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Lost in Translation: Richard Ibghy and Marilou Lemmens at the Ulrich Museum of Art

Lost in Translation: Richard Ibghy and Marilou Lemmens at the Ulrich Museum of Art
On one level, Canadian artist duo Richard Ibghy and Marilou Lemmens ’s exhibition “Look, it’s daybreak, dear, time to sing” points to the complexities of interspecies relations now that Earth is gravely injured. An all-text video, What Birds Talk About When They Talk (2019–21), humorously tracks how birds have been anthropomorphized in different cultural contexts, from cartoons to old lore, while a new sculpture, Community Toolshed for the Birds (2021), continues that practice by presenting a tongue-in-cheek lending library of materials used in nest-building and other imagined avian activities. On another level, the exhibition highlights how, when social and natural processes are abstracted through financial quantification and other means, our prior tools for representing our world often prove insufficient. A group of tabletop sculptures from the “Futures” series (2019–) translates economic indicators, such as contrasting land-ownership patterns in two rural Canadian municipalities, into geometric compositions that resemble the modernist toys of the Bauhaus and various innovative pedagogical trends.
A series of videos titled “The Violence of Care” bridges these two themes, suggesting how interspecies relationships and human modes of representation intersect. Each film captures a different site at which humans and birds interact. In Banding and Releasing Young Eastern Loggerhead Shrikes in the Carden Alvar (2019), a team of biologists captures, examines, and collects data on endangered birds; the reason for the species’ population decline is thought to be habitat loss due to human encroachment and pesticide contamination. Feeding Cottonball (2019) portrays the hand-feeding of an aging hen; a sweet postcard of affection between an animal and her owner, it casts in negative relief what we know about the harsh realities of the poultry business. Cleaning the Atlantic Puffins, Tufted Puffins, and Common Murres’ Exhibit (2019) shows a caretaker scraping the boulders within a zoo enclosure that mimics the animals’ natural terrain. Stylistically mute, what these videos ultimately offer is an invitation to think of how territoriality has shifted from a natural process practiced by most animals to an abstract set of processes enforced by humans, or from the holding of space to fulfill biological and reproductive needs to another enterprise of enclosure and accumulation. The videos are, in the end, records of how economic rationalization continues to violently rearrange everything, including interspecies encounters.
View of “Look, it’s daybreak, dear, time to sing,” 2021, at the Ulrich Museum of Art, showing Payout Scheme for a Put Option (Underlying Is Rainfall) , 2019.
In contrast to the videos, the wooden geometric sculptures, judging from their very detailed titles, are ostensibly more direct visualizations of economic trends related to land use and agriculture, with a particular emphasis on the financialization of farmland and farm production. Payout Scheme for a Put Option (Underlying Is Rainfall) , 2019, is a 3D chart of the sale of stock options for which the underlying “commodity” is the annual rainfall in a particular geographical location. In the buoyant composition, three thin balsa wood dowels hang from a slight frame, while a fourth is pegged to the base. A palette of vibrant colors was produced by letting ink seep elegantly into the wood. It is hard to determine precisely what variables the dowels are indexing. Nothing in the work is decipherable as data, or indicates in what way the forms refer to rainfall or finances; the sculpture fails to elucidate the operation it references. We can deduce—by the way this problem recurs again and again, from one sculpture to the next—that such failure is in fact the central meaning of the series, the point being to emphasize the limitations of mediating and explanatory instruments. And, ominously, the problem is not that one or two processes of financialization are difficult to render in an understandable diagram; it’s that we function increasingly in a world of abstract and opaque operations that capitalism cannot help but proliferate and make ever more ferocious.

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