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Peter Doig’s ‘Rara Avis’
Words by Jerry Stafford
On the occasion of the Dior Men Winter 2021-22 collection designed by Kim Jones, we revisit the designer’s A Magazine alphabet with the letter ‘O’ for ornithology, a birdwatching story featuring the Scottish painter Peter Doig.
by Jerry Stafford
As a young child in the early 1970s growing up in the London suburb of Bromley in Kent, I asked my parents for a special book on my ninth birthday, which I still own and it fascinates me to this day: The Red Book: Wildlife in Danger. The book contained information collated from the then relatively young organisation the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources and was an illustrated collection of facts about some of the more important living things whose survival on our planet is patently in danger.
Red is not only the colour of danger, but of sacrifice and ceremony, blood and fire, lust and luxury. It is both primitive and refined and to quote filmmaker Derek Jarman: ‘Red protects itself. No colour is as territorial. It stakes a claim, is on alert against the spectrum.’ When I looked – and still look – through the coloured plates of this talismanic tome and into the eyes of these threatened creatures, I yearn to discover their final strongholds, explore their remaining sanctuaries, to seek out and possibly save these last survivors. The pages of this book became the signifier for another world, a world of fragility, delicacy and rarity.
Birds especially fascinated me, and a love of ornithology has accompanied me through to adulthood. Birds defy gravity. Freed from its force, they are intermediaries between the Heavens and Earth; they embody our own flights of fancy. In his classic monograph The Birds of America, I was always moved by Audubon’s illustrations of now tragically extinct birds like the Passenger Pigeon, while rare survivors like the Whooping and Sandhill Cranes seemed almost bent in supplication on his coloured plates. Audubon’s English counterpart John Gould and his unsung assistant Henry Constantine Richter enchanted me with the rarest pheasants – tragopans and monals from the Himalayas – and with the flightless Kakapo and mysterious Kokako from New Zealand: the so-called ‘Kingdom of the Birds’ where giant Moas standing over two metres tall once roamed, and where now so many species are threatened with extinction by habitat destruction and alien animals introduced by the very explorers who had discovered them.
At the same time, I had discovered glam rock, Marc Bolan and David Bowie, and these rare feathers and the colours of the mysterious primal forest and savannah became the war paint of my adolescent rebellion and the iridescent glint of my sexual awakening. As a disgruntled punk, I celebrated the release of Jarman’s apocalyptic film Jubilee, and like its star Jordan, whose blood-red eyes, colour-block painted face and spectacular crest were like the plumage of an exotic, sacred bird. I wanted to defy gravity! I wanted to be carried away like Ganymede by a powerful eagle, plucked from suburban ennui and fly like Icarus towards the sun.
Since 1500, over 150 bird species have become extinct, 103 of them since 1800. Their stories tells us that rarity means jeopardy and that each species has its own threshold wherein danger begins.
I’ve always been interested in island biodiversity: Madagascar, the Galapagos, Hawai‘i, Trinidad, Samoa, Mauritius, Fiji and New Zealand. As a child, I collectected stamps, and these isolated geographical splinters were often represented by their own special birds that are found nowhere else on the planet. The birds’ geographical specificity increased their bio-specificity and in many cases their rarity. Many island species evolved in the absence of predators, and consequently lost many anti-predator behaviours and for some even the ability of flight.
Hawai‘i, for example, is a tropical paradise so fertile that each volcanic disturbance created a new island in the middle of the vast ocean, allowing species to diversify into dozens of discrete niches with few competitive pressures. However more often than not this specificity has had an adverse effect, as habitat loss, ‘alien animals’, hunting and human exploitation have all contributed to decimating the populations of these uniquely adapted island species. In the Hawai‘ian archipelago alone, 80 species have become extinct in recent times, and birds like the Akialoa or the Black Mamo have vanished forever whilst others survive precariously in tiny populations like the ‘Akikiki or the ‘Akeke‘e and have become quickly and sometimes controversially ‘conservation reliant’.
