were recently named Artist Research Fellows at the Smithsonian Institute and Research Fellows at the Nevada Museum of Art and were Loeb Fellows at the Harvard Graduate School of Design. Their work has been exhibited widely in museums and galleries in the U.S. and abroad.

Elizabeth Kolbert is the author of the seminal book on climate change, Field Notes from a Catastrophe, and the recently published The Sixth Extinction, as well as numerous articles on these topics in The New Yorker, for which she is a staff writer.

Animation: Nick Roth; Sound Design: Matthew Patterson Curry; Publication Design: Michael Dyer, Remake

Specimens photographed at the Cornell University Museum of Vertebrates, Ornithology Collection, Sayler/Morris, 2014

Passenger pigeons in the Cornell Ornithology Lab
photo by Sayler/Morris
courtesy of Cornell University Museum of Vertebrates