C h r i s t y H e n g s t -- b i r d s i n t h e p a r k
“birds in the park” is a traveling public art project that I started in 2008. Both event and exhibition, it involves a flock of porcelain birds which appear in the early morning hours at a particular location, are available for interaction during the day, and disappear by nightfall. The birds have cobalt images and text silk-screened and fired onto them, investigating aspects of humanity, with a focus on war and peace.
With their initial landings in Santa Fe, the birds have flown to over sixty locations, including Central Park and the United Nations Headquarters in NY; beaches along the coast of California; a sculpture garden in New Orleans; the National Mall and the Capitol in Washington D.C.; Chartres Cathedral in France; Peenemünde, Germany; the weapons lab town of Los Alamos, New Mexico; the Netherlands; Cuenca, Ecuador; and have even migrated as far as the Galapagos Islands.
At first sight, the sculptures are often mistaken for oddly still pigeons. They are, in a sense, carrier pigeons, as the forms carry images and text on their backs. The message they bear is an exploration of the beautiful and the horrible side by side. The content originated with the shock and dismay I felt as the US government began its second war with Iraq, and expanded to consider the phenomenon of war in general. The questions posed by the birds are about the humanness of us all, how we are all connected, and the unthinkable ways in which that bond is disregarded.
The specific material on the birds includes images of children playing, love letters, poetry, recipes and prose, layered with newspaper articles and photographs of the lead-up to and beginning of the second Iraq war, as well as other war-related documents. One question is how the initiation of a war is “sold” to regular people, and how discussions about the cold facts of war, (weapons capabilities etc.), can become detached from the human reality on the other end, creeping into everyday life as something normal, like birds in the park.
The content material has developed over time and in response to the places the birds have or will be visiting. In addition to personal photography and drawing, and images and text borrowed from public media, I have collaborated with writer and Vietnam War veteran Tim Origer, Iraq veteran Alex Smith, English poet Henry Shukman, Venezuelan photographer Maria De Las Casas, and my father, Werner Hengst, who was a child in WWII Germany. One of the most significant landings during the project was in July of 2010, in Peenemünde, Germany, the site of the V-1 and V-2 rocket development during WWII. My grandfather was working there as a scientist then, and photographs of the weapons lab town before and after its bombing, as well as quotes from Germans (such as Goering) during that time, were integrated into the birds that landed there.
The landings have an element of unpredictability; the experience is out of the blue and somewhat fleeting, the better to catch the unsuspecting passerby’s curiosity. A big part of the project is the interactions with people -- the many hands who help to set up along the way, and all the people we meet on site during the course of the day, listening and conversing.
With the strong gesture of birds, but carrying the reflections of human culture, the birds at times function as a quiet mirror.