Invoking Venus: Feathers and Fashion
At the Beaty Biodiversity Museum until May 5
First of all, let’s get our bearings. Invoking Venus: Feathers and Fashion is on view at the Beaty Biodiversity Museum, on the UBC campus. Phew. The show starts many metres beneath the tail of the massive, arching skeleton of a blue whale, which hangs in the atrium. For us, it’s all new: the art, the whale, the museum, and its contents.
Following the directions of a friendly admissions clerk, we made our way down a long ramp, then skirted a crowd of energetic schoolchildren, past displays of skulls and horns and shells and stuffed heads. Elephant seal and penguin and widgeon and eland. Kudu and wapiti and platypus and turtle. The jawbone of a prehistoric horse, the hide of a crocodile, the feathers of… the feathers of… Well, Catherine Stewart would know. With a B.Sc. from the University of Toronto and an MFA from UBC, this Vancouver-based photographer and printmaker makes compelling art out of what she describes in her statement as “the practices, aesthetics and history of science”.
Stewart’s project in Invoking Venus, she writes, is to celebrate “the life-affirming force that underlies all of nature—sexual attraction”. She accomplishes this by juxtaposing the colours, patterns, and textures of bird plumage with those of vintage clothing and accessories, underlining likenesses in courtship, adornment, and display between ourselves and the avian creatures with which we share the planet.
Stewart has closely photographed, in vivid colour and startling detail, feathers of bird specimens from the museum and fabric from the clothing collections of two different Vancouverites, Ivan Sayers and Claus Jahnke. The midsize, square-format photos, mounted on aluminum, are exhibited mostly as diptychs (although occasionally as triptychs), so that the magnified details of each—feathers and fabric—either echo or complement each other. The effect is compelling.
One example is a close-up shot of the red, orange, and green feathers of a red crossbill posed next to an equally searching close-up of a silk crepe afternoon dress, made in France in 1926. The fabric’s lemony-green ground is stitched, with black and ivory thread, in circular patterns, and the magnification of the feathers reveals their distinctly articulated fine strands, layered and running in alternating directions, like the cross-hatching in a drawing or etching.
Another diptych sets the plumage of the mountain bluebird against the dusky blue of a silk-satin evening dress. In yet another pairing, a silver pheasant’s bright white feathers, neatly striped in black, are seen beside a beaded, black, silk-chiffon gown from 1920s Germany. The gown’s clear glass beads refract and reflect light, and you can imagine the effect it would have when slinkily draped on a living human being. Stewart’s gorgeous photographs perfectly capture the seductive beauty of her subjects—and of her theme.
Invoking Venus also demonstrates, in three dimensions, how human beings have pressed the plumage of a variety of birds into the service of their own sexual display. Exhibition cases show actual vintage hats, shoes, purses, and fans covered with the feathers of ostriches, pheasants, guinea fowl, and kingfishers. The rather melancholy inclusion of stuffed specimens here moves us to consider the environmental consequences of vanity, as does a quote from Sayers. “Feathers,” he says, “look best on the bird that grew them.”
Most of the clothing and accessories on view were designed for women. A didactic panel midway through the show tells us what we have already been formulating in our minds. Among birds, brightly coloured and patterned plumage is usually worn by the male, who employs visual display as part of his courtship ritual in an attempt to attract a female. Among heterosexual humans, however—at least at this time and place—it is the female who wears the showy clothing and accessories in order to attract a mate.
Close-up shots of men’s wear would have seen us stranded in fields of black, brown, grey, and beige. Not very appealing to the goddess of love.