Erik Berglin, The Bird Project 2006-2017

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2020 by ll’Editions (here). Softcover (207×280 mm), 208 pages, with 101 color reproductions. Includes a fold out poster. In an edition of 500 copies. Design by Lundgren+Lindqvist. (Cover and spread shots below.)

The photobook is also available in a special edition (of 30 copies). It is divided into three sets of ten books, each in a fluorescent acrylic glass slipcase, with an inkjet print, signed and numbered by the artist.

Comments/Context: As more and more contemporary photographers take on projects that address global warming and climate change, we’re starting to see a broadening of the approaches these artists are using to engage the layers of urgent issues that define the crisis.

At first, perhaps a decade or more ago, we mostly saw photographs documenting natural treasures that were rapidly disappearing – icecaps and icebergs, glaciers, rainforests, coral reefs, and other fragile ecosystems – and the destructive power of increasingly powerful hurricanes, wildfires, and droughts. But now we are starting to see artistic projects that are more nuanced than straightforward (or even alarm ringing) documentation – attention is being turned to how we (humans, animals, plants, and other living things) are adapting (or not) to the changes that have begun to take place. Artistically, climate change has moved from something that is visibly starting to happen, to something to which we are all actively responding.

One of the first adaptions we’re seeing is a simple survival reaction to warming temperatures – animals and birds are ranging farther north than ever before, leaving behind their traditional habitats which are overheating. Erik Berglin’s recent photobook The Bird Project 2006-2017 takes this extinction-avoidance response as its inspiration, pushing the idea of wandering birds to thought-provoking extremes.

Starting with bird field guides and ornithology textboo0ks (and with a nod to famed bird documenter John James Audubon), Berglin scanned, enlarged to natural size, printed out, and then meticulously cut out full color images of birds from various habitats. Over the course of twelve years, he then took these paper images to cities around the world and physically wheatpasted them into the urban environments, just like posters promoting fashion brands or rock concerts. (For the record, his stops were Gothenburg, Berlin, Tel Aviv, Casablanca, New York, Reykjavik, Madrid, Malmö, Rio de Janeiro, Buenos Aires, London, and his native Stockholm.) He then took photographs of his birds in situ, his project ultimately totally some 4982 birds. Each one has been systematically documented (capturing the Latin name of the species and the exact location of Berglin’s intervention) and tallied on a fold out poster that accompanies his photobook. Measured just by this haul of tiny print data, Berglin’s effort feels impressively broad, bordering on the obsessive. But given the increasing numbers of now- or soon to be- endangered bird species on our planet, his persistence and commitment only start to match the scale of the problem.

Conceptually, pasting colorful tropical birds on the surfaces of modern cities certainly makes the point about changing environmental conditions, but it runs the risk of becoming a visual gimmick. Too much exaggeration or incongruous combination (a toucan on the window of a Burger King, a flamingo perched outside a foreclosed bank branch, an eagle sitting on a gas pump) might have distracted from Berglin’s message, or amplified the contrast so much that it might have felt ridiculous. Happily, Berglin has opted for restraint and understatement in his location choices, largely picking back alleys, graffitied walls, doorways, post boxes, and other anonymous spots, allowing the unlikely presence of the birds to take center stage. He’s nestled them into the urban fabric with care (in a way that makes them seem almost natural), rather than smashing them on surfaces designed to shock or enrage.

Berglin’s birds are seen in all kinds of natural poses – in flight, perching on a branch, standing on a rock – which gives him options for juxtaposing them with the backdrops. He’s been particularly clever with trees, branches, and sticks that seem to naturally emerge from the edges of doorframes, mail slots, metal cabinets, air vents, and other architectural details. He’s also clearly spent time considering the combination of color and pattern, where the bird in some sense matches, contrasts, or echoes the palette of the surroundings, almost like the natural tendency toward protective hiding or camouflage. And he’s thought about how scale and presence matter, placing small birds (and tiny hummingbirds) in intimate spaces and big birds like vultures, falcons, pelicans, herons, and owls in spots where their size will create more striking drama. Some of his most memorable compositions use bold slashes of expressive colored graffiti to set off the color of the bird, the lines almost like thickets of natural undergrowth.

To make the colors of these birds really pop, Berglin has used some unconventional printing techniques for The Bird Project 2006-2017. The regular CMYK printing colors have been replaced with their fluorescent counterparts, creating much more vivid and vibrant outcomes. The images have then been silkscreen coated with high gloss UV varnish, adding a noticeable shine to the full bleed pages. Bound into a photobook with images one to a spread (always on the right side), the effect is akin to a glossy fashion magazine pushed to its production limits – it’s simply a parade of birds with dazzling plumage rather than models in couture gowns.

It’s hard to know what it might have felt like to actually encounter one of Berglin’s installations in the wilds of New York city. Perhaps it would feel like the discovery of a wry joke, the kind of bitingly dark street humor that keeps New York on its toes. Or maybe it would feel more profoundly unsettling and sad, the beautiful birds now forced to adapt to an unfriendly urban environment. Either way, as arch caricature or troubling prophecy, Berglin gets us thinking about the unfathomable climate-induced adaptions that are coming sooner than we’d like. The canary in the coalmine was supposed to protect us from unseen dangers, but now it seems, it has nowhere else to live.

Collector’s POV: Erik Berglin is represented by Galleri Thomassen in Gothenburg (here). Berglin’s work has little secondary market history, so gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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