Art History: Céleste Boursier-Mougenot



Many years ago I was able to go to New York’s PS1 gallery. PS1 was an old school building that had been converted into a gallery and it displayed the works of contemporary artists who were groundbreaking and new. One of the rooms was made into an aviary containing small birds that flew around the room freely. The room had grass and small ponds as well as small trees for the birds to occupy. Just below the ceiling hung fine wires that the birds would land upon generating sound. The random movements of the birds created sounds that were sometimes melodic and often chaotic. There was no barrier or netting between the viewer and the birds so they would react and fly around in response to the room’s inhabitants. Someone startled a large group of birds that were on the grass pecking at seed and they flew to the wires above, creating a cacophony of sound that resembled an orchestra warming up. It completely changed what I thought art could be.

I stood in that room for close to an hour. So much was going on. The way the birds’ habitat was arranged and the effort that it must have taken to maintain it. There was actual grass and trees growing. The strings and their tones. The way they were somehow amplified to fill the room but not be overwhelming. The movements of the birds and how they were made to perform a concert without even knowing it. It seemed so simple but also so complex. I heard a couple talking as I exited the room echoing what I had been thinking the whole time I was in there and I sometimes still wonder, “Is it art?”



The room stuck with me and still comes up from time to time when I’m discussing art with friends. It wasn’t until I started to do these posts that I decided to dig into that installation and exactly who was responsible for it. After a few hours of internet sleuthing I was able to find an obscure blog post about that show from 1999 and specifically the artist’s name. Céleste Boursier-Mougenot.



Céleste Boursier-Mougenot is still working and exploring the ideas of environment and sound. He even has a current installation at SFMoMA. That installation is beautiful and intriguing too although the birds are absent. He does continue working with birds and strings, specifically electric guitars.

Here is an installation of his…