Some of these species of whose existence I first learnt from my childhood copy of The Red Book have always fascinated me, such as the Kakapo: a flightless nocturnal ground-dwelling parrot endemic to New Zealand. Critically endangered, most Kakapo are now kept on two predator-free islands off the coast of the mainland and are continuously monitored, each bird equipped with a radio transmitter. With its high media profile, the Kakapo has become a bit of a star in the world of bird conservation and has friends in very high places!
The Kagu is an almost flightless New Caledonian endemic species with a punk crest of silver-blue feathers which would look at home on any couture runway. It is the only surviving member of its genus, not unlike another avian anomaly, the Tooth-billed Pigeon, which is only found on Samoa. Also known as the Manumea, this plumulaceous bird has no close living relative but has been shown to be genetically similar to the Dodo. Both of these birds have proven vulnerable to introduced predators and are now threatened with extinction.
And lest we forget the many extraordinary species of birds-of-paradise, the sublime inhabitants of the islands of Papua and New Guinea whose early trade-skins were prepared without wings or feet by the local tribesmen before being shipped to Europe. This practice lead to the misconception that these birds were indeed beautiful visitors from paradise who never touched the earth but were kept aloft eternally by their radiant plumes.
These are my personal grail birds, whose rarity has been documented and discussed by explorers and scientists alike since their discovery. To experience and see these birds in their natural habitat demands great commitment both by the professional conservationists and biologists who work in the field and the amateur ornithologists who travel thousands of miles for a chance to see such mythical rarities.
Rarity is a luxury few can afford, and it can come at a very high price, be it a work of art, a couture dress or the chance to see a fleeting flash of crimson in a tropical rainforest canopy. There is much debate about the conservation and preservation of the rarest and most endangered species of animals, and how and if you can prioritise certain species over others. Unlike a work of art or a piece of a couture, assigning value to species is a nearly impossible task because it involves such a minefield of variables including ecological importance, utility, heritage, or simply aesthetic beauty or symbolism. Conservation has no formula for weighing these factors, either alone or in combination, so how can one decide whether a Kakapo or a Kagu is more valuable?
It is reassuring nonetheless to know that initiatives are taken by singular people, like Kim Jones, in all areas of conservation and preservation, like supporting the critically endangered Kakapo populations on their tiny islands or collecting and cataloguing Jordan Mooney’s personal collection of Sex and Seditionaries clothes, which consequently became the last remaining signifiers of a youth culture now sadly extinct or rather tragically interbred and genetically poisoned.
One way of looking at the question of collecting and pre-serving all manner of things in a hierarchical society is through the question of sovereignty. A king, a sheik or a corporate leader is responsible for his people, so too is he or she is responsible for the preservation of other forms of life. The same concept of sovereignty is in play in the patronage of all forms of beauty – whether it be the preservation of rare birds or the conservation of a unique couture dress. On a more subjective level, collecting provides a particular form of satisfaction derived from con- trolling and secondarily from organising, which is another aspect of control.
A few years ago, I visited Al Wabra Wildlife Preserve in Qatar where Saud bin Muhammed Al Thani had set up a breeding programme and research station for some of the world’s rarest birds including the Spix’s Macaw. Qatar’s royal family are very much like a modern day equivalent of the Medicis in 16th-century Florence, and when Muhammed Al Thani died in 2016 he was known as one of the richest art collectors in the world with a large collection of contemporary art and photography as well as traditional pieces such as manuscripts, carpets, scientific instruments and Mughal jewellery. However, from 1993 to the end of his life, Saud bin Muhammed Al Thani devoted his time to Al Wabra.
The collection of animals is here perhaps different from works of art or couture – in so far as some collectors of animals often consider the animals to be superior to humans and they collect because of a kind of a contempt for modern humanity. Amongst certain collectors there is no doubt a satisfaction at the fantasy of playing God or Creator and to be able to control who lives and who dies either on the market or in the wild. But whatever subsequent fantasies play out in adulthood, a collector manages to preserve something of the early childhood pleasure of collecting. It is something that is important to all of us because it is the time that we identify our own singular desires and pleasures. I certainly remember my own satisfaction as a child collecting stamps, feathers and fossils as a way of ordering my own world view and later the same obsessions being transferred to the records, magazines, books and clothes, which fashioned my identity.
