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Installation by Janelle Iglesias at UB Center for the Arts


Bowerbirds spare no efforts to attract a mate. They build intricate architectural structures of twigs and leaves and such—the bowers—then embellish them with all sorts of gaudy baubles—feathers, shells, pebbles, coins, butterfly wings, whatever available bright and shiny things, including more and more in modern times items in plastic. Each species of bowerbird—there are 17 species in all in New Guinea and parts of Australia—has preferences as to architectural style, décor items, and even color schemes. One species only decorates in blue. (I remember when I was a child, one of my aunts decorated her Christmas tree exclusively in blue lights. She was considered—as I’m sure was her intent—extremely sophisticated. Admired, though not so well-liked by the other women in the family, I got the sense. It’s possible the blue-bias species is not so well-liked by the other bowerbirds.)

And if the potential mate still needs some persuading, the male birds—the builders—will dance, sing, entertain in whatever way might be required. They are great mimics. Can credibly imitate any type of sound from gunshots to human speech. A regular bird vaudeville act. The avian world Billy Crystal.

Artist and amateur anthropologist Janelle Iglesias’s sculptural installation at the UB Center for the Arts is not so much imitative of bowerbird art as inspired by it. Her 30-some-feet-tall construction in the lightwell gallery consists of new and recycled lumber and various found materials—from area second-hand stores of one sort or another, from the Center for the Arts basement, and some from the streets. Component items include tree trunks and branches, skis, shells, domestic furniture fragments, some twiggy hedge plant prunings, the skeletal remains of several old Christmas trees—though alas, no blue lights—ropes, ladders, and plastics of various forms and original functions, from bargain dinnerware to the sort of well-weathered but durable plastic bags especially attracted this time of year to high tree branches.

Iglesias talks about her piece—the array and arrangement of disparate items—the dynamic interaction of the items—the interaction with the viewer—as “a conversation.” On an extensive variety of topics. Bowerbirds, nature and art, human meddling in the natural environment, recycling. And the aesthetic question: What is beautiful? No longer to be considered—after considering bowerbirds—a purely human category and concept.

Her actual experience of bowerbirds was as part of a recent research group expedition to West Papua, the western half of the island of New Guinea, part of the nation of Indonesia, where the largest number of species of bowerbirds are found. As an artist among the scientists who made up the main body of the research group.

Moreover, during her weeks of residency at UB while constructing her piece, she has been leading class discussions—more of the conversation—with arts and science students both, on her work and theirs. Her installation and their reaction to it, interaction with it. Touching on all the topics.

And how is the conversation different with science versus arts students? “Not so different at all,” she says. “About bowerbirds, the scientists’ approach tends to be more fact-based, more about cataloguing, the different species’ different behaviors, the kinds of bowers they build, and things they collect. An emphasis on objectivity—futile as that objective might be—and how you can’t anthropomorphize. The arts students’ tendencies are more toward the metaphorical, and thinking outside the box. But all are open to the conversation, in a genuine way, but their own individual way.”

Wall copy points out that in addition to stalking bowerbirds on her research expedition, Iglesias became interested in and studied Hindu religious principles about balance. This interest and thematic also manifests in the towering construction, vaguely reminiscent of the access-to-the-heavens spires and steeples on the sacred architecture of whatever religious cult or creed.

The shell elements are several goodly sized conch shells. Beachcombing finds brought back by the artist from her South Seas Islands adventure? Apparently not. On close inspection, you notice the (presumably local) thrift store sticker price tags. No matter. Put an ear to one of the conchs and you still hear authentic South Seas murmur.

The Janelle Iglesias installation is on view through May 10.

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