Review: Nest: The Art of Birds by Janine Burke

TITLE: Nest: The Art of Birds
AUTHOR: Janine Burke
PUBLISHER: Allen & Unwin (81 Alexander St. Crows Nest, NSW 2065, Australia) (March 2012)
ISBN: 978 1 74237 829 9      182 pages.

Reviewed by Ann Skea ([email protected])

There are many good things about this book. Its central theme, as the author tells us, is that birds’ nests are artistic creations: their construction and design consciously intended to be attractive not just as a safe and desirable place for the female to raise her brood, but also, like the bower-bird’s bower which is decorated with carefully chosen flowers, leaves, and found objects, pleasing in a wholly non-utilitarian, ‘artistic’ way. We humans are not, she suggests, the only animals to be artists.

This is a difficult argument to maintain, since the purpose of the embellishments added to bowers and nests is still to attract a mate. However, many of the nests which Janine Burke describes are, indeed, superbly and skillfully crafted and are also beautiful objects for us to see and touch. Our definition of art, too, has changed radically in recent times. So, Burke bolsters her argument by comparing the creation of these nests to the creations of a number of different human artists in a number of different media. Robert Smithson’s ‘Spiral Jetty’, an environmental sculpture made of rock in the Great Salt Lake, Utah, is one example she offers. Others, are the nest photography of Sharon Beals and the wild-life  photography of Andy Rouse.

The problem, for me, is that this book is a rag-bag of information – or, maybe I should say a magpie collection of facts – related, often very remotely and sometimes not at all, to her argument. For example, after a perfectly legitimate description of the nesting skills of storks, we get a long passage about Karen Blixen’s life and love, her home in Africa which is now a museum, and her affliction with syphilis, all because, it seems, the stork was her totem bird.

Burke wrote at length about Blixen and other artists in her recent book Visions. In Nest, she reprises a great deal of this, drawing on what she has already written about, for example, Picasso, Frida Kahlo, Virginia Woolf and the Australian Aboriginal artist Emily Kame Kngwarreye. She also trawls the poetry collections for bird poems, coming up with work by Keats, Shelley, Hughes and Emily Dickinson. None of this, however, is really of help in proving that birds are conscious artists.

Burke’s descriptions of her own observations of nesting birds are interesting and sometimes – as with her experiences with her noisy neighbours, the Indian Miner birds – quite funny. But do we really need to know how insecure she felt about writing this book, or how she overcame her early hero-worship of an influential art critic to arrive at her own opinions about art?

This book is beautifully presented, a pleasure to look at and hold; and Burke, who is an art historian, writes fluently and well when she describes art. She could have made much more of the nests themselves, their creation, their individuality, their diversity and their beauty, but, to my mind, she got sidetracked too often to make this a satisfying book.

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Ann Skea

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