Al Wabra originally belonged to Al Thani’s father who collected rare antelope and gazelle from the Horn of Africa – purely for pleasure and sport, with no conservation plans or scientific interest. His son continued to collect these small antelope and other rare species of mountain ibex and goat – but with the aim to breed and maintain captive populations. But the emblematic species of his preservation remained the ‘blue birds’: the Spix Macaw, the Lear’s Macaw and the Hyacinth Macaw.
The Hyacinth is the largest and most spectacular of the blue macaws. I had already been privileged to see them wild in the Pantanal region of Brazil, but I remember spending an afternoon at Al Wabra feeding a small flock of six birds, which had all been reared on site, one of whom nearly took my finger off when I tried to get too friendly! All these blue macaws have excited the interest and greed of professional collectors to the point where they are either endangered or already extinct in the case of the wild Spix. It is small wonder that such an avid collector as Prince Saud would have been interested in these rarest of birds. Since the earliest times people have placed a great value on blue and gone to great lengths to manufacture the colour which is so rare in nature – there are no blue mammals and just a few blue birds – that, as a consequence, philologists claim it to be the last colour to enter the human vocabulary.
While I was in Al Wabra, the researchers there were very close to compiling the complete genome of the Spix Macaw which would consequently be of immense help in understanding certain aspects of their breeding, thus going one step fur- ther to ensuring its survival for future generations. I remember seeing four Spix’s Macaw eggs in their incubators; two had been laid six days before and two the night before. The team would not know if they would be fertile for several more days. These miraculous invisible genetic worlds held the future of these rarest of birds.
Over the past six years, new gene-editing technology has given us previously unimaginable control over genetics. We are entering the era of de-extinction when some scientists believe we shall once again see Woolly Mammoths walk the Arctic tundra grazing the permafrost, Passenger Pigeons will return to the skies and the Dodo will be resurrected from the dead. Will this be the ultimate form of conservation, or will it just be another fantasy fuelled by the computer-generated dinosaurs we have all but accepted as a reality of our own Jurassic Park world?
The first remains of the mysterious Archaeopteryx were discovered in 1861, two years after Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species. The fossil remains unearthed from the limestone deposits quarried for centuries near Langenaltheim, Germany were finally identified as those of a genus of early protobird, the missing link between feathered dinosaurs and modern birds. It is thought to be one of the oldest-known birds and has since become a key piece of evidence for the origin of birds and a confirmation of evolution.
I remember walking in the early morning half-light deep in the dense rainforest to watch the rare Trinidadian Piping Guan, locally known as the ‘Pawi’, as it ran and jumped along the moss and epiphyte-heavy branches. With its low-set body, it seemed more like a large lizard or a primitive mammal than a bird. At one time abundant, it has declined in numbers and been extirpated from much of its natural range and the International Union for Conservation of Nature has rated the bird as critically endangered.
An enthusiastic birdwatcher who has lived for years in Trinidad, Peter Doig, his watercolours like Unidentified Bird are as mysterious and as elusive as those first prehistoric fossil remains, as fleeting as the island’s ‘Pawi’, just out of reach, ghost-like, half perceived and half imagined – like all the rare and endangered birds of my youth. Like Archaeopteryx, his is also the Urvogel, ‘first bird’; it is the idea of a bird, a floating, soaring signifier, there but not there, the Rara Avis, both part of the literal landscape but also a feeder at the forest edge of our imagination – unobserved, yet deeply felt; on the brink, yet resolutely alive.
Words by Jerry Stafford
Artworks by Peter Doig
Thanks to Michael Werner Gallery, London
At The Renaissance Society, Chicago, an untitled exhibition curated by the artist Shahryar Nashat and writer & curator Bruce Hainley simultaneously investigates the enigmatic relationships between image, perception, and the human body as a living or undead currency.
The 25th issue of has been guest edited by Chitose Abe of the Japanese cult label sacai. As the first Japanese woman to curate an issue, Abe has called upon her inner circle of friends, family and artistic collaborators to contribute cultural and creative content across the 200 page magazine.